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Populism in Europe and Ukraine

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Photo: Populism in the European and American tradition. Source: Collage the Gaze
Photo: Populism in the European and American tradition. Source: Collage the Gaze

The current socio-political situation in many democratic countries is characterized by the spread of a phenomenon that one of the leading US analysts and journalists, John Judis, has called the "Big Bang of Populism." The term "populism" is also widely used in Ukraine. However, the Ukrainian understanding of populism is somewhat different from the classical Western European and American understanding of this concept.

Without diving into the depths of theoretical debates about approaches and criteria for defining populism, we will take the liberty of following the majority of researchers and asserting that the foundation for any political populism is a radical opposition between us - the "people", "ordinary people", "ordinary citizens" and them - the "elite", "authorities", "fat cats", "establishment", "nomenklatura", "bureaucracy", etc. 

Moreover, "populists" consider themselves to be the sole representatives of the interests of the people, if not the people themselves, and often appeal to the legitimacy they have gained as a reason to act "in the interests of the people," regardless of any political and legal norms and even contrary to these norms. This leads to one of the most dangerous features of populism - a radical and categorical denial of the ability of existing political institutions (both organizations and procedures) to change the state of affairs and force the state to act in the interests of "people."

Moreover, the interests of "people" are understood undifferentiated, as if all people have identical interests that are fundamentally different from the same undifferentiated interests of "authorities". Often, populists supplement the opposition "people - government" with another element, in whose interests the "government" allegedly acts. These can be migrants, transnational corporations, or the "Brussels bureaucracy."

Ukrainian Populism

In Ukrainian realities, in contrast to the established European and American practice, the term "populism" is used much more widely. 

Certainly, the opposition between "people" and "government" is as characteristic of Ukrainian populism as it is of European or American populism. However, in Ukraine, it is often enough to be labeled a "populist" simply by advocating any policy that is socially oriented, such as raising pensions, improving the quality of education or health care, regardless of how realistic it may be to achieve these goals in the current socio-economic or socio-political environment. 

This overly broad understanding of populism in Ukraine, in fact, gives grounds to consider virtually all political forces as "populists", although from the perspective of the American or European understanding, of course, not all Ukrainian politicians and parties are populists, despite the fact that they all tend to make unrealistic promises to potential voters in the heat of political struggle.

At one time, analysts of the Ukrainian information resource Slovo i Dilo, including the author of this article, proposed their own criteria for determining certain statements of politicians as populists. 

First of all, populist statements were considered to be those that were driven by politicians' desire to gain support by promising to satisfy unjustified expectations and excessive desires of potential voters, regardless of the possibility of their realization in reality. For example, to set a minimum wage like in Germany or the United States. 

Second, populist statements and promises were considered to be those made by a politician or high-ranking official whose powers and competence do not include solving the declared tasks. For example, members of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine do not have the powers of either investigative or judicial bodies, and therefore cannot "put all corrupt officials in jail," as is often said in their statements.

Thirdly, a populist statement is one that contains a promise that does not coincide with the term of office of the politician making it. It is hardly worth taking seriously a statement by a minister about what will be done in 10-15 years, since it is quite obvious that the term of office is much shorter. 

And the fourth criterion is the lack of specifics, which makes it impossible to verify the results, as was the case with the statement of a former Ukrainian official: "to bring the roads back to normal". 

From this perspective, it turns out that almost all Ukrainian (and not only Ukrainian) politicians who are guilty of making promises that are impossible to fulfill in order to win voter support are populists. However, this understanding of populism is not identical to the understanding of this phenomenon in Europe and the United States.

On a Collision Course

Be that as it may, the understanding of populism in Ukraine and in Europe is not mutually exclusive. It can be said that European and American populism is the next step in a situation where the inability or unwillingness of the existing political elite to solve the problems that concern the majority of people becomes visible to the naked eye. This is when fertile ground for speculation about a confrontation between the "people" who demand change and the "elite" who do not want these changes or are unable to implement them arises.

Interestingly, in fact, populists in the Ukrainian sense of the word, by creating inadequate expectations with their often unrealistic promises, pave the way for American and European populists, as they repeatedly sow disbelief in people's ability and willingness of the "elite" to meet the demands of society, and sometimes even create these inadequate expectations in society. Thus, despite certain differences in approaches to understanding the phenomenon of populism, it is not only quite widespread in Europe and Ukraine, but also tends to become more and more widespread.


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