The joker becomes king: what happened in the Ukrainian election and why Chantal Mouffe might also vote for Zelenskiy
By Lisa J Walters, on 14 May 2019
Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke” – Will Rogers, American actor 1879-1935
It has been almost a century since American actor Will Rogers made that observation about US politics, yet in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections such a description has proved to be even more apt. Often referred to off the record as some kind of ‘Wonderland’, in Ukraine the roles of joker and king are now both being performed by just one person. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a popular comedian, who’s been mocking politicians on stage for the past two decades, is the new President of Ukraine.
It all started with a TV show, The Servant of the People, where Zelenskiy plays a history teacher, who following an impassioned rant against corruption which went viral, much to everyone’s surprise, not least his own, becomes President of Ukraine. The real-life Zelenskiy says in the show he was portraying his pipe dream for Ukraine ─ a dream of an honest man becoming President and really changing the country for the better. Then people around him started talking. Why not try and make that dream come true? Imagine all the Ukrainian people, joining him in that dream? And though Zelenskiy may be a dreamer, after gaining over 73% of the votes in the second round of the Presidential elections, it’s clear he’s not the only one.
By Lisa J Walters, on 10 May 2019
On May 25th 2014, following the events of Euro Maidan, ‘Chocolate King’ Petro Poroshenko was elected President of Ukraine in the first round of voting. Purely by coincidence, I spent the day visiting the ghost town of Pripyat and the Chernobyl exclusion zone. On the way to our destination we stopped at a service station, which seemed rather busy considering it was at the side of an otherwise deserted highway. The reason for the commotion was a brief visit to use the facilities by another presidential candidate on his way to Kyiv with his death stare firmly set on the main prize. Standing at a urinal next to Darth Vader, leader of the short-lived ‘Internet Party of Ukraine’, was just one of the many times when I realised that every time I start to think I understand, I’m only setting myself up for the next reminder that in Ukraine you really never do know what you’re going to get.
By Claudia S Roland, on 9 May 2019
Sasha Dovzhyk recently completed her PhD in English and Comparative Literature at Birkbeck. She is now a Wellcome Trust-funded postdoctoral researcher at Birkbeck School of Arts exploring the tropes of disease in the arts of Decadence. Here she discusses the symposium Depicting Donbas (25–26 April 2019), a joint initiative between UCL SSEES and Birkbeck.
Poets and writers, theatre directors and performers, documentary photographers, historians, and literary scholars: the participants of the symposium Depicting Donbas (25–26 April) represented a truly cross-disciplinary congregation. What united them was the recognition of the ongoing war in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, essential for their creative practice and academic work. They were invited to London by the symposium’s organisers, Molly Flynn (Birkbeck) and Uilleam Blacker (UCL SSEES), to advance our understanding of the European war which has already taken 13,000 lives. As we mark five years since the annexation of Crimea and the launch of Russian military campaign in Donbas, this symposium could not but be more urgent.
East European liberals’ accommodation of ethnic nationalism has left the region’s democratic institutions vulnerable
By Sean L Hanley, on 18 March 2019
Less than a decade ago the newer EU member states of East Central Europe (ECE) were considered the great success story of post-communist democratisation. This success was held up by scholars as a textbook illustration of how the EU, through the attractiveness of its political and economic model, and the toughness of accession conditions, could make a decisive difference by empowering pro-European liberals in the region’s shakier democracies to push their countries firmly on track to liberal democracy (and EU membership).
While poorer and more corrupt than the EU’s West European core, ECE was assumed to be a region safe for democracy with good long-term prospects for economic and political catch-up. Today this narrative of democratic progress is dead, replaced by one of democratic backsliding – and even sliding into authoritarianism – under the auspices of populist and nationalist politicians.
What has been especially disconcerting is that it has been the early frontrunners of democratization – Hungary and Poland – where such democratic backsliding has gone farthest and fastest: after winning decisive election victories (Fidesz in Hungary in 2010, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland in 2015) conservative-nationalist governing parties have moved rapidly to dismantle liberal checks and balances, capturing or neutralising constitutional courts, state agencies, public (and in Hungary private) media and NGOs.
More strikingly still, Fidesz and PiS were not radical outsiders emerging from the fringes, but large right-wing parties once considered part of a pro-Western centre-right mainstream, whose representatives still sit with German Christian Democrats and British Conservatives in the European Parliament. Read the rest of this entry »
PLAYING WITH FIRE: The 2018 March of Independence in Warsaw as a ritual of national identity building.
By Lisa J Walters, on 23 January 2019
On 11 November 2018 Poland was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its independence. The holiday attracted a lot of attention, both inside and outside the country, not only because it was a commemoration of a major milestone in the nation’s history, but also because in previous years, particularly in 2017, it was dominated by the massive March of Independence organized by a coalition of far right groups. In some years, particularly during the PO’s (Platforma Obywatelska – Civic Platform) term in office, aggressive football hooligans, often expressing radical nationalism, vandalised the streets and attacked their opponents or journalists.
The question many were asking in 2018 was how the day was going to turn out, bearing in mind the significance of the centenary. Would it be a joyful celebration of national pride dominated by stately parades and leisurely outings in a festively decorated city? Or – again – a day to be remembered for threatening columns of young ultranationalists parading in unison, occasionally under neo-fascist banners, and propounding a menacing, narrow vision of Polishness?
We have just published an article in which we describe and analyse the history of Polish Independence Day, particularly since the fall of communism. The holiday, established in 1937, was banned by the Nazis and Communists and reinstated in 1989. In the post-1989 period it has come to be regarded as the most important day in the national ceremonial calendar. While following the gradual change in the event’s organization, décor, performative style, and ideology, we have become intrigued by what we have eventually conceptualized as the “symbolic hijacking” of the day by several extreme right-wing organizations.
By Lisa J Walters, on 20 September 2018
Dr Daniel Brett, Teaching Fellow in Social and Political Science, UCL SSEES
Romania has experienced large anti-government protests on multiple occasions in the last few years, most recently in August this year. Yet as Daniel Brett explains, the achievements of these protests have been modest and short-lived, with the country’s ruling Social Democratic Party still maintaining power. He highlights that while the protesters and opposition parties may be united in their opposition to corruption, they have radically different views on social and economic issues, hampering their ability to change the direction of Romanian politics.
By Sean L Hanley, on 25 July 2018
Ivan Krastev recently argued that East Central Europe’s liberals had made the error of taking an anti-nationalist stance from some point in the late 1990s. This, argued Krastev, occurred when the region’s liberals drew the lesson from the wars in the former Yugoslavia that all nationalism leads inevitably to bloodshed and violence.
By following the German example of avoiding public displays of flag-waving and treating nationalism as a creed that ‘dare not speak its name’, he claims, these liberals unwittingly forced moderate nationalists into the ‘illiberal camp’, opening the door for the illiberal backsliding that blights the region today.
This would be a compelling story – if it bore any resemblance to the actual behaviour of East Central European liberals in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
But it doesn’t. Anti-nationalism hasn’t been tried and failed in East Central Europe, it has never been tried.
In the 1990s, much as today, the most significant barrier to the realisation of an inclusive, pluralistic vision of liberal democracy was the taken-for-granted idea that the national state is the property of and instrument for titular national majorities. Both the EU and their liberal partners in Central and Eastern Europe knew this, yet both opted to accommodate ethnic nationalism at the time rather than oppose it. Read the rest of this entry »
By Lisa J Walters, on 11 June 2018
This speech was delivered at the European Parliament, ‘Belarus: The Voice of Civil Society’, 5 June 2018
Belarus is changing. It is changing in ways that help European engagement. But, just to be clear, the one area where change is minimal is probably where we want to see it the most, in the political sphere. The label ‘Last Dictatorship in Europe’ may be out-of-date, but Belarus is not about to become a democracy any time soon.
No, what is driving change is sovereignty. First is the logic of sovereignty, which has been operative for some time; but often belated or delayed by political factors, namely Belarus’s formerly close relationship with Russia. Second is the threat to sovereignty since the Ukraine crisis in 2014; though partly this can be traced back to the war in Georgia in 2008.
President Lukashenka’s primary motives are regime survival and personal survival. He is pushing changes for instrumental reasons. Nevertheless, these changes are significant across four main areas: cultural policy, foreign policy, security policy and economic policy. Change, as I said at the top, has been least noticeable in domestic politics. However, in order to achieve Belarus’s goals in the other areas, there is some change even there.
All of this is done slowly. But the cumulative change is great. And arguably, this may take Belarus just as far away from Russia as Ukraine in the long-run.