Five years ago, Ukrainian people tossed off the shackles of tutelage and proved to the entire world their capability to think for themselves. The capability to make their own choices was not attained without a price — more than one hundred people died on the main square of Kyiv in the last days of the Revolution of Dignity, and many more thousands lost their lives protecting this choice from Russia in the east.

It would be fair to say that notwithstanding the protracted war in Donbass and endemic corruption, Ukraine has managed to prove itself a prudent player in the region. Over the course of five years, Ukraine weaned itself off Russian gas, strengthened its army, signed an association agreement with the European Union, declared its own Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and successfully implemented several major administrative and economic reforms that were endorsed and praised by international pundits.

The person credited for these achievements is Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko, an old-guard oligarch notorious for his egregiously profitable chocolate business and shady connections. Elected a during a time of crisis, many preferred to close their eyes to his ambiguous past and suspiciously thriving business. Voters embraced his decisiveness in standing up against Vladimir Putin, the biggest Ukrainian enemy. Even impregnable Western diplomats who acknowledge his far from perfect political background were forced to acknowledge that he has done more in five years than all presidents combined in the last twenty years. [1]

Now, however, the future of Ukraine does not look bright. In the first round of presidential elections that took place on March 31, Petro Poroshenko won only 15.95% votes. He was outplayed by popular comedian Vladimir Zelensky (30.24%). With the second round scheduled for April 21, it is almost certain who will become the next president. Zelensky emphasizes his anti-establishment reprobation, turning his lack of political experience and agenda into an advantage and charming his predominantly young constituency as a “new face.” Some analysts jump to the conclusion that populist anti-establishment leaders are a universal trend caused by a general frustration with economic instability and distrust in political institutions. As far as the Ukrainian case is concerned, there might be some deeper underlying issues at play.

Frustration does play a role. It is important to acknowledge that Ukrainian people are revolting against the rampant corruption that has not diminished since Poroshenko took power. More so, his ability to maximize his own profits more than 8 times in 2018 at the time when regular Ukrainians are struggling with the fluctuation of prices, wages, currency and other consequences of war, occluded all his positive achievements.[2] In addition, his reputation suffers a great deal from multiple journalist investigations revealing his relationships and dealings with notorious oligarchs and criminals responsible for killing people on Maidan square.[3] In a nutshell, Petro Poroshenko is being blamed for betraying the principles and values of Maidan.

Amidst this disillusionment, there is someone who knows how to fix it — a young school teacher of history, Vasyl Goloborod’ko. His rant against the corrupt government was secretly filmed and distributed by his students, winning him the presidency after it went viral. Goloborod’ko does not shy away from admitting his incompetence, turning it into his advantage instead. Presenting himself as someone not implicated in corruption schemes and with a keen sense of justice, off he goes to fix the system.

This is the plot of the famous TV show, The Servant of the People. Volodymyr Zelensky plays the main character, Vasyl Goloborod’ko. The show is extremely popular with twenty million people watching it in Ukraine and ninety-eight million views on YouTube[4]. Unwittingly embodying his character, Zelensky has managed to transform fiction into reality. He does not need to explain to people who he is and what he stands for — they know it already from the TV show. His political stand and competence do not matter as long as he commits to the common hatred for the government and demand for justice, whatever that means. Evading political debates and interviews, he provides an excellent opportunity for people to project their own dreams and desires on to him. Mythologized and fictionalized, Zelensky is seen as defending values from those in power who betrayed the people.

The looming question, however, is: What specific values does Zelensky seek to protect?

Evidently, the values that the current president is betraying — Maidan values. Emblematically, Maidan sought to represent and defend European values — justice, freedom, and democracy. What remains unclear is what these notions actually mean. It is unclear because Maidan was far from homogenous; in fact, it was remarkably diverse uniting people of all stripes and worldviews — anarchists, libertarians, nationalists, communists, liberals, people who do not share any ideology, war veterans, children, students, green activists, elderly people. Everyone felt it was their duty to get out on the streets to defend justice, freedom, and democracy. And while I am fascinated with the people’s capacity to forget their differences and unite together in times of crisis, the inability to articulate the meanings of these values that people were dying for rendered them abstract and empty. The vagueness of the terms also allowed incumbents on both sides to appropriate and exploit these values in their rhetoric.

The problem has its roots in the absence of ideology in the Ukrainian political discourse. And there is a good reason for that — the legacy of communist ideology make most Ukrainians cringe from the very notion. What followed in the 1990s with the rampant privatization was a creation of oligarch class, whose interests in dividing political power became more prominent than the questions of ideological leanings. Roughly speaking, this can be described as a de-politization of politics, in which ideologies and respective political programs are irrelevant when electing a leader or government. This leaves no other criteria for selecting a candidate than his personality. Hence, the phenomenon of Zelensky.

It is for this reason that I think it is time to revive the good old ideologies that would provide a framework and a vocabulary to start a conversation of what these abstract values really mean for people and politicians.

To reinforce my point, consider one example. Both politicians declare the same promise — reform of the judicial system. Neither candidate, however, presents a concrete plan or vision of what this reform would look like. President Poroshenko declares: “To live fairly! In Ukraine, principles of the rule of law and justice should triumph. These principles demand transparent and consistent legislative base, accessible, just, unbiased, and competitive judicial system, inevitability of punishment before the law, guarantee of the basic human rights, non-interference of the state in the public and private life.” Zelensky’s program looks no less abstract: “Justice is the pillar of trust in the society. If there is no trust — there is no state. Twenty-eight years they promise us a society of equal opportunities, but instead they divide us into different categories [sic]. In reality, there is only one kind of division: us and them. Us — is the People of Ukraine. Them — is ‘political pensioners’ that ‘migrate’ from mainstream power to opposition, from party to party, and constantly end up in the beneficial position, protecting themselves with political immunity.” His suggestion is to deprive President and the MPs of political immunity.[5]

Both visions of judicial reforms, however abstract and populist in tone, argue for an impartial and unbiased judicial system. But it seems to me that those claims are empty unless they are substantiated by a further explanation of what a “just” system will look like. And this is impossible to do if one does not identify himself in terms of ideology — left, moderate, or right.

Within the context of the United States, one can freely comprehend what justice means for the left and for the right. In Ukraine, there is no such distinction. There is no understanding that justice for liberal left means fairness and equality, an egalitarian society that is envisioned by creating equal opportunities for people from different social and economic conditions. Similarly, there is no understanding what justice means for the right — protection of individual as the higher value of the society by creating conditions of maximization of profits and protection of these profits from sharing them with others. Thus, it is not self-evident that both concepts are opposed to each other and each have their own implications for the economic, political, and cultural domains.

This misconception then leads Zelensky to proclaim free market, minimal taxation, maximum deregulation, and at the same time higher wages for doctors and teachers funded by the state. [6] Confusing opposite ideologies, he promises programs of loans for young professionals and state support for young entrepreneurs while at the same time affirming his readiness to fulfill demands of IMF — an organization that, however indispensable for Ukraine in terms of financial support, has a clearly neoliberal agenda.[7]

These examples demonstrate that whenever ideological discourse is absent from the political debates, it creates a void that politicians fill with empty slogans, letting individuals to project their own interpretations. It also allows them to produce inconsistent programs that indulge people’s wishes, but are impossible to implement.

If we fail to develop a vocabulary and a framework to identify these empty signifiers, we run the risk of never leaving the paradoxical and detrimental situation in which people are willing to die for “democracy” and at the same time anticipate a messiah to materialize and save Ukraine overnight. Democracy is not only about free media and elections every five years. We need to find out what that democracy in Ukraine looks like by having substantial discussions, introducing rigorous political and economic education in schools, and organizing forums and platforms for politicians and intellectuals to learn from each other. This also means making the findings of social scientists appealing and accessible for the general public by sponsoring translations of foreign press and literature, funding public libraries and spaces of learning so that not only scholars and students are able to be part of intellectual conversations.

For several reasons, Ukraine must navigate through ideologies and develop a vocabulary. First, it will make it harder for politicians to exploit empty claims if the public demands specificity. Secondly, it will allow us to understand better what exactly we want as individuals and a society forging a sharper vision of future Ukraine. Most importantly, it will create a discourse and an intellectual space in which new political leaders will emerge with original visions and political programs to implement.

Zelensky’s shocking popularity has shown that an absence of ideologies within the political and public discourse makes it very easy to manipulate public opinion. Zelensky appeals to vague values such as justice and freedom, without bothering to explain what these would mean in practice. It is important to understand that while both the left and the right ideologies produce populist leaders all around the world, we as citizens are able to detect, identify, and resist the dangerous discourse. In Ukraine where only abstract and vague concepts prevail, there is nothing to resist and no alternative in sight.

Masha Shynkarenko is a PhD Candidate in Politics Department, The New School for Social Research. Her research concerns non-violent civil resistance movements, people’s power, and identity formation. Masha is a Teacher and Research Assistant at The New School and an Adjunct Professor at St. John’s University.

[4] Это не шутка Комик Владимир Зеленский – главный украинский политик. Илья Жегулев рассказывает его биографию, Meduza, April 1 2019

[5] According to Ukrainian Constitution, article 80, members of Parliament, President, and judges have a right of political immunity and cannot be indicted and prosecuted.

[6] Political program of presidential candidate, Volodymyr Zelensky

[7] “Голобородько, правда, МВФ посилав, але так не буде” – Зеленський не збирається припиняти співпрацю з МВФ , Цензор.нет, 18 March, 2018.