Yermolenko: Ukraine as ‘Tabula Rasa’

New Eastern Europe has published a very interesting interview with philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko.

A few snippets:

Some countries are ruled by military juntas, Russia is ruled by the KGB and Ukraine, I believe, is in fact ruled by a corrupt conglomerate made up of the judiciary, prosecution and the police. The army in Ukraine has been very weak for a long time and we did not really have intelligence services, so the police and judiciary took advantage of this power void and took over the country. These institutions are successfully reproducing through family ties and thanks to universities such as Odesa Law Academy run by Serhiy Kivalov (former chief of the State Election Commission under President Kuchma and head of the High Council of Justice under President Yanukovych). Unfortunately, reforms aimed at increasing the independence of judiciary encouraged by European institutions have only lead to strengthening of this judiciary and prosecution mafia. These changes were designed in accordance with models supported by the Council of Europe and based on Montesquieu’s idea that a judiciary can only be just if it is independent. However, in Ukraine the independence of the judiciary has simply meant that this corrupt system continues without challenge. As a result we are now in a deep crisis and it is hard to say what we can do about it.

[. . .]

Ukrainian populism differs from that in the West. Populist[s] in the West attempt to present a “leftist” problem using right wing political vocabulary. […] [S]starting from the 1980s [left-wing parties] embraced neo-liberalism and began to cooperate with big business and subsequently there are no proper socialist parties to represent the workers anymore. So the field traditionally occupied by socialists or labour parties was taken over by marginal forces. Voters were offered simple solutions by the radical right. These solutions are usually based on nostalgia (note the slogan “Make America great again”) and propose limiting migration and international trade.

It cannot work this way in Ukraine simply because we do not have a lost golden age, unlike Italians, Poles, Americans and others. Our past was so bad that we cannot aspire to recreate it. This is the difference between us and Russia, by the way. In Russia they believe that the past was glorious and they are trying to recreate the Soviet era which does not make sense to Ukrainians. Even Ukraine’s post-Soviet elite understood this. So Zelenskyy came with the promise of a great future, not a great past. Ukrainians liked this message very much, although it was a very naive, even childish.

[. . .]

Ukraine doesn’t have this great golden age myth that it can recreate. There are elements of the Cossack myth which Ukrainian army volunteers refer to partially. But in general Ukraine is a tabula rasa. This can be an advantage. We can build a country with a new beginning here. And Zelenskyy used this promise in his campaign.

[. . .]

We used to have the Maidan, the anti-Maidan and now it turns out that the non-Maidan is the majority. Looking back we can say that this development was inevitable. Pro-Russia and pro-democracy groups in Ukrainian society only make up around 40 per cent of the population. The rest are simply not interested in these questions. Their priorities are somewhere else.

In the end I came to the conclusion that Zelenskyy’s campaign success was based not only on his slogans but also various memes. The difference here is that slogans aim at mobilisation, whilst memes help you laugh and relax. They gave the voter this satisfaction of laughing at everything.

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