“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.
The joker becomes king: what happened in the Ukrainian election and why Chantal Mouffe might also vote for ZelenskiyLisa JWalters14 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.
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.
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.
Andrew Wilson, Professor in Ukrainian Studies
Ukraine is already in election year. Both the president and parliament chosen in the tumultuous year of 2014 are due to be reelected in 2019. The presidential election comes first, in March; the parliamentary elections are expected to follow in October. As always, there are rumours of some politicians plotting a different time or a different order. But, currently, the depressing prospect for the 2019 elections overall is that all of the major players will return. So none has an incentive to campaign for early elections. (Former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has seen his party’s support collapse, but most of his team will jump on to other parties ae ‘life rafts’).
by Professor Andrew Wilson
This post originally appeared on the ECFR blog. Reproduced with kind permission of the Author.
The resignation of Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the elevation of Volodymyr Groisman demonstrates the failure of Kyiv’s reform process, and offers Europe an opportunity to push for deeper changes.
And while Ukraine suffers from many types of corruption, it is the penetration of its politics by the super-rich oligarchy that forms the main obstacle to reform.
Wealth is concentrated in few hands in Ukraine. Before the Euromaidan protests of 2013 the assets of Ukraine’s 50 richest individuals made up over 45 percent of GDP, almost five times as much as in the US. Politics in Ukraine is extraordinarily expensive, with campaign expenditures running at hundreds of millions of dollars. And oligarchical media ownership further strengthens the hold of the wealthy over Ukraine’s democracy.
The author highlights two key areas, the judiciary and Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises, where the nascent process of ‘de-oligarchisation’ has failed to take hold. Control over the courts means that there have been no high-profile leading figures from the Yanukovych era brought to trial. And Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises siphon off government funds to the pockets of oligarchs, providing further funds for them to control events in Kyiv.
The EU remains Ukraine’s only plausible ally and, as such, has the potential to wield a huge amount of influence over the reform process. Wilson highlights two main areas that European policy makers should focus on, both of which focus on decoupling the oligarchs from the political system, rather than attacking the oligarchy itself.
The first step should be to strengthen the pressure applied on the Ukrainian authorities from below, by local civil society. Engagement could take the form of encouraging the participation of Ukrainian NGOs in EU-Ukrainian government dialogue.
The EU and its member states should also pressure Ukraine’s leaders, who are perpetuating and in some cases directly benefiting from some of the worst practices of the Yanukovych regime. Abuses by oligarchs’ placemen in the state bureaucracy and others must be investigated.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.
On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Uilleam Blacker of SSEES considers the cultural impact of the nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine through the work of one of the country’s most famous poets, Lina Kostenko, and one of its leading literary critics, Tamara Hundorova. The post first appeared on the British Library’s European Studies blog.
See Words Without Borders for Uilleam’s translations of two of Kostenko’s poems.
The Chernobyl disaster wasn’t just an unprecedented environmental disaster: it was an event that caused profound political and cultural shifts on a global scale. The disaster foreshadowed and accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War order, and the political reverberations of this were felt the world over. Yet it also forced a rethink of human beings’ relationship with the natural world, and compelling societies to face up to the fact that a nuclear apocalypse was no longer the stuff of science fiction, but a reality that was perilously close.
Lina Kostenko near the Chornobyl Nuclear Plant (From Encyclopedia of Ukraine)
For all of these reasons, the name Chernobyl – or to use more accurately its Ukrainian form Chornobyl – is a worldwide symbol of the disastrous climax of Western modernity. The Chornobyl Zone continues to function as a phantom, warning humanity of the dangers inherent in blind technological advancement, with endless images or drone films of the ghost town of Prypiat affording internet users the vicarious thrill of wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape. Western horror movies and video games take the Zone as their setting. Yet the real Chornobyl, the real Zone, with its real abandoned villages and its real locals – those displaced and those who stubbornly return – is less often the subject of Western reflection.
Darya Malyutina, a recent UCL PhD, reports on a workshop that was held at the University of Cambridge, which was funded by CEELBAS and Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, and which involved the participation of several representatives of UCL SSEES. The event was organized by Olesya Khromeychuk, until recently a teaching fellow at SSEES and lector in Ukrainian at Cambridge, and soon to take up a position as Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of East Anglia.
On 20 June 2015, a workshop that brought together scholars, human rights and gender equality activists, artists and journalists working on Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, took place at Robinson College at the University of Cambridge. The participants discussed the implications and intersections of gender, nationalism and citizenship in the recent and ongoing protest movements in the three countries. The interdisciplinary discussions also addressed a number of related issues, from body politics and corporeality to migration and diaspora, from media and propaganda to art and literature, from war to ethical and methodological quandaries of research and activism.