The Features and Tendencies of the Development of Political Culture in Ukrainian Society

The Features and Tendencies of the Development of Political Culture in Ukrainian Society

To better understand the specifics of today’s tumultuous and polysemous political situation in Ukraine, it is worth analyzing the features of political culture in contemporary Ukrainian society and its most recent tendencies and transformations. The following is my subjective view on this problem.

The dominant and decisive feature of our political culture is a distrust of the leadership and of national institutions. This feature appeared in the earliest years of the independent Ukrainian state, and prevailed through each president and government. Unfortunately, this also applies to attitudes towards the law. Significant legal nihilism is characteristic of both our politicians and of average citizens. Whence has this lack of confidence appeared? In my opinion, it is related to two factors: the first is that the Ukrainian nation developed in the absence of its own state—that is, as part of other states—and this laid the groundwork in our mass political consciousness for a perception of the state and its institutions as foreign and hostile forces. The second factor is that during its formation, the Ukrainian state was not “appropriated” by its citizens and its society. Rather, the new state and its leadership and resources were appropriated only by the most active levels of the political-administrative and economic elite. As a result, the renewed Ukrainian state did not become fully ‘its own’ for the vast majority of ordinary Ukrainian citizens.

However, this critical stance towards external governing institutions informed a rejection of the authoritarian forms of power which are characteristic to most of our fellow citizens. And this principally differentiates us from the Russians, who tend towards “autocratic” forms of leadership, even if the role of “tsar” is played by a president who is chosen through direct elections. According to research by the Razumkov Centre in September of 2017, 56.3% of Ukrainians consider democracy to be the most desirable system for their country. The negative attitude of most Ukrainian citizens towards authoritarianism is substantiated in political practice, particularly in the two recent revolutions (in 2004 and 2013-2014).

Another trait of our political culture, which has formed historically, is semi-anarchistic political behavior in political processes in general—a low level of political discipline and organization, and a propensity for otamanshchyna. During large political upheavals (the massive Maidan demonstrations), the level of social solidarity and political organization grows; however, the usual political process in Ukraine is characterized by this same semi-anarchism.

Another significant factor in the mass political consciousness of Ukraine is an ambivalence of political values and attitudes, and their eclectic mixing. The vast majority of Ukrainians don’t trust the existing political parties, but in spite of this, they vote for these parties in elections. Many Ukrainians (though significantly fewer today than in the past) have relatively steady party preferences. Our fellow citizens don’t trust the Verkhovna Rada, which they themselves chose; they begin to mistrust it almost immediately after its election. Until the dramatic events of 2014, many Ukrainians associated the integration of Ukraine into Europe with Ukraine’s alliance to Russia. And examples of such ambivalence are numerous.

A characteristic feature of the mass political consciousness of Ukrainians is an individuating of political views. In parliamentary elections, most Ukrainians vote not along ideological or party lines, but for a particular leader, and, in consequence, for the party that he heads. The exception to this rule was support for the nationalists and communists, where the personality of the leader was not the main determining factor. These individuated views in voter politics result in a reciprocal adaptation of political projects and leadership among political leaders.

Emotional mindset, and not rational choice, dominate political behavior in Ukraine. Mood prevails over interests, and this results in an interesting phenomenon, which I call the “emotional swings” of Ukrainian politics. The exaggerated (and often baseless) expectations that arise in the wake of the victory of particular politicians in presidential elections, or after large Maidan movements, are quickly replaced with disappointment. This in turn leads to continual and increased political fluctuations and volatility. For a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see my article in “Ukrayinska Pravda” (

But when we speak about the particularities of political culture and the mass political consciousness of Ukrainians, we must understand that these are heterogenous and contradictory phenomena. We can see not only a noticeable difference, but often substantial divergence in the political stances and approaches of representatives of the mass political consciousness of various social groups, regions, and generations. For example, the most active electoral group in Ukraine is the pensioners; youth, in contrast, is very apolitical. However, in practice, we do see that as the younger generation matures, their level of political involvement, and especially their participation in elections, does grow. And in each of the latest Ukrainian revolutions, young people have played a significant role. A small though noticeable stratum of the population demonstrates an active civil political culture. However, the quantifiable domination of social and political paternalism (the political culture of “the subjugated”) gives rise to fashionable populism in politicians. There is a poorly developed culture of political engagement in Ukraine; much more prevalent is the practice of street protests. Although a revolutionary minority can prevail in the Maidan, the conservative majority dominates elections, and in the post-revolutionary period, this leads to significant political dissonance.

These are the general and relatively fixed traits of Ukrainian political culture. However, in the last few years, we have seen marked, and even alarming, changes in the political views and approaches of our fellow citizens.

The most significant is the enormous disappointment and extraordinary rise in distrust of all political leaders, both those of the governing party and the opposition. This restricts the level of mass support for the protest actions of the opposition and prevents the success of various efforts to instigate a so-called “third Maidan” (the latest effort was made by M. Saakashvili). According to various sociological surveys, no Ukrainian political leader currently has a majority approval rating (that is, the majority of respondents do not trust any political leaders). Not one of the most prominent politicians has a rating of complete or even relative confidence above 30%. Disappointment is not a new phenomenon for us (I have already mentioned the emotional swings of the political moods of Ukrainians), but such a large jump in distrust is unprecedented in the years since Ukrainian independence. Earlier, confidence in certain political leaders replaced distrust of others; if this tendency continues, it may bring about anti-institutional political movements or fundamental shifts in the political system. However, it is possible that this problem will be at least partially and temporarily resolved by the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019.

The consequence of the political disappointment and distrust of the majority of citizens is a tendency towards estrangement from politics. According to the above-mentioned surveys by the Razumkov Centre, only 5% of Ukrainian citizens are ‘very interested’ in politics (when compared with the annual surveys of the Ukrainian Institute for Sociology, this is the lowest percentage since independence), 32.7% are ‘moderately interested’, 43.1% are ‘not very interested’, and 17.2% are ‘not at all interested’. In comparison, in earlier surveys, the average proportion of those who were very interested in politics was close to 10% (according to the results of annual surveys by the Ukrainian Institute for Sociology), and in years of political upheaval (2005, 2014) it approached 20% (this was the highest percentage in Europe, according to comparative studies). Particularly high instances of political estrangement can be observed in the younger population. According to a survey conducted by the GFK company in July-August of 2017, 65% of young Ukrainians (ages 14-29) are either not at all or not very interested in politics. Sociologists predict a decrease in voter turnout at the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 (in comparison with the 2014 elections).

In my subjective view, there have been observable signs of socio-political neurosis in many of our fellow citizens in the last several years—a sickly psychological reaction (from aggressive manifestations to a total estrangement from politics) to political situations which traumatizes our consciousness. This is the result of the war, of revolutionary and post-revolutionary upheaval, and of sharp emotional fluctuations (from extraordinarily positive expectations to devastating disappointments). This is undoubtedly an alarming diagnosis; however, it should not be read apocalyptically. Contemporary Ukrainian society continually demonstrates its ability to emerge worthily from crisis situations. An exigent demand for democratic renewal persists, and Ukraine continues to move forward in the face of each new problem and hardship.'

Volodymyr Fesenko

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