The art of the im­pos­si­ble:

The op­po­si­tion in Ukraine is mostly re­ac­tive and it chooses ac­tions that will be most use­ful for crit­i­ciz­ing the cur­rent Ad­min­is­tra­tion or gain­ing the at­ten­tion of a spe­cific part of the elec­torate. What Ukraine needs most right now is a con­sol­i­dat­ing pro

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Olek­sandr Kra­mar

How the ob­ses­sion of Ukraine's op­po­si­tion with re­ac­tive pop­ulism is dam­ag­ing its chances and the coun­try's fu­ture

The ex­treme frag­men­ta­tion of voter sym­pa­thies, cou­pled with con­tin­u­ing enor­mous pent-up de­mand for new po­lit­i­cal forces that has been recorded in all polls lately sig­nals that there are se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal prob­lems brew­ing in Ukraine. If the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal class and the voter mood con­tinue as is, these prob­lems could start be­ing felt very soon.

What sur­veys are demon­strat­ing ever-more clearly is a kind of ideational dis­ori­en­ta­tion and slip­ping co­or­di­nates, both among vot­ers and among politi­cians them­selves. In the past, these were based on an ev­i­dent di­chotomy be­tween two camps: the pro-Euro­pean and the pro-Rus­sian. But the loss of its for­mer po­si­tions in the sec­ond group has bro­ken down this struc­ture. Mean­while, the po­lit­i­cal class re­mains a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the old dis­course that bears no re­la­tion­ship either to the new re­al­i­ties within mod­ern Ukraine, or to the geopo­lit­i­cal and geo-eco­nomic chal­lenges fac­ing the coun­try—and grow­ing more ur­gent with every pass­ing day.

The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem in Ukraine is that nei­ther those in power nor their op­po­nents, who tra­di­tion­ally call them­selves “the op­po­si­tion,” ac­tu­ally have an un­der­stand­able po­si­tion, a vi­sion of what they are do­ing and for what pur­pose—never mind at the na­tional level or in re­la­tion to any of the coun­try’s ma­jor pop­u­la­tion groups. Be­ing in power is its own goal and not a means for pre­sent­ing al­ter­na­tive poli­cies. This makes it dif­fi­cult for the so­ci­ety as a whole to es­tab­lish some kind of po­lit­i­cal struc­ture, di­vided into sup­port­ers of a cen­ter­right or cen­ter-left course for the coun­try.

In the de­vel­oped world, po­lit­i­cal par­ties at least try to carry out the poli­cies that they prom­ise dur­ing elec­tions, if noth­ing else, in the in­ter­ests of their own elec­torate, even if their op­po­nents don’t ac­cept it. Even­tu­ally there is a ro­ta­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the op­po­site camp have a chance to demon­strate their al­ter­na­tive strat­egy. In Ukraine, in­stead of ori­ent­ing them­selves to­wards spe­cific so­cial groups, politi­cians prom­ise to be all things to all peo­ple: in­creas­ing spend­ing while cut­ting taxes, of­fer­ing or main­tain­ing fis­cal ben­e­fits to var­i­ous in­dus­tries that are the foun­da­tion of the econ­omy to­day while stim­u­lat­ing new the de­vel­op­ment of new in­dus­tries, main­tain­ing or in­tro­duc­ing breaks on pay­roll taxes and so­cial con­tri­bu­tions for cer­tain groups of em­ploy­ees that ef­fec­tively cover most of the coun­tries work­ers while main­tain­ing free health­care and ed­u­ca­tion and im­prov­ing pro­tec­tions for so­cially vul­ner­a­ble groups... Who is even­tu­ally elected de­pends on the per­sua­sive­ness and per­sonal charisma of the given politi­cian.

The ab­sence of con­struc­tive pro­grams out­lin­ing pri­or­ity mea­sures, the goals and the means for achiev­ing them is the fun­da­men­tal rea­son why to­day’s po­lit­i­cal class is so ex­ces­sively—and ar­ti­fi­cially—frag­mented. Be­cause po­lit­i­cal think­ing re­volves around cat­e­gories of per­sonal in­ter­ests or the in­ter­ests of spe­cific groups that fa­vor this or that pol­icy. The only an­chor that finds a hold is whether a par­tic­u­lar ac­tion or rhetoric matches the in­ter­ests of pre­serv­ing or gain­ing power with the pur­pose of us­ing the in­stru­ments this pro­vides for per­sonal en­rich­ment or that of the politi­cian’s spon­sors.

With no clear po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion, ac­tions tend to be re­flex­ive and chaotic, while the op­po­si­tion is mostly re­ac­tive and it looks for or chooses of ini­tia­tives or ac­tions that will be most use­ful for crit­i­ciz­ing the cur­rent Ad­min­is­tra­tion or gain­ing the at­ten­tion of a spe­cific part of the elec­torate. What’s more, ap­proaches can change al­most di­a­met­ri­cally in the process of de­vel­op­ing one theme or an­other, and the tug-o-war among the Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s op­po­nents grows more ag­gres­sive as they com­pete for the same protest voter. Even those few op­po­si­tion forces that ac­tu­ally have some vi­sion of an al­ter­na­tive tend to fo­cus not on pro­mot­ing their own vi­sion but on crit­i­ciz­ing those cur­rently in power, while some of the propo­si­tions they pro­mul­gate as an al­ter­na­tive are un­sys­tem­atic, mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive, and even com­pletely dis­con­nected from re­al­ity.

This kind of sit­u­a­tion re­quires that the me­dia and opin­ion lead­ers shift their fo­cus to stop play­ing up to protest moods and pop­ulist crit­i­cism and push vot­ers to think in terms of the ever-more rel­e­vant ques­tion of the na­tion’s sur­vival and how to move to a tra­jec­tory that will pro­vide sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth. What is needed is pub­lic de­bate not against but in fa­vor of a clear pro­gram of change that will find sup­port among a good ma­jor­ity of Ukraini­ans. There also needs to be un­der­stand­ing of the need to pay a rea­son­able price for the pos­si­bil­ity to break out of the vi­cious cy­cle of degra­da­tion.

The largest pos­si­ble num­ber of Ukraini­ans need to de­velop an aware­ness that there is no such thing as a free lunch: when ex­pen­di­tures for one area or an­other grow, taxes have to be raised, whereas if we want the tax bur­den to be light­ened, then some­thing has to be cut. If bud­get spend­ing on a cer­tain part of the econ­omy is lim­ited, we need to be pre­pared to ex­tend its fund­ing di­rectly to vot­ers or find com­mon al­ter­na­tive mech­a­nisms for cov­er­ing it, such as var­i­ous types of in­sur­ance and so on. How de­ci­sions are made in a democ­racy is de­ter­mined by the so­ci­ety it­self, but that means un­der­stand­ing the cost and con­se­quences, and be­ing pre­pared to pay for them both di­rectly and in­di­rectly. Oth­er­wise, ex­ag­ger­ated ex­pec­ta­tions, pop­ulist horse-races and dem­a­goguery will only make the sit­u­a­tion worse, along with the real stan­dard of liv­ing, and will lead to the fur­ther de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of all the coun­try’s life-sup­port sys­tems: from ed­u­ca­tion and health­care to pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion and ser­vices, law en­force­ment and the ju­di­ciary, pub­lic hous­ing and utilities, and the en­vi­ron­ment.

The pol­i­tics of “for ev­ery­thing that’s good and against ev­ery­thing that’s bad” guar­an­tees the swift and dis­as­trous dis­en­chant­ment of vot­ers in those whom they chose within months of any elec­tion, be­cause peo­ple aren’t pre­pared for the real poli­cies that their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives will fol­low. Con­stant de­mands or prom­ises to in­crease spend­ing are not ac­com­pa­nied by warn­ings about the need to si­mul­ta­ne­ously col­lect more taxes. On the other hand, ini­tia­tives to cut taxes, du­ties and ex­cise are never ac­com­pa­nied by ex­pla­na­tions of which bud­get ex­pen­di­tures will have to be re­duced as a con­se­quence. Road­works? Ed­u­ca­tion? Health­care? De­fense?


If re­ac­tive pop­ulism con­tin­ues to dom­i­nate in Ukraine’s pol­i­tics, the coun­try will con­tinue to fall be­hind eco­nom­i­cally, not just in re­la­tion to de­vel­oped coun­tries, but even in re­la­tion to most Asian and African coun­tries. Mean­while, a dan­ger­ous ten­dency to dis­trust the po­lit­i­cal class al­to­gether is grow­ing in Ukraine, which threat­ens the preser­va­tion of the state it­self. What’s more, peo­ple don’t seem to un­der­stand that the prob­lem lies not in the fail­ure to carry out clearly im­pos­si­ble pop­ulist prom­ises, but in the fact that such prom­ises are made in the first place.

Re­sort­ing to re­ac­tive pop­ulism and ob­vi­ously im­prac­ti­ca­ble prom­ises dis­tracts at­ten­tion from and ham­pers or ac­tu­ally blocks trans­for­ma­tions that the coun­try des­per­ately needs. The op­po­si­tion con­cen­trates on re­sist­ing and coun­ter­ing re­forms, feed­ing the wide­spread pub­lic mis­con­cep­tion that it’s re­forms that are the cause of their prob­lems or of the wors­en­ing sit­u­a­tion in one area or an­other. The new gen­er­a­tion of politi­cians has been good at ex­ploit­ing the in­cli­na­tion to­wards pop­ulism among a large por­tion of Ukraini­ans who are not very in­ter­ested in the real in­ten­tions of politi­cians or their readi­ness to carry out prom­ises. The imag­i­nary “pun­ish­ment” of the last po­lit­i­cal projects and their re­place­ment by sim­i­lar “new” ones ends up only be­ing time lost for the coun­try. Those set­ting these par­ties up and their spon­sors as­sume from the start that they will be short-lived: they have Plans B and C ready in their back pock­ets, and are only con­cerned with mak­ing back what­ever re­sources they in­vested in that brief pe­riod.

For in­stance, some Ukraini­ans be­lieve that re­form­ing or stream­lin­ing the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem will sup­pos­edly lead to its de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, re­duced ac­cess or fund­ing cuts. No one points out that the long-term degra­da­tion and piti­ful fund­ing of this branch, which is caused by com­pletely other fac­tors, is pre­cisely what needs to change in or­der to save what is still sal­vage­able and to make ed­u­ca­tion more ef­fec­tive in the cur­rent con­di­tions. The same can be said about the health­care sys­tem and the pen­sion sys­tem. Medicine has been chron­i­cally un­der­funded for decades. This has low­ered the qual­ity of ser­vices and forced peo­ple to pay for sup­pos­edly free med­i­cal treat­ment for all those years. Mean­while, ef­forts to of­fi­cially bring the sec­tor in line with the long ev­i­dent re­al­i­ties on the ground by sep­a­rat­ing what the state will pay for and what pa­tients will have to cover are now be­ing con­demned as the rea­son be­hind re­duced ac­cess to health­care ser­vices!

Crit­i­cisms com­ing from op­po­nents of these and other re­forms that are be­ing un­der­taken by the cur­rent gov­ern­ment mainly due to out­side pres­sure and are there­fore in­con­sis­tent and un­sys­tem­atic, although they could eas­ily be more care­fully thought through and com­pre­hen­sive, are strictly of a re­ac­tive na­ture— “leave ev­ery­thing like it is, just throw more money at it”—, in­stead of of­fer­ing more con­struc­tive and re­al­is­tic al­ter­na­tives that re­flect the sit­u­a­tion in Ukraine to­day. But such ini­tia­tives are not forth­com­ing and the fact that re­forms are com­ing out of the pock­ets of or­di­nary Ukraini­ans, and will re­quire greater tax and in­sur­ance con­tri­bu­tions from them, is not be­ing openly ad­mit­ted. This sug­gests that op­po­si­tion politi­cians are either don’t un­der­stand or are pre­tend­ing not to un­der­stand that, should they come to power, they will con­tinue to do the ex­act same as the cur­rent lot.

The same can be seen with anti-cor­rup­tion ide­ol­ogy, whose ban­ner a slew of op­po­nents of the gov­ern­ment, if not the ma­jor­ity of them, keep claim­ing for them­selves. Even some rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the cur­rent Ad­min­is­tra­tion are ac­tively ex­ploit­ing it. The idea of fight­ing cor­rup­tion, gen­er­ously fu­eled by the stir­ring up of envy and class ha­tred, could ac­tu­ally be­come that pow­er­ful uni­ver­sal mo­bi­liz­ing force that can win over a ma­jor part of the protest vote. Ex­cept that cor­rup­tion has not been over­come in any coun­try to this day: de­spite the cau­tious and sta­ble tra­di­tions of their po­lit­i­cal spheres, from time to time ma­jor cor­rup­tion scan­dals erupt in the most de­vel­oped coun­tries of the world—in­clud­ing the G7. Com­bat­ing it is, af­ter all, a do­mes­tic mat­ter, sim­i­lar to the mantras about “build­ing com­mu­nism” in the USSR: build all you want, but you’ll never build any­thing.

The world is filled with deeply cor­rupt coun­tries, es­pe­cially in Asia, which nev­er­the­less have posted high growth rates for decades, and so, over­com­ing cor­rup­tion can­not in any sense be­come a panacea or an agenda pri­or­ity. In ad­di­tion, real so­lu­tions to solve the prob­lem ac­tu­ally don’t see pun­ish­ment for cor­rup­tion as play­ing a ma­jor role, if noth­ing more than be­cause its very sever­ity en­cour­ages those who de­pend on it to be dis­hon­est in de­cid­ing whether to pun­ish or turn a blind eye and thus es­tab­lishes a closed caste of un­touch­ables and mu­tual back-scratch­ing. At the same time, while every­one’s fo­cused on fight­ing cor­rup­tion, very lit­tle at­ten­tion is be­ing paid to the less im­pres­sive but more ef­fec­tive de­struc­tion of its un­der­pin­nings. This re­quires bor­ing but sub­stan­tive re­forms that would min­i­mize or make it in­con­ve­nient or un­jus­ti­fi­ably risky, in­clud­ing by rais­ing the salaries of civil ser­vants—a highly un­pop­u­lar move for most vot­ers—, re­plac­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive mech­a­nisms with mar­ket ones, and so on.

If the cur­rent trends per­sist in Ukraine’s po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, the risk grows that the coun­try will be enmired for decades to come in a swamp that will only re­flect in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal in­di­ca­tors with­out any un­der­stand­ing of the strate­gic pur­pose of de­vel­op­ment and plans for reach­ing it. This sce­nario is the most dan­ger­ous both in terms of Ukraine’s progress and in terms of its vul­ner­a­bil­ity to Rus­sian and other ma­nip­u­la­tions. Right now, what Ukraine needs most is a con­sol­i­dat­ing pro­gram and a po­lit­i­cal party that could present its own al­ter­na­tive for the coun­try. Af­ter com­ing to power on the ba­sis of such a pro­gram, this party will be able to func­tion as the pro-ac­tive po­lit­i­cal elite that is long over­due, both for do­mes­tic mod­ern­iza­tion and for im­ple­ment­ing its own pol­icy in the in­ter­na­tional arena. The need for a new, young Ukrainian force is felt more and more with every pass­ing year—one that can of­fer an ide­ol­ogy of de­vel­op­ment founded on Ukraine’s own strengths, with a cen­ter-right plat­form in so­cio-eco­nomic mat­ters and na­tional con­sol­i­da­tion based on a Ukrainian cul­tural foun­da­tion.


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