Iryna Bekeshkina: Donbas’s special status is unacceptable. As is complete amnesty of the militants
We are at a crossroads. The current leadership of the state has opportunities that no one had had before. But the dangers are great. If we get fond of living without opposition, criticism, resistance, there will be a threat of the authoritarian regime – says sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina
The activities of President Volodymyr Zelenskyi and the Verkhovna Rada of the Ninth Convocation will improve the situation in the country, according to 62 percent of Ukrainians. Seven percent are convinced of the opposite; another 15% are convinced that there will be no significant changes, according to the Razumkov Centre poll. How do you explain these expectations?
– 70 percent of the population trusts the President. This is the highest level of trust in the Head of State in the history of Ukraine. So far, all elections have been built on the gap between the West and the East. Candidates representing the two regions usually met in the second round. If pro-Western candidate won, the East was dissatisfied. And vice versa. That is why both Yushchenko and Yanukovych had about 50 percent support after the election.
The current president won in all regions except Lviv, because he was not part of the political elite. Half of Ukrainians watched the TV series “Servant of the People”. In their mind, they associated Zelenskyi with the main character. People believe that he will do everything Ukrainians need. They still believe so. Volodymyr Oleksandrovych has not adopted unpopular decisions yet. People also seem to enjoy good scolding at local officials.
What are the chances and risks of such high government support for the country?
– Great chances and great risks. The President has an absolute majority in the Verkhovna Rada, which is ready to vote for the necessary laws. The government is set up not on a quota basis. There is no need to make agreements with its members. It looks like a team of like-minded people. They have every opportunity to implement reforms. This is an advantage.
But we still do not understand what these authorities are planning to do. There is no overall strategy. We can only see some steps. Political forces usually prepare programs for elections. The Servant of the People did not submit such a document. The Cabinet must also follow some program. However, so far we only hear slogans, sometimes contradictory ones. The Prime Minister says that in five years the Ukrainian economy should grow by 40 percent. That is, eight percent per year. And the draft budget for 2020 states four percent.
What will be the first major challenge for the authorities?
– The Land Market Law. We are in an absurd situation – a landowner cannot sell it. But what matters is what the law will look like.
When sociologists ask “Should land sales be allowed?” most respondents are consistently against the lifting of the moratorium. Stereotypes that have been formed in people’s minds for years influence this response. As if the land is sacred, it cannot be sold, because it is like selling the national territory. But when asked differently, for example: “Should owners have the right to sell their land?”, they will answer “yes”.
Most market supporters are in favor of some restrictions. Some think that land should not be sold to foreigners, some want to approve the maximum number of hectares that can be owned by one person. Others propose to establish a set minimum amount per unit of land. A mere eight percent supports unlimited sales.
What decisions, actions of the new authorities surprised you to the upside? Which were negative?
– I’m not a fan of Zelenskyi. The main test of his intentions for me was the composition of the government. The current Cabinet is by far not the worst, maybe even the best. There are no obvious puppets there the way it used to be. There is enthusiasm and desire for change for the better. However, ministers do not understand how difficult the situation in Ukraine is. They lack experience. This is dangerous for a belligerent country.
I was disappointed by the dissolution of the Central Election Commission. It has just started working and held a successful election. I see no reason for this other than the desire to have a loyal CEC.
I do not like the situation around the former head of the National Bank, Valeriia Hontareva. Opening a case is one thing, but breaking into an empty apartment wearing masks with machine guns is another thing. This shocked Western partners. It was a stupid step. And it is stupid steps taken by the authorities that scare me the most. At some point, I invented a formula that always works. The most terrible authority is stupid authority. Even corrupted authority is not as bad. It will be stealing a little at a time, but it will not cut the branch on which it is sitting. Yanukovych and his associates stole too much and lost everything.
How long can a ‘honeymoon’ for the authorities last?
– In the absence of scandals, the ranking will be going down gradually. Otherwise, there may be a rapid decline. Utility bills are a big challenge. Yuliia Volodymyrivna will be able to speculate. They promised to cut the price by half, and Zelenskyi would only do so by 10-15 percent. The number of subsidy recipients will also decrease. It is important that hryvnia does not collapse.
Does the fact that a presidential candidate won both in the west and in the east of Ukraine for the first time show that society has changed?
– It cannot be referred to as a break. Poroshenko had fairly homogeneous voters – relatively pro-Western. Boiko’s voters were also consolidated. But Zelenskyi’s voters are divided in the same way as the position of all the people. NATO membership is supported by 47 percent, non-aligned status – by 31 percent.
The voter of the current president is large and heterogeneous. He has different ideas and expectations. These people got together amid their negative attitude towards the former political elite.
So far, neither Zelenskyi nor the parliament has adopted categorical decisions that would divide Ukraine. It is important on what terms they will agree on peace in Donbas.
17% of the population supports peace by forceful means in Donbas. 49% believes that “for the sake of peace, it is necessary to accept compromises, but not all of them. What concessions are unacceptable?
– The citizens are waiting for peace. The unresolved situation in Donbas was one of the factors that led to the defeat of the previous authorities. But a mere 25-27% agree to the end of the war at any cost. Most of them live closer to the front.
Ukrainians are against elections in the occupied territories. The special status enshrined in the Minsk Agreements is unacceptable. As is complete amnesty of the militants. People are against forming an autonomous local police force. This is the situation all over the territory – and in Donbas controlled by Ukraine.
Can the authorities cross the red lines and make unacceptable concessions?
– It seems to be probing the people. It sends messages and observes the response. There have already been many campaigns and public appeals from the civil society against political concessions concerning Donbas. I think the authorities have realized that this is unacceptable. Its representatives already say that there can be no election while the Russian military is there.
What are the challenges facing Zelenskyi besides the war?
– People expect tariffs and prices to fall, and pensions, scholarships and salaries to increase. Society has long been convinced that we are living a bad life, because of total corruption everywhere. The new authorities will not be stealing, and therefore welfare will improve.
People are also waiting for guilty verdicts. The previous authorities were also expected to do so. In 2014, women from the farmer’s market near my house would ask me with hope: whom have they put to jail? Then they started asking with sarcasm, and after a while stopped asking altogether. Therefore, the authorities have to put to jail some of the notorious figures from both former authorities. Otherwise it will be unfair.
“A mere 25-27 percent of Ukrainians agree to accept the end of the war at any cost,” says sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina. The artist Volodymyr Kazanevskyi sees it this way
Belarus President Oleksandr Lukashenko is the most popular foreign politician in Ukraine. Zelenskyi sometimes tries to copy him. What does this tell us?
– We want a good master who would protect the people. Lukashenko is a dictator. And we do not accept dictatorship – we are different. Russians are prone to monarchy, and we are prone to anarchy. Survey into the values of the population shows that freedom is always in the first place. But law-abidingness is traditionally at the end of the list. Our population wants the authorities to abide by the rules, but at the same time it wants to be able to avoid abiding by them.
What is the role of the opposition now?
– It can only stir people up.
Under what conditions will the Ukrainians take to the streets?
– The protest moods are now at the lowest level – people are satisfied with the authorities. This may change if they decide to hold elections in the occupied territories or declare a general amnesty.
We have 400 thousand ATO veterans. On the Independence Day, these people showed their cohesion. When the parade was canceled, they got together, came from different parts of the country. They can meet more if they need to.
If Donbas is given special status, the whole Ukraine will hate the region, according to the journalist from Donetsk Serhii Harmash. And this could end in a civil war. Do you agree?
– The question is what this special status will look like. If under the terms of the Minsk Agreements, there will be large-scale protests. But not the civil war. The east of Ukraine will not fight against the west for the special status of Donbas.
How have the values of Ukrainians changed in the past five years?
– National identity has increased – feeling of being a citizen of Ukraine, pride in Ukraine. When sociologists asked “who are you first of all?” regional identification prevailed in the east and south – people primarily considered themselves to be the residents of their cities or regions. They had to make a decision at the beginning of the war. In Odesa, there are now many more people who think of themselves as Ukrainians. Previously, the vast majority identified themselves as Odesa inhabitants.
More than half of Ukrainians refer to the visa-free regime are the most successful reform of recent years. However, it was used by 20 percent of Ukrainians. They say so because they are thinking about the future of their children.
You said that we associate the country’s successes with new faces, rather than with the activities of state institutions, with business or society efficiency.
– We are getting closer to 30 years of independence and have not grown up yet. We have a set schedule of trust in presidents. Right after the election, the leader’s ranking is sky high, in a year it drops to the sea level. This is called paternalism. The poorer the country, the greater it is. People dream of a magician. Now they think they finally have a servant of the people who will do everything right. They pinned the dame hopes on Yushchenko, Yanukovych.
Does the society have a vision of what state we want to build?
– With prosperity – to provide everyone with money, good work. Visa-free regime is also great. But we are divided by NATO issue. Majority is in favor – 47 by 35 percent of those who are against. EU integration is supported by a clear majority. However, in the southern and eastern regions, there are 30 percent of opponents. These people believe that we do not need any alliances. But after the victory of Zelenskyi, the commitment to European integration has grown there.
During Poroshenko’s presidency, focus groups among the opponents of European integration were held to better understand their arguments. One of the responses was difficult to predict. They said that they have nothing against European integration in general. But they do not support it because they believe that the current authorities will do no good.
A generation of people pinning their hopes on Russia is approaching its demise. What prospects do we get?
– Before the war, the attitude of Ukrainians to the Russian Federation was consistently positive. Since its beginning, the number of supporters has sharply decreased. Now it is mostly negative, but up to 30 percent of the population have good attitude towards Russia, and this figure is growing.
Under what conditions can Russia give up imperial dreams?
– Under the current leadership, there will be no such circumstances. The Kremlin cannot accept Ukraine moving towards Europe, and most importantly, away from it. Without Ukraine, it is impossible to realize Russian imperial aspirations. It gets only Belarus – a dubious achievement in terms of geopolitics. There will be no Eurasian empire. Only ‘Asia’ without ‘Euro’.
The wealthy who are losing capital through sanctions do not like Putin. So when the Kremlin office becomes vacant, changes might occur.
What are the threats facing Ukraine now?
– First of all – Donbas. Society is waiting for a solution, but I don’t see it. The war will drag on. The second threat – it is necessary to treat the economy more carefully. Sloppy actions can cause the hryvnia to fall. Thirdly – if the authorities get fond of living without real opposition, criticism, resistance, there will be a threat of the authoritarian regime. However, society will not accept this.
We are at a crossroads. The current authority has huge opportunities that no one had had before. But the dangers are enormous.