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Eastern Europe: how to be a pessoptimist

By Sean L Hanley, on 15 December 2019

Demonstration in Prague

Photo: Martin2035 [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Three decades after the fall of communism, Eastern Europe’s democratic development is seen in increasingly gloomy terms. However, we may need to find a more pragmatic, middle way in assessing the region, argues Seán Hanley.

The region termed Central Europe or Central and Eastern Europe – the body of small and medium-sized states between the former USSR and the established democracies of Western Europe – was once seen as the great success story of post-communist democratisation:  rapid and peaceful political transition in 1989-90; a quick return to economic growth; flawed but functional liberal democracy; relatively rapid integration into the EU; political elites who seemed, whether out of conviction or pragmatism, willing and able to imitate West European political, economic and ideological models – although these were (and are) diverse, ranging from Nordic style welfare capitalism to British-style deregulation and neo-liberalism.

Since mid-2000s, however, the intellectual climate  among both commentators and political scientists the agenda has shifted from one of understanding consolidation, integration and consolidation or remedying the flaws of stable, but weakly performing post-communist democracy to one of deep gloom.

Now, compared to early hopes of the liberal project, the narrative has become a pessimistic one. Of democratic decline or even backsliding toward authoritarianism. The rejection by voters and elites in Central and Eastern Europe of Western European models – and the EU status quo – as too socially and economically political for their traditions and societies. And of constitutional liberalism as constraining the democratic will of the people, or holding back the emergence of a capable modernising state.  Economic catch-up with Western Europe, especially in terms of the living standards of poorer, older, less educated, seems a chimera.

Populist critics now decry the locking in of Central and Eastern Europe as, once again, an exploited peripheral Europe (including Mediterranean democracies of Southern Europe and the Balkans) – analogous, but on a much bigger scale to the “left behind” marginalised regions within Western European countries, which have fuelled populist electoral insurgencies.

Given ineffective and cumbersome procedures for enforcing the rule-of-law – in what was supposed to a club of liberal-democratic nations – the EU, as R. Daniel Kelemen has suggested, is becoming a patchwork of  regimes encompassing democracies, semi-democracies and downright authoritarian states, hamstrung by North-South and East-West splits.

What is especially jarring is that some of the supposed frontrunners democratisation in the region – Hungary and Poland – are now the vanguard of “democratic backsliding”, conservative counter-revolution and experiments in liberal governance. Some prominent governance indices, such as Freedom House’s ‘Freedom In the World’, now classify Hungary as having slipped below out of the zone of fully liberal democratic ‘Free’ societies. Poland is rapidly heading the same way.

Worse still, some of the treasured mechanisms of building democracy such as civil society development and grassroots activism have turned out work in ways quite opposite to that  envisaged in 1990s. In Hungary and Poland, the electoral breakthroughs of the Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) parties were prefigured years before through the development of networks of conservative civil organisations and right-wing civic initiative at grassroots level.

Moreover, the main vehicles for illiberalism have not been ‘red-brown’ alliances of ex-communists and fringe nationalists, but parties and politicians with often impeccable roots in the anti-communist opposition, accepted by West European centre-right as mainstream conservative parties and political allies.

That said, there are many varieties of populism and democratic decline, ranging from the conservative electoral revolutions of Hungary and Poland, to the longstanding weak, but oddly stable corrupt democracies of Bulgaria and Romania, to the fragmented and feverish political landscapes of  Slovakia and Czechia – and the strange “technocratic populism” of Czechia’s billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš ,who still unsure if he wants to be the Czech Macron or the Czech Trump.

George Orwell’s dictum that “All revolutions are failures, but they are not the same failure” is, unsurprisingly, often quoted these days in relation to East Europe. We could also paraphrase Tolstoy and say that all unhappy democracies are unhappy in their own way. Or we might remember the historians Joseph Rothchild and Nancy  M. Wingfield’s characterisation of the region – made originally after the decline and fall of communism in late 1980s – about Eastern Europe’s “return to diversity”. Read the rest of this entry »

What do you call a Slovenian Chicken?

By Claudia S Roland, on 10 December 2019

Our evening class student, Carol Griffiths, shares her experience of translating a short story from Slovene into English in the Slovene Advanced Plus course.

Here’s our challenge. In our SSEES UCL Advanced Plus Slovene class we were presented with a short story by the writer and activist Suzana Tratnik. Translating it on the surface seemed pretty simple, but Suzana is herself a translator and I would be reading our class’ translation in front her at the 100th anniversary of the University of Ljubljana celebrations at the Slovene Embassy. No pressure there then.

Suzana’s story is a beguiling tale about a hen which begins to speak. The writing which had seemed simple at first glance, proved pretty challenging for us to translate. First we had to pick our way through an evocative description of chicken behaviour, a subject on which we had previously not spent much time. Then we hit the name puzzle. The chicken’s name was Bejla – that translator’s nightmare, a play on words. How can you translate this chicken into English where the word for white is actually white? Eventually we decided to call the bird ‘Whitey’, which captured some of the essence of the Slovene name and felt like a credible option.

Having worked this out we then had a vigorous debate about how to render Slovene chicken-speak into English? Some of us felt that as the original had a clear meaning in Slovene the expression would have to make sense in English; others disagreed and wanted to leave it in the Slovene original.

In the end we opted for a transcreation (‘advertising-land speak’ for adapting a message from one language to another).  This went some way to making sense of the bird’s utterance, but only Suzana really knows if we pulled it off or not!

So it was, like so much translation, a puzzle that needed unpicking.  I love this kind of challenge: working through a text in close detail; divining the author’s intention; trying to ensure that every nuance is acknowledged and captured; and delivering all this in correct and fluent English. For me this really detailed work is a relatively painless way of picking up grammar and is one of the most enjoyable aspects of our Slovene class.

Suzana kindly said that she enjoyed the translation, so I breathed a sigh of relief, picked up a glass of the aptly named Krasno (which I’ll translate here as ‘wonderful’) Slovene wine and toasted my co-translators Maria Jansen, Martin Leeburn, Aidan Rush and Izidor Talampoikas, and our krasna teacher Maja Rančigaj Beneš.

Carol Griffiths

Suzana Tratnik

KO SPREGOVORI BELA KURA

Stara mama je kot furija privihrala v kuhinjo. Naslonila se je na podboj vrat, zajela sapo in z žarečimi očmi vernice izdahnila:

»Bejla je spregovorila.«

Trenutek tišine je pretrgal stari oče: »Kaj pa je rekla?«

»Rekla je beee,« je vneto pojasnjevala stara mama. »In potem še nekaj takega kot teee-beee, ampak s človeškim glasom.«

Oče, mama, stari oče, podnajemnik in jaz smo stekli ven na dvorišče in se vsi ustavili pri kurniku. Obraze smo prislonili tesno ob žičnato ograjo in se zastrmeli v Bejlo, ki je živčno premikala glavo, negotovo stopicljala, kakor da bi ji bilo nerodno pred vsemi človeškimi pogledi izza ograje, in slednjič obstala z eno taco v zraku.

»Poslušajte, poslušajte, ljudje!« je rekla stara mama, ki je prihitela za nami, in tedaj se je bela kura s taco, ki jo je prej molela v zrak, popraskala po svoji ušivi glavi.

»A zdaj pa je ne boš zaklala, stara mama?« sem vprašala.

»Molči, sicer je ne bomo slišali govoriti!« mi je ukazala.

In potem smo še dolgo dolgo tiščali obraze ob žičnato ograjo in čakali, da Bejla ponovno spregovori. Kot nalašč se je sprehajala po kurniku in nas gledala postrani, vedno z leve ali z desne, kot so pač k temu primorane vse kokoši, ki imajo oči ob straneh glave. Včasih je kljunila kakšno zrnce ali smet na tleh, včasih kakšno drugo kuro, ki je od presenečenja zafrfotala s perutmi. Vmes je tudi dvakrat zazehala in pokazala trikotni jeziček, toda spregovorila ni več.

»Dober dan!«

Vsi smo se zdrznili od vzklika za našimi hrbti in nekateri smo se prijeli za srce.

Tam za nami je stal poštar in rekel: »Prišel sem vam samo povedat, da tudi danes ni nič pošte za vašo hišo. Da me ne boste zaman čakali.«

Potem je visoko zavihtel desno nogo, se usedel na svoje vedno bleščeče se moško kolo, se v pozdrav s prstom dotaknil svoje poštarske kape in se odpeljal naprej po ulici.

Mi pa smo zrli za njim z vtisnjenimi sledovi žičnate ograje na obrazih.

Suzana Tratnik

WHEN THE WHITE HEN BEGAN TO SPEAK

Grandmother burst into the kitchen like a fury.

She leant on the door frame, took a deep breath and with the blazing eyes of a believer, gasped: “Whitey has spoken”.

Grandfather broke the moment of silence that followed: “So what did she say?”

“She said meheh,” grandmother excitedly explained. “And then something like meheh-beyey but in a human voice.”

Father, mother, grandfather, the tenant and I ran out into the yard and we all stood by the henhouse. We pressed our faces tightly against the wire fence and stared at Whitey, who was nervously moving her head, stepping uncertainly from one leg to the other, as if she were uncomfortable with all these humans looking through the fence, and finally she stopped, with one foot in the air.

“Listen, listen, everyone,” grandmother said, hurrying after us, whereupon the white hen scratched her lice-ridden head with the foot she had previously held off the ground.

“And now you won’t kill her, grandma?” I asked.

“Quiet, or we won’t hear her speak!” she ordered me.

And then we pressed our faces for a long, long time against the chicken wire and waited for Whitey to speak again. As if on purpose she was walking around the henhouse, looking at us askance, always from the right or left, as all chickens are obliged to do, their eyes being on either side of their heads. Sometimes she pecked at a grain or some scrap on the floor, sometimes she pecked at some other hen, which fluttered her wings, out of surprise. Meanwhile she twice yawned and showed the triangle of her tongue, but spoke no more.

“Hello!”

We all jumped at the shout at our backs and some clutched at their hearts.

There behind us stood the postman, who said “I just came to tell you that there’s no post for you again today. Just so you won’t be waiting in vain.”

Then he swung his right leg high, mounted his always-gleaming bicycle, touched his postman’s cap in farewell, and pedalled off up the road.

We just gazed after him with the mark of the chicken wire imprinted on our faces.

Translated in the SSEES UCL Advanced Plus Slovene course by Carol Griffiths, Maria Jansen, Martin Leeburn, Aidan Rush and Izidor Talampoikas

Democracy up close: Experiencing Election Day in Poland

By Lisa J Walters, on 22 October 2019

By Carolin Heilig, (Current Early Stage Researcher of the FATIGUE project)

There are not many opportunities to experience democracy as directly as on election day. The opportunity to witness the 2019 parliamentary elections in Poland first-hand was an eye-opening experience. Thanks to the European Students’ Network, I was given the chance to join their international election observation mission to Poland.

As an independent, short-term election observer of the European Students’ Network (AEGEE), I experienced the whole election day in Krakow from the setting up of the polling station at 6:30am to the conclusion of the vote count at around 4:00am the next day. The AEGEE mission comprised 12 teams of international observers and local interpreters, covering 104 polling stations all over the country with a special focus on youth participation. The observation guidelines and standards we adopted have been developed by OSCE/ODHIR and the mission included meetings with stakeholders before election day [see here the official AEGEE press release ].

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Syrian refugees in Turkey: a neoliberal approach to integration

By Patryk A Wloch, on 17 October 2019

Dr Dogus Simsek is a Teaching Fellow in Political Sociology at UCL SSEES.

This article was first posted in the Crisis Magazine on 1st of October.

Since 2011, Turkey has received more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. This is almost half of the global Syrian refugee population. In the early phases of the refugee influx, Turkish authorities framed Syrians as ‘guests’ rather than refugees. Under the assumption that the crisis would end quickly – and Syrians would, therefore, return home after short stay – the country adopted an “open door” policy on Syrian migration. While seemingly hospitable, Syrians’ guest status fell outside any legal definition in international refugee policies. Although Turkey signed the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Additional Protocol on the status of refugees, the country applies a geographical limitation that excluded Syria. For Syrians in Turkey today, this means international asylum rights don’t apply.

What does apply to them is the Temporary Protection (TP) regime the Turkish government adopted in October, 2011. This ensured all Syrians humanitarian assistance and the right to a limitless duration of stay in Turkey. It also confirmed adherence to the principle of non-refoulement, the idea that refugees must not be returned to a country where they would be in likely danger of persecution. Given the dangers of return, this Temporary Protection regime gave Syrians registered as refugees in Turkey access to healthcare and protection from forced return. Managing this scheme became the responsibility of the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM), a body that works under the authority of The Ministry of Interior. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of August 2019 there were 3,649,750 Syrian refugees registered in Turkey under this protection program. It’s estimated that an additional 500,000 Syrians are living in Turkey, unregistered.

In April, 2014, Turkey adopted a new Law on Foreigners and International Protection that further elaborated the Temporary Protection status of Syrians in Turkey. This law focused on guaranteeing that Syrians could not be returned to Syria until safe conditions and access to fundamental rights there were guaranteed (non-refoulement). In addition, the rights of Syrian nationals in Turkey came to include lawful stay in Turkey until the Syrian conflict was over. Furthermore, access to health care, education, and social assistance were guaranteed. This even included, for example, home care assistance to families with a disabled relative. Under this law, access to the labour market was also granted as a right, and the task of enforcing this was delegated to the Ministry of Social Security and Work. An additional regulation was then issued in 2016, which allowed registered Syrian refugees to apply for work permits, in a step to formalize Syrian labour and enable access to workers’ rights.

However, accessing work permits remained difficult and depended upon employers’ willingness to offer contracts. As a result, the number of work permits granted to Syrian refugees remains low according to the latest figures made available. From the 1st of January, 2016 to the 30th of September, 2018, only 27,930 work permits were issued to Syrian workers, with 25,457 permits going to men and 2,473 to women. The majority of Syrians in Turkey reside in towns and cities rather than in refugee camps, and their populations are primarily concentrated in the governorates bordering Syria and large metropolitan areas. There, they struggle to access adequate accommodation, social services and job opportunities.

The reality for most Syrians in Turkey remains that they work in an informal economy without social security, faced with exploitation and lack safe working conditions. They are overworked and underpaid, with no social security or pension rights. Syrians primarily work in the largely informal agricultural and textile sectors, and with few safety protections. According to figures from the Worker Health and Safety Council (İşçi Sağlığı ve İş Güvenliği Meclisi), 108 refugees lost their lives in work-related accidents in 2018. In turn, Syrians’ low socio-economic status leads to their relative exclusion from wider Turkish society. Syrians who work in the informal market face difficulties building bridges with the Turkish working class, due to competition over employment opportunities.

The Turkish labour market also poses high exploitation risks for children, given the widespread phenomenon of child labour in areas such as agriculture, textile factories, as well as restaurants in various cities of Turkey. According to a United Metalworkers Union report, the textile sector employs approximately 19% of underage workers. 29% of these underage workers are Syrian children under the age of 15. In fact, the majority of school-aged Syrian children are working instead of attending school. As of 2019, 645,000 Syrian children were enrolled to Turkish state schools, while 400,000 Syrian children in Turkey were out of school. In addition to child labor, various other barriers obstruct access to children’s education, including a lack of parents’ knowledge about school registration procedures and the education system, and discrimination in schools. Findings from my own research indicate that many Syrian refugees experience financial hardship due to having limited access to the labour market, which also has a negative effect on Syrian children’s access to education.

In 2016, it was announced that millions of Syrians living in Turkey would be granted Turkish citizenship. As of 2019, 79,820 Syrians were granted citizenship in Turkey. Granting full citizenship is an important development but it remains unclear whether citizenship would be accessible for all Syrians under Temporary Protection. The deputy prime minister has clarified that ‘citizenship will be granted initially based on criteria such as employment, education level, wealth, and urgency of the applicant’s individual situation.’ This has raised concerns that Syrians who lack economic resources and are less skilled will be denied access to citizenship rights. Such concerns seem founded, as Turkey’s refugee integration policy favours those skilled contributors to the economy and those refugees with access to financial capital. This integration processes excludes refugees who are unskilled and have limited economic resources for investment in the receiving country.

Such a policy does not equally support the integration of all Syrians residing in Turkey but is class-based; only ‘selected’ Syrians are deemed worthy of state support. The Turkish government has pursued a neoliberal approach to the integration of Syrian refugees, where their economic utility has come to form the main entry point for accessing rights. Current integration policies, therefore, undermine Syrian refugees’ access to fundamental rights by making such rights directly conditional to Turkey’s economic gain. Social tensions between the Syrians and Turks have risen to peak levels in recent months, as riots occurred in Istanbul in July this year. As these tensions persist, the rights granted to Syrians will likely face further pressures in the future.

 

 

Political Cynicism: The Case of Poland

By Patryk A Wloch, on 4 October 2019

Dr Przemyslaw Sadura is a lecturer in the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw, and a visiting scholar at UCL SSEES. 

Slawomir Sierakowski is a founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Following surprising increases in Polish voter turn-out during the 2019 European Parliamentary elections, we conducted field research on the attitudes and voting behaviors of the rural and semi-rural voters in Poland. Upon analyzing existing data, we formulated a questionnaire and conducted our own survey, following which we carried out a series of focus groups. The research looked at the existing and potential electorates of all major parties in order to develop a complete picture of political attitudes across the country. Their findings reveal that Polish voters remain rational actors with a good grasp of politics — at least as far as they think it concerns them — but are still vulnerable to partisan manipulation.

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When and why parliaments are closed by political leaders

By Lisa J Walters, on 6 September 2019

The White House (Moscow, Russian Federation) following President Yeltsin’s 4 October 1993 attack. © AP / Shutterstock

Dr Ben Noble is Lecturer in Russian Politics at UCL SSEES. He was awarded a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award in 2019 for his project Parliaments Under Fire. He is on Twitter @Ben_H_Noble; the project’s account is @parlsunderfire.

This blog was first posted on 2 September on the British Academy website

In August 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to prorogue Parliament caused an uproar. It’s not difficult to understand why. Insofar as the aim is to frustrate the ability of the legislature to debate and scrutinise the executive, then this appears to be an attack on the sovereignty of Parliament – the core of the United Kingdom’s constitutional system.

But Boris is not Charles I. Nor is he Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, who violated the Russian constitution in September 1993 by dissolving the country’s legislature (the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies). Parliamentarians in Russia responded by, among other things, barricading themselves in the parliament building – something that MPs in Westminster have threatened in response to prorogation. Frustrated by this legislative intransigence, Yeltsin eventually ordered tanks to fire on the White House, the seat of the Russian parliament in the heart of Moscow. In this battle between the executive and the legislature, the president won. This allowed Yeltsin to beef up the powers of the executive in the new Russian constitution – adopted in a referendum in December of the same year – leading many to label it ‘super-presidential’ and Yeltsin a dictator. 

This wasn’t the first time a legislature was closed by the executive in Russian history. Tsar Nicholas II dissolved the first Imperial State Duma merely months after it opened in 1906, annoyed by the vocal way in which legislators pressured for sweeping social and political reform. Rather than barricade themselves in the Tauride Palace in St Petersburg, the seat of the imperial legislature, a number of Duma representatives assembled in Vyborg to write a declaration calling on the Russian people to stand up to authoritarian overreach. This didn’t work: most of the signatories to the declaration were imprisoned. But Boris Johnson is also not Tsar Nicholas II.

Authoritarian leaders and parliaments

These particular historical examples vary in how well they are known. Although we have lots of general and expert knowledge about the most prominent cases of attacks on legislative powers – especially when these bodies have been dissolved in defiance of the constitution – we know much less than we should about the full range of cases. This is particularly surprising given the resurgence of interest in political science in non-democratic politics – a trend sustained by the use of this work to help make sense of developments in recent US politics.

We have developed sophisticated theories that explain why authoritarian leaders set up and maintain legislative bodies. These theories suggest that parliaments in non-democracies are used to appease members of the political opposition; to share power between the ruler and other members of the elite; and to gather information on citizens’ concerns. We have, therefore, multiple insights into why these bodies are created. We know much less, however, about why they are dissolved.

Legislative closure might be puzzling to consider when starting from the conventional wisdom that legislatures in non-democracies are unimportant, entirely subservient bodies, filled with regime loyalists who simply ‘rubber stamp’ policy initiatives from the regime leadership without critical debate. Recent work – including my own – has challenged this ‘rubber stamp’ model of authoritarian legislative politics. But we still need to know much more.

Studying parliamentary closures and near misses

That’s where my new project, Parliaments Under Fire, comes in. The goal is to collect detailed information on moments of parliamentary closure. This is no mean feat. To make it possible, the project involves creating a network of political science scholars with country- and region-specific expertise. By drawing on, and pooling, this case-specific knowledge, the project combines the depth of area knowledge with the comparative political science tools that all members of the network share.

Currently, cross-national datasets only include information on whether a legislature existed in a particular year for a particular regime. That’s very basic, and some of this information is of questionable quality. My project will improve the detail we have publicly available of when legislatures have operated, while also improving our knowledge of the pathways leading to, and the actors involved in, parliamentary closures.

The project will also focus on ‘near misses’ – episodes when political leaders have attempted to close down legislatures but were prevented from doing so. PressOne example is from Ukraine in 1994, when President Leonid Kravchuk wanted to close down the Verkhovna Rada, but was prevented from doing so by the military. The executive intent was there, but the capacity was not. Beyond near misses, the project will also analyse moments of closure in the context of other, less extreme ways in which the powers of legislatures are weakened.

The project outputs should help provide a richer set of historical cases with which we can help navigate contemporary moments when legislatures come under pressure from executives. It should also help enrich existing theories of non-democratic parliaments, as moments of shutdown throw into sharp relief relations between actors that are usually shrouded in secrecy.

Boris Johnson is not a dictator. But his steps to hamper the constraining function of Parliament put him in awkward company. My project will allow us to understand in much greater depth why authoritarian leaders sometimes shutter their assemblies.

Soft Power: Cats, Branding and the Ukrainian Far-Right

By Lisa J Walters, on 20 June 2019

Author: Michael Cole (@NotTheMikeCole), Early Stage Researcher for the UCL SSEES-led FATIGUE project

“There are three secrets to successfully interviewing gangsters,” declared the keynote speaker. “First, convince them your work is irrelevant. You’re an academic, that’s usually not too hard”. “Second”, he continued, “is alcohol. If you can hold your drink, you’ll usually win respect and get them to talk”. And the third trick: “Have a cute dog”. I was attending my first major political science conference since starting a PhD. Three days packed with panel discussions, roundtables, keynotes and fried breakfasts to really get my teeth into. As a relative newcomer to the field I was more than keen to soak up any drops of wisdom that those who’ve been in the game for a while had to offer. But something about his advice didn’t quite sit right with me.

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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

Authors: Olena Yermakova (@O_Yermakova) and Michael Cole (@NotTheMikeCole), Early Stage Researchers for the UCL SSEES-led FATIGUE project

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.

Virtual Politics

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.

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