Cri­sis of rep­re­sen­ta­tion

Why there is no party for the mid­dle class in Ukraine and it is left to pop­ulists to ex­press the in­ter­ests of all so­cial strata

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Maksym Vikhrov

Any elec­tion is not only a blood­less method for ro­tat­ing the rul­ing elites, but also a "com­pe­ti­tion" be­tween ideas for the present and fu­ture. Un­til re­cently, the main con­tent of Ukrainian pol­i­tics was de­ter­mined by dis­cus­sions about the his­tor­i­cal sta­tus of our coun­try. Who are we: a sov­er­eign Euro­pean coun­try or a quasi-state in Moscow's or­bit? The in­ter­nal agenda was struc­tured in the same way. The is­sues of lan­guage, his­tory and ed­u­ca­tion were all a con­tin­u­a­tion of the cen­tral po­lit­i­cal theme. The Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal scene was clearly di­vided into two op­pos­ing camps and at­tempts to be po­si­tioned as a "third force" or claim "neu­tral­ity" were not in high elec­toral de­mand. Po­lit­i­cal strate­gists played their part in en­cour­ag­ing this split, but it seemed quite nat­u­ral from a his­tor­i­cal point of view: hav­ing just gained in­de­pen­dent sta­tus, so­ci­ety sought an­swers to the fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of its ex­is­tence. Af­ter 2014, this dis­cus­sion, if it did not stop com­pletely, at least died down a great deal. Partly due to the change in pub­lic sen­ti­ment and re­duc­tion of the elec­toral land­scape as a re­sult of the oc­cu­pa­tion, partly due to the po­lit­i­cal de­feat of the pro-Rus­sian camp. The con­sen­sus on in­de­pen­dence, the pro­tec­tion of sovereignty and a Euro-At­lantic for­eign pol­icy is now ad­hered to by the Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal main­stream.

How­ever, even within this con­sen­sus, there is plenty of room for the de­bates that take place be­tween so­cial democrats and con­ser­va­tives in Euro­pean democ­ra­cies. The for­mer are tra­di­tion­ally sup­ported by hired work­ers, who are im­pressed by the em­pha­sis on so­cial jus­tice, state con­trol of the econ­omy and support for the poor. The main support of the lat­ter is the mid­dle class, in­ter­ested in lib­er­al­is­ing the econ­omy, pri­vati­sa­tion and so on. But there has never been a sim­i­lar di­vi­sion in Ukrainian pol­i­tics. As soon as the po­lit­i­cal elite ended its di­vi­sion into pro-Ukrainian and pro-Rus­sian camps, the dif­fer­ences be­tween the lead­ing par­ties were re­duced to their per­son­al­i­ties, rhetor­i­cal style and level of pop­ulism. This lack of a sys­tem is clearly il­lus­trated by the prac­tice of the cur­rent govern­ment, which is torn be­tween mar­ket re­forms and "im­prov­ing the stan­dard of liv­ing right now". In fact, this is not a prob­lem of that par­tic­u­lar body, as con­sis­tency can­not be ex­pected from op­po­si­tion forces ei­ther. By all ap­pear­ances, we will again have to choose be­tween faces rather than eco­nomic con­cepts at the 2019 elec­tions. But the rea­sons for this lie deeper than the sub­jec­tive weak­nesses of Ukrainian pol­i­tics.

It is clear that the eco­nomic in­ter­ests of dif­fer­ent so­cial strata have just as much po­lit­i­cal po­ten­tial as ide­o­log­i­cal or lin­guis­tic dis­crep­an­cies. Let's look at the num­bers. At the end of 2017, Min­is­ter of So­cial Pol­icy An­driy Reva es­ti­mated that 39.4% live be­low the poverty line, even af­ter the min­i­mum wage in­crease and "mod­erni­sa­tion" of pen­sions. More­over, poverty in Ukraine is in­her­ent to not only vul­ner­a­ble groups of the pop­u­la­tion, but also work­ers who are forced to save on leisure, clothes, medicines and food. This af­fects their views in a cer­tain way. Ac­cord­ing to the Rat­ing group, poorer, older and less ed­u­cated peo­ple tend to­wards pa­ter­nal­is­tic val­ues, sup­port­ing an in­crease in the pro­por­tion of state-owned busi­ness, "es­tab­lish­ing or­der" at the ex­pense of democ­racy, etc. Along­side them, there is a mid­dle class (around 30% of the pop­u­la­tion see them­selves as part of it) con­sist­ing of en­trepreneurs, pro­fes­sion­als and in­di­vid­u­als in­volved in the so­called cre­ative econ­omy. Th­ese peo­ple have enough to live on, but there is a cat­a­strophic lack of con­fi­dence in the fu­ture: a sig­nif­i­cant part of the "mid­dle" risks drop­ping out of this cat­e­gory fol­low­ing any eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity. Un­like the poor, they are geared to­wards a com­pet­i­tive econ­omy. For ex­am­ple, the list of de­mands put for­ward by the Union of Ukrainian En­trepreneurs in­cludes pri­vati­sa­tion, the creation of a land mar­ket, the sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of do­ing busi­ness, etc. Both the poor and the mid­dle class are sep­a­rated from the thin wealthy layer in so­ci­ety by a chasm of so­cial in­equal­ity that is be­com­ing dan­ger­ously wide.

It would seem that the re­struc­tur­ing of Ukrainian pol­i­tics into hy­po­thet­i­cal "poor" and "mid­dle-class" par­ties is in­evitable – this di­vi­sion could be seen even dur­ing the dra­matic events of 2014. So­cial-eco­nomic is­sues were not on the agenda of the Maidan, but the so­cial por­trait of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies was eas­ily recog­nis­able as the Ukrainian mid­dle class. Ac­cord­ing to a joint study by the Demo­cratic Ini­tia­tives Foun­da­tion and Kyiv In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of So­ci­ol­ogy (KIIS), about 77% of par­tic­i­pants in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary events had com­pleted higher ed­u­ca­tion or were still in it (stu­dents). Bro­ken down by pro­fes­sion, about 70% were man­agers or spe­cial­ists (in­clud­ing those study­ing to be spe­cial­ists in the fu­ture) and en­trepreneurs, and in terms of age, 87% of par­tic­i­pants were 15-54 years old. In this sense, the Maidan was not only a national, but also a specif­i­cally bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion – at least its com­po­si­tion, if not its slo­gans. Its op­po­site num­ber was the An­tiMaidan, espe­cially in spring 2014, when the Party of Re­gions could no longer mo­bilise peo­ple in an or­derly man­ner and re­placed sin­cere sup­port­ers with an un­ruly mob. In the ab­sence of so­ci­o­log­i­cal re­search, we have to rely on eye­wit­ness ac­counts that are en­tirely un­am­bigu­ous: the support base of the An­tiMaidan was made up of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of lower strata of the pop­u­la­tion, sprin­kled with overt lowlifes, that were ex­press­ing not only their po­lit­i­cal views, but also so­cial protest.

Since then, the po­lit­i­cal agenda has changed, but nei­ther the dis­sat­is­fied mid­dle class, nor the dis­sat­is­fied poor have gone any­where. How­ever, no changes oc­curred in pol­i­tics. As al­ways, the pop­ulists prom­ise all things to all peo­ple: fac­to­ries for the work­ers, cap­i­tal for the cap­i­tal­ists and a de­ter­mined strug­gle with the oli­garchy for ev­ery­one. There is no clear cor­re­la­tion be­tween so­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics and pref­er­ences for any of the lead­ing Ukrainian par­ties. Ac­cord­ing to the KIIS data, Mother­land, Petro Poroshenko Bloc, Rad­i­cal Party, For Life, Op­po­si­tion Bloc and Self-Help do not at­tract an elec­torate that can be clearly dis­tin­guished by a cer­tain set of so­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics. Usu­ally the vari­a­tions are within the mar­gin of er­ror or are rather in­signif­i­cant. The tra­di­tional re­gional cor­re­la­tion re­mains the most no­tice­able: the East and South of the coun­try mainly vote for pro-Rus­sian forces (in this case, the Op­po­si­tion Bloc and For Life), while the West and Cen­tre favour the national-demo­cratic camp. It is easy to blame the pop­ulists who are un­will­ing to act within cer­tain eco­nomic con­cepts, but no cor­re­spond­ing de­mand from so­ci­ety can be seen ei­ther. In­deed, ac­cord­ing to the Rat­ing group, the ide­o­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples of a party are an im­por­tant cri­te­rion for only 11% of vot­ers. Ac­cord­ing to the Razumkov Cen­tre, al­most 56% of Ukraini­ans have never read a party manifesto at all (al­most 48% among those with higher ed­u­ca­tion and 52-54% among the wealthy).

At first glance, this seems in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Why, for ex­am­ple, does the mid­dle class not want to have a mid­dle-class party that will pro­tect its in­ter­ests lo­cally, in par­lia­ment and pos­si­bly in govern­ment? Why do not the poor not de­sire this? The an­swer lies in part in the so­cial struc­ture it­self, which is not as ro­bust as it first seems. It is de­ter­mined not only by wealth, ed­u­ca­tional and pro­fes­sional di­vi­sions, but also the split be­tween those whose eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity is le­gal and those in the "shadow econ­omy" (ac­cord­ing to the IMF, up to 45% of the Ukrainian econ­omy could be off the books). This di­vi­sion splits the mid­dle class the hard­est. Hired work­ers do not get any ad­van­tages from their il­le­gal sta­tus, but the underground econ­omy al­lows busi­nesses to max­imise prof­its by not pay­ing taxes or com­ply­ing with labour laws. The own­ers of clan­des­tine coalmines in the Don­bas, am­ber mines in Vol­hy­nia, poach­ers' sawmills in the Carpathi­ans and il­le­gal de­vel­op­ers in Kyiv are just some of the "busi­ness" rep­re­sen­ta­tives who are not in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing ef­fec­tive state in­sti­tu­tions, a mar­ket econ­omy or other fea­tures of civil­i­sa­tion. Lower so­cial strata are not mono­lithic ei­ther and are also in­ter­nally di­vided. There are dis­putes be­tween work­ers and pen­sion­ers, be­tween those who have a per­ma­nent job and the pre­cariat. In fact, the only aligned front is the oli­garchy and busi­nesses af­fil­i­ated with it, which not only ar­tic­u­lateth­eir com­mon in­ter­ests, but also ef­fec­tively im­ple­ment them by in­ter­fer­ing with the func­tion­ing of state in­sti­tu­tions.

Along­side dif­fi­cul­ties in ar­tic­u­lat­ing their com­mon in­ter­ests, Ukraini­ans do not even use the in­sti­tu­tional ca­pa­bil­i­ties that they have now. For ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to the Razumkov Cen­tre, 92% of cit­i­zens have never con­tacted an MP, only 15% have been to their con­stituency surg­eries and 90% have never par­tic­i­pated in pub­lic hear­ings nor been mem­bers of cit­i­zens' coun­cils. What's more, asked to name in­sti­tu­tions that should rep­re­sent the in­ter­ests of cit­i­zens, only 21% of Ukraini­ans men­tioned po­lit­i­cal par­ties, 19% pub­lic or­gan­i­sa­tions, 13% trade unions and 10% in­di­vid­ual politi­cians. Cou­pled with the tra­di­tion­ally low cred­i­bil­ity of politi­cians, par­ties and par­lia­ment, this tes­ti­fies to the se­ri­ous short­com­ings of Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. They can be at­trib­uted to his­tory, as we do not have a so­cial tra­di­tion of democ­racy, and civil so­ci­ety is, if not em­bry­onic, at a very early stage of de­vel­op­ment. There­fore, the use of rep­re­sen­ta­tive mech­a­nisms in it­self is a new and dif­fi­cult task for Ukraini­ans. Bring­ing the in­ter­ests of so­cial strata whose bound­aries are be­ing eroded and in­ter­nal dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is con­stantly grow­ing to a com­mon po­lit­i­cal de­nom­i­na­tor is an even tougher ask. More­over, in the con­text of the gen­eral de­val­u­a­tion of pol­i­tics, this task be­comes ex­tremely non-triv­ial. So in the near fu­ture, Ukrainian pol­i­tics will re­main a com­pe­ti­tion be­tween pop­ulists that prom­ise the world to ev­ery­one, mak­ing govern­ment pol­icy veer be­tween lib­eral re­forms and quasi-so­cial­ism.

Ac­cord­ing to the Rat­ing group, the ide­o­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples of a party are an im­por­tant cri­te­rion for only 11% of vot­ers. Ac­cord­ing to the Razumkov Cen­tre, al­most 56% of Ukraini­ans have never read a party manifesto at all (al­most 48% among those with higher ed­u­ca­tion and 52-54% among the wealthy)

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