Welcome to Ukraine: Wild West of Populist Politics

03/06/2015 09:46 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015
Ismail Akin Bostanci via Getty Images

In the wake of revolution and the midst of war, Ukrainian politics is becoming increasingly more volatile. Intent on proving their anti-establishment bona fides, public figures are turning to firebrand populism in an effort to bolster their own "authenticity" and folksiness. In a sense, the rise of populist politics and accompanying "anti-elitist" rhetoric comes as no surprise: for years, Ukraine has been dominated by influential tycoons, known locally as "oligarchs." Such oligarchs command vast economic resources and have greased the political machinery in Kiev since the breakup of the old Soviet Union.

In light of civil unrest which gripped Ukraine last year, populists just might strike a chord. Indeed, during protests on Maidan square which eventually toppled the unpopular government of Viktor Yanukovych, demonstrators called for anti-corruption measures which stood to curtail the power of oligarchs. Petro Poroshenko, who came to power in national elections held in May, has promised to root out corruption. Such claims are subject to doubt, however, since Poroshenko himself is a well-known oligarch.

Within such a polarizing political milieu, as well as deep economic malaise which has plagued the country, it is likely that anti-oligarchic populism will flourish. "Promising to combat the oligarchs," notes Foreign Policy magazine, "is a popular demand among nearly all Ukrainian voters, from the liberal left to the nationalist right." Prior to the recent power shakeup in Kiev, key populists were relegated to the political fringe. Now, however, their star seems to have risen. Andreas Umland, a professor of European Studies at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, says the surge in populism underscores a kind of "helplessness and despair." Speaking to Foreign Policy, the academic remarked, "The established parties don't seem to have the answer to dealing with Russia and the separatists. So, many want to see new faces and tough approaches."

Ukraine in Populist Perspective

One key figure who exemplifies the new firebrand populist spirit is Oleh Lyashko of the Radical Party. Largely unknown before the recent crisis, Lyashko has since rocketed to fame. Indeed, the politician came in third during Ukraine's presidential election with eight percent of the vote, and the Radical Party scored 22 seats in a recent parliamentary election. A high-flying ultra-nationalist who charters private flights around Ukraine, Lyashko has developed a loyal following amongst anti-Russian young men. The combative populist employs incendiary and bombastic rhetoric whilst labeling his opponents "traitors."

In many ways, Lyashko typifies classic-style populism. In Latin America, many populists stress their own personal, messianic struggle and deride vaguely defined powerful interests in an effort to identify with the masses. They frequently come out of the military or adopt a militaristic, virile or macho style. Masters of psychological manipulation and demagoguery, they rely on the media and employ symbolism and mass rallies to bind the leader to political followers in a paternalistic manner. For populists, speaking colloquially and employing an over the top rhetorical style can be highly important.

While Latin American populism is not necessarily identified with the right, its leaders tend to emphasize nationalism as a core element. At other times, populists may employ anti-imperialist rhetoric. Though populists may carry out some progressive change once they get into power and favor the working and middle classes, they are never truly revolutionary. Because populism is often times ideologically inchoate, some have defined the political phenomenon as more of a style of organizing than a concrete set of principles. Generally speaking, populists tend to thrive in periods of acute political crisis and cast themselves as saviors. In fact, some even project a kind of martyr psychological complex.

In the U.S. meanwhile, populism has typically assumed two separate forms: left wing and right wing. The first directs its ire against speculators, while the second targets immigrants, blacks, the unemployed, and others -- groups that are perceived to be depriving the hard working class of its rightful money. Sometimes, these two populist forms appear together. The white working class, which is embattled and may see itself under threat from both above and below, may be particularly susceptible to populist overtures.

Rise of Lyashko

If anything, recent developments in Ukraine ranging from war to revolution favor an even more extreme style of populist politics. Responding to the country's crisis, Lyashko frequently dons military fatigues and is known for his many appearances on TV talk shows. The New York Times notes that Lyashko "has the knack for self-promotion of a radio shock jock. He has dumped a truckload of potatoes outside the prime minister's office in support of Ukrainian farmers [and] tried to bring a cow into Parliament for a point about rural land rights."

Moreover, Lyashko recently found himself in the midst of a physical brawl in parliament no less. When a lawmaker accused the populist of traveling to the eastern conflict zone as a mere PR stunt, Lyashko charged that his colleague had ignored the challenging conditions faced by Ukrainian soldiers. "Look at this pot-bellied fatty," the macho Lyashko declared. "Instead of going to the Donbass and helping our guys, people like him go to parliament and raise their hands." The heated rhetoric prompted Lyashko's opponent to promptly hit him in the face.

A More Ominous Face of Populism

Sometimes Lyashko's antics can veer into more ominous territory. The populist has led vigilante-style squads into eastern Ukraine so as to capture rebel leaders and humiliate them in front of the camera. In one case, Lyashko captured the so-called Defense Minister of the Donetsk People's Republic. In the back of a car, the populist proceeded to interrogate the man, who was clad solely in boxer shorts. In a video, Lyashko accuses the man --- who displays cuts on his arms and legs --- of being a traitor and a terrorist. In another case, Lyaskho accused a local police chief of collaboration and then asked, "Should I shoot you now or later?" Needless to say, human rights groups say Lyashko's tactics amount to kidnapping.

Furthermore, any hint that Lyashko might veer toward the progressive populism end of the spectrum is belied by his support for the infamous Azov Battalion, a volunteer brigade fighting Russian separatists in the east. The outfit espouses far right nationalism, and is reportedly run by an extremist patriot group which considers Jews and other ethnic minorities to be "sub-human." The Azov Battalion has called for a white Christian crusade against such minorities, and sports Nazi symbols on its insignia.

Psychological Packaging

Like many other classic populists, Lyashko is careful to project a kind of "common man" image. Though he is university educated, Lyashko speaks simplified and colloquial Ukrainian which he admits to playing up for effect. "Why do people support me?" he asks rhetorically. "Because they see that I'm the same as they are," he said. "This is a secret of our ratings, because you need to communicate with people in a way they will understand." Lyashko adds, "My performance might look plainer, maybe primitive to some point. Better I be a populist than to be the authorities who are desperately different from people, and don't understand people's problems and how to solve them."

In the search for authenticity, Lyashko has adopted the three-pronged Ukrainian pitch fork, a traditional symbol of peasant protest. The pitchfork underscores Lyashko's desire to jab at his opponents and his stated intention of ridding the country of oligarchic influence. At political rallies, Lyaskho's rural supporters frequently carry such farming equipment. The populist views country folk as his principle base of support in opposition to big business and the oligarchs. Unlike other politicians, Lyashko claims that his electoral campaigns are mostly funded through small donations.

Oligarchs and Populists

Whether Lyashko is really so anti-establishment in practice is subject to debate, however. Critics accuse him of lambasting oligarchs while simultaneously taking money from tycoons so as to finance his campaigns. Meanwhile, the populist is a frequent guest on Inter TV channel, which is owned by an anti-Poroshenko oligarch named Dmytro Firtash.

Perhaps, Lyashko has simply opted to ally with certain oligarchic interests while conveniently criticizing others. The populist favors nationalizing oil and gas businesses owned by Igor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who has risen to power in the wake of the Maidan revolution which displaced tycoons such as Firtash [Kolomoisky in turn has invested in 1+1 Media group, an outlet which launched an investigation into Lyashko showing the populist enjoys a lavish lifestyle including Mercedes, private jet and luxurious private home].

It's unclear what's behind such tit-for-tat feuding and murky oligarchic politics, but it does seem Lyaskho has cultivated some powerful enemies. Reportedly, the state security service has warned him of a planned assassination plot. "Ukrainian oligarchs have ordered my killing," declares Lyashko, accusing Kolomoisky of personally seeking his liquidation. Kolomoisky hasn't commented on the allegations, but his deputy regularly attacks Lyashko on Facebook, accusing the populist of being a "fighting faggot."

Populism and Machismo

Rumors about Lyashko's homosexuality go back some time, and have apparently hit home. "Homosexuality," notes the New York Times, is "not well tolerated in Ukrainian society." An interesting academic article, meanwhile, adds that homosexuality is essentially taboo and may even spell political poison in post-Maidan Ukraine. The authors note that the radical right is distinguished by "social conservatism, heterosexism, and populist nationalism."

It was "ethno-nationalism," the authors declare, which helped to build up political cohesiveness at the Maidan and foster a broad alliance "from the radical left to the extreme right." Sensitive to allegations which might undermine his macho image, Lyashko has bent over backward to refute claims over his personal life. Indeed, the populist even posted a Facebook photo of himself appearing shirtless in a romantic pose with his wife, and he has even gone on television shows in which he judges women's breasts no less.

Inchoate Ideology

Like other populists, Lyaskho's ideology is difficult to pin down. Historically, the politician has stood up for small business, higher pensions and social benefits. Lyashko supports so-called "radical reforms" including an end to government corruption and greater taxes on the wealthy. On the military front, the populist would like Ukraine to join NATO and, somewhat improbably, to undertake nuclear rearmament. Lyashko also wants his country to join the EU but not to borrow too much from the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.). "The wish list is long," notes the New York Times, "with few explanations of how to afford or accomplish it."

Whether or not Lyashko can sustain his party in the long-term is unclear, though in the short-term the populist seems to have shrewdly maneuvered through his country's political landscape. Like many of his competitors Lyashko favors closer European integration, though he has separated himself from the rest by fusing such pledges with folksy, anti-oligarchic populism. What is more, Lyashko has benefited from the decline of some other rightist/nationalist outfits such as Svoboda [during the Yanukovych era, the party positioned itself as anti-establishment but has had difficulty finding its footing in the post-Maidan milieu].

How do we explain the political success of Lyashko, who up until fairly recently hadn't achieved much notoriety? For answers, I catch up with Anton Shekhovtsov, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and an expert on Ukrainian politics. Populism, he explains, means offering "simple solutions to complex problems. It's more of a rhetorical style than a set of beliefs. Lyaskho himself has no ideology. People are frightened because of the war and they feel helpless in the face of Russian aggression. As a result, they find comfort in Lyashko's simplistic slogans."

The Activist Perspective

Meanwhile, on the independent left circuit, many view the emergence of populism with ironic dismay. During a recent research trip to Kiev, I caught up with Denis Pilash, a Maidan veteran who cut his teeth as a political activist with Direct Action student labor union. During protests on the Maidan, he and his colleagues distributed leaflets calling for a ban on offshore money laundering. Over time, Pilash tells me, protest on the Maidan took on a distinctly anti-authoritarian streak and it was not uncommon to hear people chanting "All politicians out!"

It's important to distinguish between opportunistic anti-oligarchic populists and those who genuinely sought to rein in the powerful on Maidan square. In fact, Pilash says, many demonstrators called for punitive measures against Ukrainian oligarchs and the powerful, and hoped to put an end to the corrupt and incestuous alliance between business and government. Moreover, activists sought to shed light on privatization initiatives so as to reveal the true extent of what had been stolen.

It is ironic that populists try to capture the spirit of Maidan and leftist sentiment while simultaneously adopting many of the trappings of right wing politics. Lyashko, Pilash says, "speaks as if he's this guy who tells the truth with lots of nationalist rhetoric." On the other hand, Pilash adds, Lyashko isn't necessarily so unique because in Ukraine "there's no clear division between populists and establishment." To a greater or lesser extent, all domestic politics lacks coherent ideology.

What's more, populism may derail popular struggle and many of the progressive hopes expressed at Maidan. Pilash says the mere term "populism" can serve as a convenient foil for political elites. "When you say anything about real social needs you are labeled a populist," the activist declares. "If you're for free education you're a populist. If you say 'power to the people,' you are labeled a populist. 'Direct democracy' and you are labeled a populist."

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based political writer who recently conducted a research trip to Ukraine.