Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 16

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

Between 1994 and 1998, the Sociological Institute of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences–with the support of the Democratic Initiatives foundation and the Socis-Gallop organization–monitored the current state of affairs and development trends in Ukrainian society. In May of each year a poll was conducted of 1,800 Ukrainian adults (over 17 years old), representing public opinion according to region, age, sex and education. The data thus obtained allow for an objective assessment of the state of Ukrainian society on the eve of the presidential elections which will determine its fate in the next century. These statistics can also be seen as an important verdict on Leonid Kuchma’s administration, reflecting the people’s perception of the social transformations on offer. [The results of the polls and tables are published in: Natalia Panina, Evgeni Golovakha. Tendentsyi razvitia ukrainskogo obshchestva (1994-1998 gg.). Sotsiologicheskie pokazateli. Kyiv, Institut sotsiologii, 1999. The sociological data quoted below are taken from this book.]

THE ATTITUDE OF THE PEOPLE TO ECONOMIC POLICY Leonid Kuchma officially took office as president of Ukraine in July 1994, though his influence on Ukraine’s economy had begun much earlier, in October 1992, when parliament endorsed him almost unanimously as prime minister of Ukraine.

His tenure as prime minister was notable for two reasons: First, for his constant demands for new powers, the most significant of which was his demand for the right to issue decrees at a legislative level; and, second, for his equally regular threats to resign. In this respect, Kuchma had no equal among other world leaders. He threatened to resign five times in the eight months of his premiership, and when he was unable to secure from parliament the right to issue decrees at a legislative level, he resigned as prime minister in May 1993.

Without implementing an economic transformation, Kuchma nevertheless managed to acquire a reputation, in the eyes of the electorate, of a man who was constantly blocked in his efforts to do good deeds for the people. This reputation helped him secure the presidency in 1994. Although Kuchma’s image, established with the aid of local and foreign journalists, was very much that of a reforming president (articles by Chrystya Freeland in the Financial Times played a major role here), the results of the opinion polls revealed no associations with such an image, either in the early years of Kuchma’s administration or, particularly, at the end. In the later years there is a strong trend among Ukrainians toward a highly negative assessment both of the economic situation in Ukraine as a whole, and of their own standard of living. But whereas in 1994 people’s average assessment of their own material position, while fairly low in itself, was actually twice as high as their assessment of the general economic situation in Ukraine, during the four years this assessment steadily declined, gradually drawing closer to the assessment of the general economic situation in the country, which also declined.

Thus, whereas in 1994 38.4 percent of respondents assessed the current economic situation in Ukraine as very bad, in 1998 this figure was 44.5 percent. At the same time the number of those who considered the situation to be very good fell from 1.9 percent to 0.1 percent (Panina, Golovakha, p. 17). According to research carried out by the International Foundation for Election Systems in 1998, the total number of those dissatisfied rose from 91 percent in 1994 to 96 percent in 1998, while the total number of those satisfied fell in the corresponding period from 7 percent to 3 percent. [See Gary Ferguson, Public Opinion in Ukraine, 1998. International Foundation for Election Systems, 1998, p. 10. The poll was conducted by SOCIS-Gallup, Kyiv, from May 29 to June 8, 1998, with a sample of 1,484 and a margin of error of +/-3 percent.]

The negative assessment of the economic situation and the decline in the standard of living is reflected in changes in attitude to the market reforms. Each year there is a steady fall in the number of people who believe that Ukraine should make a complete transition to the market, and a corresponding increase in the proportion of those who consider it necessary to take the economy back to its pre-perestroika position. (Whereas in 1994 these two groups were equal in number, in 1997 there were three “conservatives” for every two “reformers”.) In 1994, some 30 percent of respondents believed in the need for a total transition to the market (20 percent in 1998), while in 1998 39 percent were in favor of a return to central planning (30.9 percent in 1994). Research carried out by IREX underlined that in 1997 a 39 percent plurality of Ukrainians supported a market economy and 31 percent preferred central planning. In 1998, however, just 25 percent favored a market economy, 33 percent supported central planning, and 20 percent were in favor of both in conjunction. What is most discouraging is that the support of young men, who were the most enthusiastic supporters of a market economy (44 percent), has fallen by 14 percent since 1997 (Ferguson, p. 13). Together with the decrease in supporters of a market economy, there is an increase in the number of those who think that Ukraine is not a democracy: 55 percent (up from 52 percent in 1997). Just 19 percent believe the country is a democracy, 9 percent say it is both, and 15 percent don’t know (ibid., p. 19).

POLITICS IN THE MIRROR OF PUBLIC OPINION The poll results show that most Ukrainians trust only in their own family and in God. On a scale of 1-5, the level of trust in the family in 1994 was 4.45, and in 1998 4.51. Trust in God and the church was correspondingly 3.81 and 3.89. Of all state structures and institutions, only the army enjoys the relative confidence of the population (3.95 in 1998). Political parties scored only 2.07 in 1998 (Panina, Golovakha, p. 56).

Confidence in representative democracy stands at a consistently low level: In 1994 half the population expressed a lack of confidence in the Supreme Rada, while in 1998 (almost immediately after the elections) approximately two-thirds of the adult population of Ukraine had no confidence in parliament. This indicates that despite the relatively high level of electoral participation among the population, people do not have a real sense of belonging to the political process or of the opportunity to elect “their own” deputy who truly reflects and defends their interests. The number of voters who do not know who their deputies are increases each year after the elections. The representative authorities do everything they can to stop the voters meeting their elected representatives. Parliament in Ukraine is practically under siege. During the day people are not even allowed to walk past the building. Entry into the parliament building is prohibited to all except the deputies, their assistants and accredited journalists.

Against this background of a widespread lack of trust in the state and its institutions, and a very low level of confidence in political parties (1.93 in 1995; 2.07 in 1998), the institutions of civil society could have become the driving force for the reforms. However, the main political institutions of civil society are developing very slowly. The proportion of people who believe that Ukraine does not need a multiparty system is growing year by year (29.8 percent in 1994; 39.7 percent in 1998) (ibid., p. 44). This may be explained by the ineffective activity of particular politicians who enter the public and political arena. It can be fairly stated that antimarket feeling combined with skepticism towards democracy in Ukraine, against a background of total public dissatisfaction with the situation in the country, creates a fertile soil for the propagation of the egalitarian, statist and paternalist ideas with which the left-wing parties secured victory at last year’s parliamentary elections.

PRE-ELECTION SCENARIOS Leonid Kuchma does not have time to alter these sociological trends, which threaten his hopes for reelection. At the end of June, a few days before the termination of powers granted to him by “transition provisions” of the Constitution to issue economic decrees on topics not regulated by legislation, he submitted 39 decrees to parliament, most of which will be rejected for one reason or another. Even those that have a chance of being adopted will not have sufficient time to be passed.

Given this, there are a few populist and ideological ways in which Kuchma may be able to swing the mood of the electorate behind him.

First, he could pay off the pension and wage arrears, which amount to the colossal sum, by Ukrainian standards, of 7 billion hryvnya, or about one third of the expenditure side of the 1998 budget. It is impossible to do this without printing money, and consequently unleashing inflation. Wary of going down this route, which would render irretrievable the already parlous state of the Ukrainian economy, Kuchma will probably try to defer payment of pensions and wages in monetary form (which is also fraught with inflation) by issuing people with shares in enterprises instead of real money, thus attempting a sort of “restructuring” of the state’s current debts owed to working people. However, nobody knows what to do about the compensation for people’s devalued savings, totaling 130 billion hryvnya (about US$32.3 billion).

Second, he could tighten control of the press, with the aim of preventing criticism of him by other presidential candidates. Here Kuchma has achieved significantly more success than he has with the economy. Alongside his notorious bans on the printing of opposition publications, for which the International Committee for the Protection of Journalists included Kuchma in the list of the top ten enemies of freedom of the press in 1999, Kuchma recently appointed his information minister, Zinovy Kulik, to the highly influential post of deputy secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, giving him unlimited powers for the ideological manipulation of the population and suppression of the opposition. With the absence of an independent mass media in Ukraine, the authorities have taken unprecedented measures, raising tenfold the charge for the use of broadcasting frequencies. This one measure alone threatens the very survival of the few media outlets which exist thanks to advertising or foreign subsidies.

Third, Kuchma would do very well to repeat in Ukraine the Russian scenario of “Yeltsin the democrat versus Zyuganov the communist.” According to the plan devised by Kuchma’s election campaign strategists (Vladimir Horbulin, Oleg Soskin, Vladimir Polokhalo, Zinovy Kulik, Aleksandr Razumkov, Aleksandr Volkov), the role of Zyuganov would be taken by the leader of the Ukrainian communists Petro Symonenko.

UKRAINE’S TRAGEDY AND KUCHMA’S PERSONALITY The “Ukrainian tragedy” of the 1999 elections is that there will not even be the vestige of democracy which lingered in the Russian elections of 1996. In his desire to hold on to power, Leonid Kuchma has gone much further than Yeltsin did in 1996. He will stop at nothing in his truly maniacal craving for power, demonstrating great tenacity in quietly putting “Ukrainian-style” pressure on society and his opponents, avoiding the shake-ups and scandals of which there have been so many in recent Russian history. Kuchma’s obsession with power is reflected in the fact that he declared his intention to run for president for a second term two and a half years before the election date, and in a recent interview with Radio Svoboda [Liberty] on 22 June, when asked by the interviewer “How do you assess your chances in the presidential elections?,” he answered: “I am convinced of victory. That is why I am running. In the current situation a change of political course would be fatal for Ukraine. I see it as my duty to continue what I began in 1994. There is simply no other way for Ukraine. This is the main motive behind my battle for the presidency.”

Kuchma’s logic has it that Ukraine has no alternative but to go with him, and if it turns its back on him it will perish. Is this the complex of the “little man” obsessed with a big idea? Kuchma may not have fired tanks at parliament, annihilated tens of thousands of his citizens, or exacerbated tensions with the West, as Yeltsin has done and continues to do. Kuchma has simply done nothing. He has managed to remain a colorless and unimaginative politician whose name is not associated with one social innovation or popular idea. He has not created an image for himself as a charismatic “father of the nation,” or as a man who has simple weaknesses which ordinary people can relate to and forgive, as with Yeltsin.

The elections in Ukraine will not be a choice between tomorrow and yesterday, as Kuchma’s ideologues will try to portray it, but between yesterday and the day before. Whoever Kuchma’s opponent, Ukraine will be the loser whatever the outcome. Opinion polls show that society is not yet ready for liberal democratic ideas and private business. It rejects the western path of development, preferring to reinforce feelings of “Slavic” solidarity. It has yet to go through the very painful period of social “sobering-up,” developing feelings and concepts of individuality, the market, private ownership and rule of law. Society has to free itself from the collectivist doctrines of Slavic orthodoxy. And, regrettably, the colorless and faceless Kuchma is possibly the most suitable figure for this period.

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute so Sociology, a research associate at George Washington University, and a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.