To the detriment of democracy, populism has returned in force with a new face in many countries of the world, and Ukraine is no exception. (Freedom House 2018) The election of Volodymyr Zelensky to the post of President in Spring of 2019 was spurred by his own populist movement, ironically named Servant of the People after the television show in which he starred as the main character- a schoolteacher who becomes President of Ukraine. His movement, and that of other Ukrainian politicians, has the classical hallmarks of populism- decisively “anti-establishment”, reportedly for the “common people”, and geared around delivering cryptic and often strategically vague reassurances regarding long-standing problems such as corruption, foreign interference, and illiberalism. (Müller, 2016) But what differentiates Zelensky’s new populism versus that of previous Presidents such as Petro Poroshenko or Viktor Yanukovych is the mass focus on himself as the central figurehead of the movement, the disparate anti-pluralistic actions of his early days in office, and the relatively early emergence of indicators of clientelism in his administration- all pointing towards a continued collapse of Ukraine’s prospects as a liberal democracy. (Edwards 2019)
It is no secret that Zelensky’s electoral victory over then-incumbent President Poroshenko was the result of Poroshenko’s utter failure to deliver on his populist promises to the revolutionary electorate of the post-EuroMaidan country. Multiple attempts to reform the judiciary failed, corruption remained at an all time high, the war in the Donbass-Luhansk raged on, and Poroshenko came to be branded as “just another oligarch” who staffed his administration with corrupt friends. (Marder 2019)
Whereas Zelensky has categorically denied similarities between his campaign and early days in office to those of Poroshenko, he has arguably mirrored or advanced some of Poroshenko’s agendas to the detriment of democracy. His populist fervor and broad mandate to govern have led to a number of actions that can be considered definitive of stealth authoritarianism, specifically in the method that Zelensky has executed “ the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends…anti-democratic ends, as used here, refer to the erosion of partisan alternation” (Varol 2015, p. 1684).
Firstly, his dissolution of parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, and subsequent snap elections, are the direct result of his anti-pluralistic remark regarding his wish to not enter into a coalition government with the former parliamentary majority bloc- a step that even Poroshenko did not take in his presidential tenure. (Mendel 2019)
Next, Zelensky has favored continuing or even strengthening Ukraine’s “lustration” policies. Lustration, as a derivative of the Latin word for purification, is the policy of Eastern European countries to ban members of the former communist parties from entering into politics. Under former President Poroshenko the policy was extended to those who served under former Russian-aligned President Yanukovych and members of his party, the Party of Regions. Now Zelensky has proposed to extend lustration to those who served under Poroshenko. (Edwards 2019) Will this tumultuous cycle of populist-induced stealth authoritarianism continue with every new president running on an anti-establishment platform against the incumbent, and then attempting to consolidate their own power through anti-pluralist action?
Zelensky has also favored continued policies that are promoted as being “pro-Ukrainian”, but can be objectively considered anti-liberty. Most of these policies are targeted against Russian-speaking operations and populations in Ukraine- certain Russian-speaking media outlets have been banned, and Russian has been disbarred as an official state language as of 2019, following various regional Ukrainian governments disbarring it from their provincial education systems. (RBC Ukraine 2019) Lustration has also taken a more fevered, semi-political life of its own in the vein of cultural decommunization- historical monuments, murals, and museums have been the targets of official demolition and non-official desecration. (Ukrayinska Pravda) This is completely categorical of the continued populist movement that sprang to action following the EuroMaidan, the separatist war, and Russian intervention, and is continually indicative of a slip away from a robust, liberal democracy.
Lastly, Zelensky has made certain questionable appointments in his administrative apparatus which are reminiscent of Yanukovych’s and Poroshenko’s early days in office. Primarily, a majority of the Deputy Heads of the Presidential Administration, the Bankova, were executives of Kvartal 95, the channel on which Servant of the People was broadcast. (Ukrayinska Pravda) In a further vein of possible anti-pluralism and clientelism, Zelensky dismissed fifteen administrative governors out of Ukraine’s twenty-four regions (oblasts), the commanders of five regional secret service districts, and asked the Verkhovna Rada to remove the country’s Prosecutor General given the latter’s opposition to Zelensky’s administrative appointments and penchant for furthering lustration. (Unian 2019)
Despite denouncing Poroshenko’s policies and practices, Zelensky has successfully reinforced them by riding a wave of populist legitimacy. One commentator said “things here often start with great hopes and end in great disappointments. But this time, I get the impression things could change” (Edwards 2019) on election day in Kiev. Unfortunately, it seems as though this new cycle of populism may lead down the same path as it always has in Ukraine.
Edwards, Maxim. 2019. “Welcome to Ukraine’s Post-Post-Maidan Era.” Foreign Policy.
Freedom House. 2019. Freedom in the World 2019: Democracy in Retreat.
Marder, Michael. “Ukraine’s landslide election result delivers a twist on the new era of
populism.” The Independent.
Mendel, Iuliia. May 2019. “Ukraine’s New President Dissolves Parliament and Calls a Snap Election.” The New York Times.
Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): 1673-1742. Parts I, II
“ Vladimir Zelensky: It is beneficial for us to dissolve the Rada, but we will think and act
according to the law.” 18 April 2019. RBC Ukraine.
“ Zelensky suggested, that he might not get to shake Poroshenko’s hand.” 18 April 2019.
Ukrayinska Pravda. https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2019/04/18/7212672/
“ Зеленський звільнив 15 керівників ОДА.” 11 June 2019. Unian.
This article pointed out at the very beginning the most common threat to democracy – Populism. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky falls perfectly under this category. I like how you were able to cite the ways on Zelensky has been taking populist actions since the moment he took office. There are some that claim that Ukraine democracy is doing well, however, the instances in the past when a populist led the decline of democracy is a very common story. So, it is hard for us to believe that all will be well with Zelensky, who has no experience in politics. What’s even more scary for people without the experience in politics, is their probable lack of experience in handling the economy.
In 2019, the Freedom House have identified Ukraine as a hybrid regime with a partly free press. Political and civil liberties are also partly free. We are yet to see the changes in Ukraine’s democratic profile. However, this article leads us to question, “How much do we have left before Zelensky start on acting like an authoritarian?”
Another interesting aspect of Zelensky’s term thus far is that he has been able to mostly hold off on Russian political influence. Other Populist leaders within Eastern Europe have expressed support for their Russian neighbor and President Putin; Viktor Orban continues to consult Putin on Hungarian legislation and former Georgian president Saakashvili pledged his nation’s support to the Eurasian Union, yet Zelensky has had little entanglement with Putin. This is interesting considering the Russian occupation of the Donbass and Separatist uprising orchestrated by Putin’s “little green men”, in addition to Zelensky’s entanglement with Putin ally and American president Donald Trump. While a majority of Zelensky’s populist supporters’ oppose the impending Russian invasion, Zelensky has failed to outwardly reject the actions’ of Putin. His policy on Ukraine joining the EU additionally allude to a possible grudging alliance between the two Eastern European leaders, who both undermine democratic institutions within their respective countries. In the end Zelensky differs fundamentally from Putin while exhibiting the same tendencies towards authoritarianism, and time will tell whether Zelensky’s Populist politics will lead him towards an unprecedented Russia-Ukraine alliance.