Disillusion from Wit

June 2014
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Currently, our politicians have substituted the substance of the struggle for European integration, trading it in for the cachet of virtual geopolitics. In current political practice, "Euro-integration" is understood as the long-range appropriation of “European standards” to Ukrainian jurisprudence and public administration; these processes are viewed as the heart of “the European option.” However, for Ukrainian citizens, the lure of European integration was grounded in a kind of “credo of reconstruction” (perestroika, perebudova) held by significant numbers of Soviet citizens, who were once convinced of the necessity for social reconstruction featuring “the individual at the center of the state.” Ultimately, this liberal formulation serves as the objective of the establishment of a truly “European” societal arrangement. In turn, the harmonization of legal and administrative practices of neophyte nations with those prevailing in Europe provided a well-tested mechanism for the attainment of this goal.

Despite the largely nominal character of Ukrainian European integration, still even the rhetoric of “Europeanization” offered at least some sort of structural logic to the politics. In particular, independent Ukraine possessed an institutional political pluralism, the separation of Church and State, and the separation of powers. No small number of liberal approaches saw the light of day in the economic arena. In general, a liberal ideology, irrespective of its inherent weaknesses and the often illusory nature of the Ukrainian context, represents that very civilizing tendency in Ukraine which, step by step, is establishing and developing a Western European model of legitimization, is allowing the public sphere to evolve, and is maintaining a balance between the public and private spheres, again, according to a Western model.

The experience of socialism, represented in scores of functioning social institutions, continues to affect the logic of the social discourse and the political process. Ultimately, this effect abates to the degree that “the logic of the market,” albeit slowly, works to permeate these institutions. These hybrid post-Soviet institutions have turned out to be vigorous, often decisive, in determining the direction of Ukrainian social processes. For example, scientific development, vital for any modernization process, operates according to the logic of the socialist state. The result is the full enfranchisement of the State Scientific Certification Commission and the Ministry of Education and Science, and the simultaneous disenfranchisement of the university system, as well as odd mutations in the Academy of Sciences, its fraternal institutes, and many of its other functions. This same principle affects the judiciary, public prosecutors and police, as well as the efforts of the Ombudsman, whose rulings – in practice if not exactly according to rule of law – continue to favor the collective over the individual. Finally, socialism in our country is being transformed according to the ideology of statehood. An eastern method of modern legitimization has held great sway and presents a significant counterpoint to liberal Euro-integration tendencies. Socialism as an ideology stands, at the moment, at the crossroads of modernization and anti-progressivism.

If the former ideological direction was related somehow or other to the application of rationality in the public sphere, then the third important trend – ethno-nationalism – grows increasingly anti-progressive. We should not forget that in the 19th century nationalism was a method of societal modernization and the appeal to ethnic considerations had a legitimate purpose. Nationalism played a role of vital significance in the establishment of public space, and the ordering of contemporary democracies. In the 21st century, however, any return to an imagining of a nation "rooted in blood and soil" or a primordial, genetically homogenous group identity is a markedly conservative and overtly anti-progressive trend.

If in the closing decade of the 20th century the Ukrainian state was too weak both to formulate and to implement (progressive) policies, we now see at the start of the 21st century that the state's ability to act has clearly grown. As a further consequence, a fundamental conflict, rooted in the ideological foundation of modern Ukraine, shows itself in the daily affairs of citizens and of operatives in the political and economic spheres. At the close of the Kuchma administration, this conflict was realized in the reshaping of the political sphere into group allegiances aiming at control of the Parliament and reducing presidential powers. Drawing on Heorhiy Kasianov’s thoughts regarding modern Ukraine, I identify the defining conflict of the development of our country as the fight for control of two political institutions – the parliament and the president. In this pairing, the parliament is often generally representative of a progressive/modern institution, and the president the anti-modern. This model is fair only in its broad outlines. Indeed, the parliament of Ukraine, the Verkhovna Rada, is a body that more often represents a post-Soviet reality than that of a classically democratic institution. Moreover, the Ukrainian president often played a vital role – on a tactical level – in the country’s modernization. Regardless, this institutional development bears an undeniable pattern all its own and all too typical: near the end of his term, each Ukrainian president has implemented greater limitations on civil liberties, while parliament, attempting to strike a balance, has fought to maintain a public / private symmetry and the rights of private citizens.

One consequence of decisions taken during and after the presidential election of 2004 (the so-called “Orange Revolution”) was that Ukraine would for five years pursue a defined policy of development that was as economically liberal as it was culturally conservative. Given the decline of the political left, social policy fell hostage to a superficial political agenda. In the conflict between economic liberalism and cultural conservatism, it was of little importance who won, or of no importance whatsoever, as was quickly borne out. It was rare that any state policy, regardless of political orientation, held on for long. And, inevitably, economic policies that were announced were never realized. Anticipated reforms were never implemented, although a certain measure of neoconservative initiatives were afforded a greater degree of visibility than previously. I would delineate the structural transformation of the Ukrainian political discourse in the years after 2005 in the following manner: in place of post-Soviet thinking (nominally modernizing but fundamentally socialist), prevailing during the Kuchma administration, came the rhetoric-driven neo-conservatism (bordering on anti-progressivism) of the Yushchenko approach. Neo-conservatism gained significance among the ruling elite as a method of safeguarding liberal and socialist tendencies, and the resulting preferences and practices took their form in a singular manner of policy-making.

Neo-conservative cultural policy was among the very first examples of embedded policy in Ukraine in general. This unique sequence of events carried consequences about which Tismaneanu had spoken optimistically in 1989: the acknowledgment of legitimacy of a particular policy makes it influential. In our case, ethno-nationalistic values, despite the cultural and ethnic diversity of the contemporary Ukrainian ruling elite, turned out to be the effectual organization of people into acts of solidarity, which brought certain results. Even if this would prompt a rather negative effect on the integrity of civil society in our country and cast doubt on the activities of the central and local authorities, still a number of outcomes resulted in positive changes for individuals and groups. Let us take, for example, the promotion of policies focusing on family values: they have helped hundreds of children find homes. However, there have been no systemic changes in the function of corresponding “government agencies”: no efficient monitoring system of the living conditions of adopted children has been created, and an institutional response is lacking to the problem of still more children ending up in orphanages. Finally, in this example, the rationale of addressing social problems according to the anti-progressive model becomes clear: state policy is designed to contribute to the solution of public problems by private means. This rationale finds an advocate in the entrenched oligarchy (the securing of private interests employing public means), and in populist politics (securing public policy goals through an appeal to the private interests of a few citizens to the detriment of the broader public interests). Finally, anti-progressive tendencies pose the following threat: the destruction of an already weakened boundary of “private” and “public” in Ukraine.

Anti-modernist tendencies are especially well manifested in the mindset, rhetoric, and activities of any number of factions belonging to the Ukrainian ruling elite. One example is seen in the inordinate level of admiration for the ancient Trypillian culture, which resulted in significant budgetary and charitable outlays for the creation of museums, collections, and publications dedicated to the cause. Yuri Andrukovych could hardly have expected that his unique parsing of “Disorientation” [a reference to Andrukhovych's collection of essays Disoriantation on a Location from 1999 - Ed.], that is, a turning away from an “Eastern identity” would have resurfaced as cultural “Trypilliafication.” Searching for a distinctive myth of indigenous origin in an attempt to distance themselves from the common Russian heritage, the elite lay repeated stress on historical events which underscored the particular singularity of the Ukrainian people. This perfectly reasonable tendency is recast in fully realistic solutions that maintain our society in a sort of informational and institutional self-isolation. Andrukovych’s “Disorientation” had not become westernization, but its antipode: anti-modern anti-progressivism. In Ukraine, this process of "the enchantment of the world" continues to gather strength.

The inclination to neo-conservatism is playing havoc with cultural memory. The introduction of politics of memory have legislated a ban on public expressions of intellectual rigor in our country. This anti-progressive approach is incorporated in the Ukrainian Law titled “Regarding the Holodomor 1932-1933 in Ukraine,” passed on 28 November 2006 by a majority in the parliament and signed by President Yushchenko. In Article 2, the legislation reads that “Public denial of the Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine is to be acknowledged as an affront to the memory of millions of victims of the Holodomor, an abasement of the dignity of the Ukrainian people, and a violation of law.” In fact, even casting doubt on the value of this "act of recognition" directed toward a particular historical event is unlawful. “Don’t think. Sleep! Thoughts are the bane of happiness,” the Ukrainian poet Bohdan Ihor Antonych once wrote. Our “national myth” continues to grow ever more weighty in political discourse, and finds itself inserted more and more often into our legislation, thereby limiting public debate and rational argumentation.

Our rights and freedoms have so far preserved the ancient precept: ignorance of the law excuses no one from non-compliance. Yet exceptions to non-compliance have always existed and, in recent years, have only increased. One such exception is the National Advisory Commission for the Defense of Public Morality. The Commission has begun interfering in the fledgling efforts of an autonomous, modern formation of the public sphere which urges institutions and agents toward an open and frank rationale, the formation of a dialogue and viable reciprocity among public para-governmental associations made up of citizens and public authorities.

On the web-page with the matter-of-fact address moral.gov.ua, it is possible to glean the following about the Commission:

The National Advisory Commission for the Defense of Public Morality is a permanent special governmental oversight committee acting in accordance with Ukrainian Legislation "On the Defense of Public Morality," #1296-IV, of 20 November 2003, and the Statutes on a Ukrainian National Advisory Commission on Matters of the Defense of the Public Morality, the latter ratified by a resolution of the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers, #1550, on 17 November 2004. Within the purview of the National Advisory Commission is the evaluation of the operation of mass-media outlets, and of all manner of legal entities engaged in the organization, operation, and exhibition of articles or actions of a sexual or erotic nature or such that reflect elements of a cruel or violent nature. Resolutions of the National Advisory Commission, adopted in the exercise of its powers, are binding for central and municipal authorities, mass media outlets in all forms, including all private and legal entities and persons.

I will note that the legislative groundwork for the Commission’s activities was laid long ago, in 2003 and 2004, though its influence is being felt for the first time only now. Among the more notable achievements of the Commission rank the closing of the electronic file-sharing “IfoStore” on baseless accusations of the distribution of pornographic materials, the attempt to forcibly mandate that internet service providers monitor the usage of Ukrainian internet customers and, among others, the designation of Oles Ulyanenko's novel, The Woman of His Dreams, as pornography.

The Commission finds support for its activities not only among Ukrainian politicians, but also among the public. Commission head Vasyl Kostytsky deftly gauges the public mood:

On occasion, our purveyors of mass-media allow themselves to supplant "freedom of speech" with "freedom of artistic expression." And what follows on air or in the pages of the press is open obscenity like some show of unmitigated disregard for the listeners, for Ukrainian national and religious values, for individuals, for morality….

The mass media must practice political and economic neutrality, and become a self-regulating entity. The current potential for self-regulation is limited.

To continue interminably in this manner is impossible; society needs change. A striking example is the human chain formed by 1,367 women and mothers from Ivano-Frankivsk in an attempt to defend public morals without excluding the information space.


In the end, Kostytsky is correct that the work of his Commission is supported not only by politicians and bureaucrats, but also by a significant portion of the population. The increasing conservatism of Ukrainian society bears witness to the strengthening tendency to reject “the European option" of progressive modernization and overcoming self-isolation.

It’s just a trend!

In truth, anti-modern tendencies in politics and society enjoy a measure of public support. Fatigue stemming from an ineffectual democratic façade, injustice, and corruption, may yet lead our country into – undesirable but, for the majority, inevitable – dictatorship and full repression. Several years ago, the Pew Research Center published a public attitude survey of East and Central European nations on the changes to the socio-political order in 1989 – 1991 (see The Pulse of Europe 2009: 20 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Pew Research Centre, 2009). The research shows that twenty years after the fateful events that spurred on the drive for freedom and democracy, a significant shift has occurred in citizens' attitudes toward the solutions offered at the time. For example, in 1991 72% of Ukrainians supported the “transition” to a democracy. In 2009 only 30% -- a loss of 42% - support the choice for democracy made in 1991. Significant drops in support of democracy were also recorded in Hungary, from 74% to 56%; in Lithuania, from 75% to 55%; and Bulgaria, 76% to 52%. Russian respondents showed a lesser drop – of 8% - from 61% to 53% favoring the democratic option, and on the territory of the former East Germany, the favorability of democracy fell by 6%, from 91% to 85%. However, it is only in Ukraine where support for the choice made in 1989-1991 has fallen below the 50% mark.

These figures are correlated with the disappointment of Ukrainian citizens with that other gift of Modernization, the transition to a market economy. In every Central and Eastern European nation, enthusiasm for the “capitalist option” has suffered. Reaction to the decision to transition to free markets in 1991 varies. In the 2009 survey, Russian support had dropped 4%, to 50% from 54% in 1991. In the Czech Republic, from 87% to 79%. In Poland, from 80% to 71%. In Slovakia, from 69% to 66%. In other words, “frustration range” between four and nine percentage points. In Ukraine, the percentage of approval has fallen 16%, from 52% favoring the transition in 1991, to only 36% in 2009. Bulgaria, from 73% to 53%. Lithuania, from 76% to 50%. Hungary, from 80% to 46%. In other words, a “frustration range” between sixteen and thirty-four percentage points. Less than half the populations of Ukraine and Hungary now favor the transition to a market economy. Taken together with the general disappointment in the democratic option, we see a reduction in the approval of the economic transition. Finally, 72% of Hungarians, 62% of Ukrainians and Bulgarians, 48% of Lithuanians and Slovaks, 45% of Russians, 39% of Czechs, and 35% of Polish citizens acknowledge that they suffered losses in the transition to the market economy. Under such conditions, an anti-progressive mood may foment regression in the political sector, strengthening anti-democratic sentiment among politicians and voters alike.

As the 20th century drew to its close and the 21st dawned, the vitality of the Modern had been spent. The dynamic narrative of progress, which drove the civilizing process across the planet, is losing its influence. The portent of turmoil, and trends that will determine the future of mankind, are yet to be clarified. Yet the quality of life, the level of human development, the defense of rights and liberties of Ukrainian citizens are tied directly, and exclusively, to modernization. Disillusion from wit is not a luxury afforded to the Ukrainian citizen. Have we, at long last, squandered our real chance for a democratic state?

Translation edited by Mayhill C. Fowler and Oleh Kotsyuba.


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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka