How a government responds to critics says a lot, not only about it diplomatic skills but also its ability to manage. Criticism is no only and far from always “rocking the boar” for your political opponents but also a form of feedback between a country’s leadership and its people. Sources of criticism, for one, vary widely. It can come from opposition politicians, the expert community, various civil society actors, and the general public, whose attitudes we generally find out through elections or opinion polls.
Dictatorships deliberately tend to break the feedback loop, forcing their citizens to keep quiet in order to preserve the appearance of peace and order. But everything has its price: sooner or later, such a regime’s leadership stops understanding what is really going on in their country and begin heading for a crash. A democratic government, on the contrary, suffers the “slings and arrows” of harsh criticism endlessly, but because of this, it’s able to respond to threats in a timely manner and avoid history’s sharper edges.
However, this is all highly theoretical. In practice, a lot depends on the personal qualities of officials and their internal state. For instance, the regime of Viktor Yanukovych, who, incidentally, promised to “listen to everyone,” stubbornly ignored all the signals coming from Ukrainian society, choosing to interpret them as the machinations of “fascists” and marginal elements under the sway of the West. The tendency to perceive criticism as informational diversion also tripped up Petro Poroshenko. The very realistic argument about the threat from Russia turned into a sarcastic meme about “or else Putin will attack,” at least in part thanks to the presidential administration itself. Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Sluha Narodu came to power promising to “listen to the people,” that is to establish an ideal feedback mechanism with Ukrainian society at large. But as recent events have shown, the Ze! team is also at risk of falling into the same traps.
Listening but not hearing
Even during their election campaign, the current leadership showed that it was prepared to listen to Ukrainians very selectively. One of the first groups that tried to send them some signals were journalists. Just before the second round of the presidential election, they called on Zelenskiy to properly communicate with the public. In response, they were trolled, and this grew into an actual conflict that has had a number of highly visible episodes. Nor was the press marathon an exception, with substance sacrificed to entertainment.
Instead of engaging in serious debate of current issues, the government organized a pompous “show” for journalists, whom it treated as its special audience. The reason for this kind of attitude in the Ze! team is no secret. “Classical journalists have gotten used to thinking like the public,” said Presidential Chief-of-Staff Andriy Bohdan at one point. “But our campaign showed that we communicate with the public directly, without intermediaries and that means without journalists.” In this way, the new leadership is not rejecting the notion of keeping in touch with voters, but it’s decided to ignore the press, one of the main institutions whose role is to provide this feedback mechanism.
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It’s possible that this enmity is simply the reflection of Zelenskiy’s confidence in his own media savvy. But if he is inspired by the example of Donald Trump, who responds to media criticism by criticizing the media itself, the outcome could be sad indeed. Following on the heels of “lying journalists” will be “lying sociologists” as the president’s ratings begin to slide, and then the rest of the expert community with its disappointing analyses.
Until the ruckus on the street
So far, pretty much the only instance when the new administration treated criticism seriously was when it saw public reaction to the Steinmeier formula that Zelenskiy had announced he was agreeing to. Experts, media and civic activists have warned about this formula for ages now, but this time the criticism came from the streets and not from the newspapers. The “No capitulation!” street campaign and protests against unilateral withdrawal of troops turned out to be a very fruitful form of criticism. When the press challenged it, the Ze! team responded with rudeness and trolling, but this was clearly no laughing matter.
Zelenskiy immediately began to explain, “Betrayal is being cancelled” and that the government would not cross the red line. Soon after, he met with veterans of the Anti-Terrorist Operation/Joint Forces Operation (ATO/JTO), who were rightly seen as the driving force behind the protests, while Premier Honcharuk suddenly showed up at an evening for veterans. Suddenly the Zelenskiy administration was taking a leaf out of Petro Poroshenko’s book. As someone from the national democratic camp, the minute he became president he adopted nationalistic, military, and patriotic attributes in an attempt to become, if not one of theirs to the actively patriotic element in Ukraine, at least not an outsider.
At the same time, however, the Ze! team took a step in the direction of Viktor Yanukovych as well. Bohdan posted in Facebook that the October 1 rally was paid for and hinted strongly that it was Poroshenko who had paid. Sluha Narodu faction leader David Arakhamia also announced that 5% of the attendees being paid, and that either the Russians or Poroshenko or someone else were behind them. Zelenskiy himself said something along those lines during his meeting with veterans. “99% of you are normal people,” the president was quoted as saying by someone at the meeting. “But that 1%... I know who made a deal with whom and how much they paid whom.” This style of expression is pretty recognizable. It’s acme remains Liudmyla Yanukovych’s famous speech about “spiked oranges.”
It’s quite understandable that people who gained an overwhelming victory at the ballot box and hit the ground running at marathon speed aren’t going to be thrilled that they have to take an active patriotic minority into account. However relatively small this part of the population is, to ignore its criticisms completely is to court disaster. As both Maidans have shown, a vocal minority can quickly draw a huge protest movement around it. It’s another question altogether, how well the new administration has absorbed this lesson. In the worst case, the Ze! team will try to declare this patriotic voice one that claims, like journalists, to speak for the people, but is actually only speaking for itself and its sponsors. This, in effect would cut off one more feedback mechanism with Ukrainians and could lead to open conflict.
We are the champions... or were
Judging by the rhetoric coming from the Ze! team, they are still certain of their nationwide support. This should give it the political will to undertake unpopular reforms, but could also blind it, given that “73%” is a myth based on a result that was somewhat happenstance. For instance, today, only 66% of Ukrainians wholeheartedly support the new president, based on a poll taken in October by the Democratic Initiatives Fund (DIF). It’s still very high, but the trend is pretty clear after only five months.
At this rate, references to the will “of the masses” could turn into a ritualistic, empty phrase not backed by political reality. Moreover, this is an entirely realistic scenario. The institution of a land market is an excellent case in point. It’s no secret that this reform is extremely unpopular, with the share of Ukrainians against it in the same ballpark as the symbolic “73%,” according to a Rating group poll in 2019. What’s more the new administration has only itself to blame for such a state of affairs: although it was quite aware of public opinion, it did absolutely nothing to change it. The Ze! team decided to simply ignore the storm of criticism, both well argued and populist, responding only with wimpy statements that reassured neither ordinary Ukrainians nor the expert community.
The net result was that the ball ended up smack in the hands of experienced populists who have already put together a broad front of resistance. To prevent a head-on collision, the administration tried to maneuver at the last minute by rushing an alternative bill through the VR committee. This reaction was obviously better than none, but that’s not a feedback mechanism, but eliminating evidence of the absence of one.
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During the election campaign, the Ze! team really did display exceptional communication skills, which is how it ensured its exceptional outcome. However, being good at criticizing your opponent and persuasive in tossing promises about is not the same as responding to criticism aimed at you for your own actions. And so the new leadership fell into the trap of its own populism. By dismissing journalists for the sake of “direct communication” with the public, the new administration has demonstrated neither the desire nor the ability to actually communicate directly as they claimed. The land reform fiasco made that pretty clear.
It turns out that Zelenskiy’s personal charisma and the reputation of his ministers are not enough to automatically neutralize any criticism or to legitimize any and all initiatives in the eyes of Ukrainian voters. If his administration fails to draw the necessary conclusions, its ratings will collapse as quickly as they emerged. It’s also possible that illusory expectations of nationwide support will lead to a break with civil society as well, especially as the majority of them are already extremely skeptical of Zelenskiy and his team. In short, by turning all its critics into fierce enemies, the Ze! team could find itself without any support at all.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj