Nicolai Petro mentions the rise of the “fifth column”—the term given by former president Petro Poroshenko to individuals in Ukraine who seek improved relations with Russia—as a major influence towards the landslide victory for Volodymyr Zelensky in the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election.
Petro’s main concern is whether Zelensky “can avoid the trap of nationalism that has alienated at least half the country” and he asserts that “the true source of [Zelensky’s] popular support is the desire for normalcy with Russia.” While Petro’s concern about the impact of nationalism in Zelensky’s time in office is a valid one, a more plausible explanation for why Zelensky commands such support from average Ukrainians is the perception that he is the man who can solve Ukraine’s problems with corruption, inefficiency and the power of the oligarchy in the country’s economic and political affairs.
Many of the Ukrainians I have spoken to in Kyiv, Lviv, Vinnytsia, Zhytomyr and Odessa disparage Russia’s influence on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, yet still maintain a belief that the “People of Russia” and the “People of Ukraine” share a strong historic and cultural bond. While differences in the interpretation of Slavic history abound in this regard, the Soviet legacy in Ukraine has produced the same systemic pathologies as in Russia and other former Soviet Republics. The opposition from people in Ukraine is towards the Russian government, not its people, who are often viewed as victims of a dictatorial regime rather than co-conspirators.
The other major factor behind the Zelensky election is not the conflict in the East but the conflict with widespread, normalized, corruption and inefficiency in the Ukrainian political system. Poroshenko was elected because of his promises to halt the conflict but since then the conflict has frozen. Additionally, glaring economic problems in the nonconflict area of Ukraine have not shown any signs of improvement. For example, citizens are levied an 18 percent income tax and forced to pay 20 percent sales tax while firms are levied an 18 percent corporate tax rate. The Ukrainian government netted 540 billion of Ukrainian currency in tax revenue in 2018 and yet the spending on improvements to infrastructure, education, healthcare, and other areas benefiting society, has not improved the perceived quality of life to the desired degree. Despite the creation of a new law enforcement organization aimed at curbing corruption within governmental structures—the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine—many individuals who work within the lower-echelons of government still observe corrupt practices at similar, if not higher, levels than that of the previous decade. This is attributed to systemic pathologies that plague the entire Ukrainian socioeconomic and political structure. Pathologies that cause individuals with minimal desire to partake in corruption to experience pressures to behave in a corrupt manner; pathologies that cause individuals with credibility and experience to gravitate towards positions that provide the most income, indiscriminate of said income’s legitimacy; and pathologies that cause corruption to adapt and evolve despite well-intentioned reforms.
If one has studied organized crime to just a small degree, then they will know that one of the most common “initiation rituals” in most criminal factions is the task of committing a serious crime under the observation or request of faction leadership. This not only proves the initiate’s loyalty to the faction but also gives the faction’s leadership ammunition it can use against that individual should their loyalty ever come under question. Sadly, in Ukraine, this practice exists to a great extent within the government itself. Personnel working within the lower echelons of government organizations are “tested” by their managers by being asked to complete tasks that are, in the best-case scenario, of questionable legality. This can include being asked to sign a document with known mistakes or inaccuracies to push through a project that is under political pressure. One such example is the case of a glass bridge that was built in a public park in a prominent city park. When the bridge is completed, the mayor and all manner of political actors attend its grand opening and tout its brilliance, but then a few weeks afterwards, the structural integrity of the bridge is called into question and certain parts of it have to be closed off for safety reasons because of a “known flaw” in the design. The leadership of the firm responsible then comes out with a statement claiming “we expected these technical difficulties” while the only people to lose their jobs or credibility are the low-level staff who were pressured to sign off on the project despite its flaws. In order to progress up the ladder of any government organization in Ukraine, one must navigate this minefield of illicit activity or stand their ground and never obtain promotion.
One of the most pressing needs for the younger generation of Ukrainians is stable employment yet the current system—impacting private and public firms alike—prohibits such long-term stability. Instead, individuals are forced into several lateral job transitions until they finally achieve promotion or, in many cases, seek alternative employment. The older generation is now beginning to collect their pensions (which in most cases are barely the equivalent of $100 a month) and frequently seek entrepreneurial ventures like vending merchandise on the street. The idea of “libertarianism” in Ukraine is thus frequently sold to both young and old as the ability to pursue the means of survival by any means necessary—regardless of legality. If you can provide for yourself and your family via illicit mechanisms and avoid punishment, “more power to you!” But this has incorporated the security apparatus of the state, too, since illicit activity is frequently policed, but a simple cash payment will allow the activity to continue after a brief cessation to keep up appearances. The persistence of corruption, fraud and bribery under the banner of libertarianism has intensified the normalization of such practices in post-Soviet Ukraine. What is worrying about Zelensky’s use of the term (libertarianism) in his messages to the Ukrainian people is the notion that such practices will continue to exist despite initial crackdowns.
The legacy of Soviet Ukraine remains a major factor in shaping the identity, or lack thereof, of working-class Ukrainians, who are susceptible to fractionalization based on competing oligarchic interests. In observing both the presidential and Rada elections in 2019 I have seen the common tactic of political parties of essentially purchasing the votes of the elder generation—notably in the periphery of the country—via the provision of basic necessities to pensioners. Another tactic commonly used by these parties is the offering of free concert tickets to younger voters. Bargain-hunting has taken the country by storm since the introduction of the capitalist economy so providing the appearance of obtaining a “great deal” has become a valuable tactic for obtaining the support of constituents. Despite policy reforms aimed at legitimizing the electoral process, these illicit mechanisms have persisted and adapted to find loopholes or weaknesses in the new reforms. There is a prevalent attitude amongst those partaking in the theft of public funds that since the funding belongs to no one, then it cannot be stolen. This notion has persisted for a variety of reasons, but one major factor is the ability to pass the buck in a system rife with redundant administrations and murky jurisdictions.
There is hope that the new administration will “get things done” to improve the use of tax dollars. Zelensky has lambasted inefficient managers in public forums and has begun threatening lustration, which is the process of making something clean through purification. However, it seems such measures will not suffice to fix the problems endemic to Ukraine’s political and economic structures unless drastic reforms completely reshape the state’s bureaucratic organization. This requires eliminating or merging redundant offices, clarifying tasks delineated to such offices, and holding these offices accountable for the completion of such tasks. This will be a tall order for a new administration and likely will force Zelensky to partner with old-guard political actors along the way.
Nationalist elements in Ukraine seek to isolate a distinct identity in a place where multiple identities are constantly merging and evolving. Meanwhile, those able to gain power in Ukraine are faced with a precarious geopolitical situation in which ties to the West provide the most lucrative opportunities. Convincing the population of the East that such ties will not isolate or discriminate against them is a difficult hurdle. Convincing the nationalist element that those in the East are not their enemy is another. But overcoming the persistence of corruption will be the most difficult task for Ukraine in the coming decade. Corruption has tainted the reputation of anyone able to rise to power which reduces the perception that meaningful change is a realistic goal for any administration in Ukraine.
The turnout for the presidential elections was impressive but this is likely because of the perception that a political outsider had a legitimate chance. However, in the weeks since taking power, ties to oligarchs and the continuation of corrupt practices has weakened the idea that things will be different this time around. The new administration has not yet undertaken the necessary lustration to cleanse the government of those tied to illicit activity, but such a scenario will be possible if Zelensky’s “Servant of the People” party takes a controlling stake in the Rada. Sadly, it seems most likely that the lure of corrupt practices will remain strong and it will likely be a matter of time before the new “political outsiders” fall into the same corrupt practices of their predecessors.