יום שני, 4 ביולי 2016

The eastern weakness for a ‘political savior’

In Ukraine, voters latch onto unlikely figures to ‘fix the country.’

Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko is surrounded by media upon her arrival at Kyiv Boryspil Airport on May 25, 2016 | Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

KIEV, Ukraine — When Nadiya Savchenko, Putin’s most famous political prisoner, stepped foot on Ukrainian soil for the first time in two years, she was overwhelmed by the media frenzy. “Back off!” she snapped at the horde of reporters circling her like prey, just minutes after she landed at Kiev airport. The country is hungry for its next political star, whether Savchenko — the most disruptive force in Ukrainian politics since the 1990s — is ready for the role or not. Her meteoric rise is part of a never-ending story of chronic political instability across Europe.

If they’re honest, not many Ukrainians know much about their newfound hero. Her biography is impressive. She joined the army at 16, the only female soldier in the Ukrainian peacekeeping troops in Iraq in the mid-2000s, and became the first Ukrainian female pilot to fly a military jet. After the Maidan protests in 2014, Savchenko was one of the first volunteers to fight back against the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine at a time when her country’s army had collapsed in disarray. Still, it was not until she was reportedly kidnapped by Russian troops that she became a household name in Ukraine.

Savchenko faced trial in Moscow on charges of complicity in the killing of two Russian journalists. Internationally recognized as a political prisoner, her arrest came to symbolize the fate of Ukraine as a whole, captive to a more powerful neighbor in an undeclared, covert war. Regular Ukrainians watched the televised court proceedings and could not help but see their entire country held hostage in that Russian courtroom, publicly humiliated and harassed as the world watched on in silence. When Putin pardoned Savchenko and sent her home in a prisoner swap deal, the country had already made her an icon — without knowing very much about her at all.

Savchenko has entered Ukrainian politics on uniquely uncompetitive terms. Her charisma — reminiscent of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the late 1990s — is her greatest asset. She was elected to parliament in absentia as part of Tymoshenko’s party list in 2014, thanks to a procedural trick. The main goal was to increase her bargaining power in the fight for her freedom. Savchenko avoided the political turmoil that saw leading political figures’ ratings plummet when the country’s reformist expectations were squashed post-revolution.

Savchenko could become the country’s next leader or, equally, disappear from the political horizon in a flash.

Once-popular reformist figures such as Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko or Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavičius were booted out of government in reaction to a revanchist comeback by pro-oligarch forces. Georgian ex-president and current Odessa governor Mikheil Saakashvili, who used to lead polls, also faces brutal obstruction from the new government. President Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s approval rating have plummeted.

That’s why Savchenko’s euphoric return to Ukraine was met with skepticism and fear by the political elite. Poroshenko resorted to a classic power move by not showing up to meet her at the airport, and sending a security detail to escort her right to the presidential headquarters for a ‘joint press-conference’ instead. Savchenko has been ridiculed on social media for her somewhat rough way of speaking and for walking around the parliament barefoot.

Ukrainian political elites would like nothing more than to paint her as a laughable character, a woman completely unsuited for politics. But the strategy has, arguably, misfired. Savchenko’s outsider appeal has only increased. Not unlike Donald Trump, she has capitalized on her position as a figure so completely outside the political mainstream as to be honest and unsullied by the dirty game. “Top Ukrainian politicians are scared of her unpredictability and refusal to play by the rules,” prominent Ukrainian journalist Iryna Slavinska tells me.

The Ukrainian public’s sky-high expectations of Savchenko are borne of their frustration with a lack of reform. Ukraine’s scorched-earth political landscape has offered no new leaders to choose from. “People feel like she can wave her right hand and liberate Donbass, wave her left hand and defeat corruption. But when you have the chance to speak to her, you can see that she is a great, interesting and charismatic person, but also just a human being,” said Alex Ryabchyn, a leading figure in Savchenko’s Motherland party.

Savchenko has already set her political goals. At a press conference just two days after her return, she hit all the sweet spots. The war must end, she said, and the state needs to negotiate with Russia and the separatists; the government has failed the people when it comes to reforms and is back to its old business of corruption; prices are too high and the oligarchs are robbing the country of its future. “Ukrainians, if you need me to be your president, I’ll be the president. To be honest, I won’t say that I want to be. I love to fly. But if I need to, I’ll do everything, I’ll go down this road,” Savchenko told her countrymen that day.

Savchenko could become the country’s next leader or, equally, disappear from the political horizon in a flash. She has no political experience. She hasn’t yet faced a single political test. Her rise is symptomatic of Ukrainian voters’ predisposition to personality politics. Ukraine has seen many Savchenkos since it gained independence in 1991. From “founding father” Vyacheslav Chornovil and Tymoshenko in the 1990s, to presidents Viktor Yushchenko, Viktor Yanukovych, and Petro Poroshenko in the 2000s, Ukraine’s most popular politicians promise to “fix the country” but fail to translate their political charisma into successful policies.

The public has not yet learned from its mistakes, and continues to vote for personality over political platforms. So, over the last 25 years, Ukrainians keep electing “saviors,” the saviors fail them, pressing reforms stall, and the general public frustration and impatience adds up. As a result, the country’s revolution cycles became shorter and shorter, as voters eagerly push one promising politician after another to the top and then tear them down again in a matter of months. It took President Yushchenko two years after the Orange Revolution to fully lose his public support. The popularity of the People’s Front, once the leading post-Maidan party, evaporated within six months of the 2014 elections.

Ukraine is not unique in its tendency to fall into the voting trap of political personalities: The Soviet Union’s toxic political legacy still poisons emerging democracies in the region.

When, today, we scratch our heads at the glaring deficit of new political leaders in Ukraine, a country of 42 million after all, we forget how crushing the high expectations of chronically frustrated Ukrainians can be. It’s enough to deter any potential newcomer from wanting to take the helm.

In stark contrast to established political forces in most European countries, Ukrainian political parties or groups are either named after their leaders — Bloc of Petro Poroshenko; Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko — or take on obscure labels that reveal nothing of their ideological alignment, such as Self Reliance, or Motherland. It is not that parties don’t want to develop ideological platforms, there’s simply no demand from voters who are swayed by personality.

Ukraine is not unique in its tendency to fall into the voting trap of political personalities: The Soviet Union’s toxic political legacy still poisons emerging democracies in the region. Almost every country from the former Soviet Union suffers from it one way or another. Some, like several Central Asian countries, have abandoned democracies altogether and are ruled by autocrats.

I hear more and more often from Russian friends, journalists, and activists that they see countless disturbing parallels between modern politics in Ukraine and the politics of pre-Putin Russia. Leonid Ragozin, an independent Russian journalist, noted that there seems to be a demand for “some kind of Putinshenko who will consolidate power in Ukraine and rule it with an iron first.” Voters across Eastern Europe have become cynical after decades of brutal totalitarian regimes and root for modern czars at every level of governance.

In Kiev, a city buzzing with excited chatter of Nadiya Savchenko, I marvel at the region’s willingness to, once again, put personality over political principle, and repeat its mistakes over again.

Maxim Eristavi is a co-founder of Hromadske International news network, based in Kiev.

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