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Lyashko’s populist discourse

In Ukraine, uncertainties concerning the term populism are more present than ever as many politicians have been accused or are accusing other politicians of populism.[1] Already in 2004, Margaret Canovan, a veteran in scientific contraction of populist phenomena, stated that the most concerning question when analyzing populist phenomena is to define what makes a proper populism.[2] In addition to Canovan’s idea, a proposal that populist movements operate an anti-progress ideology that holds dear the holy grail “people”, Cas Mudde equips the term ideology with the adjective “thin-centered”. In his opinion, the thin center urges the populist antagonizing world-view of pure people and corrupt elite to additionally imitate positions of ideologies that are well established in current political discourse.[3] And indeed, Lyashko states that he shares views from both left and right political spectrum,[4] he enriches his thin-centered populism with ideological elements from well-established political ideologies.

Other than that, most researchers like Jan-Werner Müller, Francisco Panizza or Ernesto Laclau agree that populist movements have a rather difficult relationship with democracy and its current representation mechanisms as, in the populists’ opinion, current political systems and their actors do not and cannot represent the people’s true will. All in all, populists antagonize a fuzzily self-constructed definition of an evil elite and the not less fuzzy “pure people” while claiming to be the only politicians with a mandate from the people, even when the numbers do not support such claims (then they are faked by the elite, of course).

In order to analyze the phenomenon populism, one might consider the discursive approach by Kirk A. Hawkins. The researcher, well-known for a book on Chavismo and populism of Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez, created a “discursive definition of populism in the context of existing definitions … [which] operationalizes […] through a holistic grading of speeches by current chief executives and a few historical figures.”[5] Hawkins made recipients listen to speeches of politicians, after which the recipients graded the speeches from 0 (not populist) to 2 (very populist). Here, we will read and analyze speeches of Oleh Lyashko, head of Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko, and Andrij Losovyj, the vice-chairman of that party, that I found to be very populist due to their clear appeal to the people, or due to their attacks on the elite.

When operating in the field of Ukrainian populism, one is not supposed to ignore that the Soviet definition of enemies of the people[6] has a deliquate history because it was applied to as many anti-Soviet oppositionals as possible, especially in the Ukrainian Socialist Republic. For the Radical Party however, the term enemy of the people seems to work just fine. Three enemies whom the party-leadership suspects to be offending public prosperity (or, when ownership was exclusive to the state, “public property”) are the Ministry of Health, MPs voting against an increase of the minimal wage and the, to use populist speech, IMF-infiltrated current government, who are all representors of the political elite of Ukraine.

One of the enemies of the Ukrainian people detected by the Radical Party is the current ministry of health. The ministry aims to introduce a reference pricing system for some medication that will mostly reimburse the costs brought up by the patients. Until then, patients continue to cover the costs for this medication on their own. This law and other law projects are supposed to step by step substitute the current soviet-inherited policies of free health care and free medicine for each Ukrainian citizen. These policies are written down in the constitution of Ukraine.[7]

However, the reality in current health care does not reflect the constitution as Ukrainian citizens cover a “particularly high proportion of total health expenditure paid out of pocket.”[8] In the description of a video, uploaded on the official YouTube channel of Oleh Lyashko, the public is informed that, concerning free access to medication for all Ukrainians in Ukrainian public health facilities, “everybody against this [free access to medication] is an enemy of the Ukrainians!”[9] That accusation is taken from the last seconds of the video. He is being interviewed at the television channel 112-Україна. Even though it was only announced that certain medication is planned to become chargeable with high reimbursement rates, Lyashko insinuates that the ministry is planning to abolish free access to medication. It is necessary to recall that free access to medication, though granted by the constitution, has mostly been covered by out-of-pocket expenses.[10] By subsequently calling the ministry and its supporters enemy of the Ukrainians, he forms two blocks of citizens. On the one side are the “real” Ukrainians wanting to exercise their right for free health care, on the other side enemies of the people that try to abolish free access to medication, namely “the elite”. Accusing reformist approaches towards a critically ill health care system as hostile to the people’s prosperity is a clear sign of populism.

Concerning the introduction of a higher minimum wage in 2016, Lyashko names members of parliament voting against it “enemies of the working people.[11]

These statements were given during a speech in the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada where he directly addressed the hostile to him deputies. The outcomes of the new minimum wage’s introduction are not clear as the “large shadow sector, whose behavior is extremely difficult to predict,” dominates the low wage sector in Ukraine as explained by Oleksandra Betliy, leading research fellow/Project coordinator in IERPC.[12] For these reasons one can presume that the introduction of a higher minimum wage would have little effect on the income situation of Ukrainians. Consequent in his claim to represent the one and only true will of the people, Lyashko names politicians that do not support the introduction of a higher minimum wage enemies of the working people. He probably added the adjective working to outline that he appeals to a special ability of working hard among Ukrainians that obtain the minimum wage.

The vice-chairman of the Radical Party is the second leader of the party’s political discourse. In an interview on the Ukrainian news channel “Newsone” that was uploaded on Lyashko’s YouTube channel, Andryj Losovyj, the vice-chairman of the Radical Party, declares that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sees Ukraine as a resource-delivering country and therefore does not publicly discuss the content of the memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies from 2016.[13] The memorandum is an agreement the IMF has with the Ukrainian government.[14] Firstly, albeit one does not observe that the politician names any institution explicitly enemy of the people, the status of the IMF as such an enemy remains unspoken and implied.

The here-drawn analogy is that the IMF takes no interest in allowing Ukraine to decide on its own. The current government gives in while weakly cooperating with the IMF and fears letting the public know about the conditions of the memorandum.

Therefore, interpreting Losovyj’s words as a populist discourse, the Ukrainian government ultimately represents the IMF’s interest in Ukrainian resources but not the Ukrainian people’s will. This leads to the conclusion that, in the eyes of the Radical Party, it makes the Ukrainian government an enemy of the people when they veil a secret memorandum with the IMF that concerns major economic reforms. Even before Losovyj’s accusations addressed to the IMF, we observe that Lyashko, in December 2016, accuses MPs that are against an enhanced minimum wage and for taking credits from international donors (probably means IMF) of not loving the people. Also, his fraction opposes the social-economic policies of the current government, but not Ukraine and Ukrainians. All together, the Radical Party seems to mindfully choose their enemies, which are simultaneously the enemies of the people, all of which happens in a clear populist manner.

[1] “Популізм, Вибори, Помилки: Депутати Відповідають На Промову Порошенка,” Радіо Свобода, accessed September 24, 2017, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/28722599.html.

[2] Margaret Canovan, “Populism for Political Theorists?,” Journal of Political Ideologies 9:3 (2004): 241–52, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1356931042000263500.

[3] Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition Ltd, 2004, 23.

[4] Микола Підвезяний and Катерина Пешко, “Олег Ляшко: Якби Ви Знали, Які Мені Тепер «бабки» Пропонують,” June 2, 2014, http://glavcom.ua/interviews/125059-oleg-ljashko-jakbi-vi-znali-jaki-meni-teper-%C2%ABbabki%C2%BB-proponujut.html.

[5] Kirk A. Hawkins, “Is Chávez Populist?: Measuring Populist Discourse in Comparative Perspective,” Comparative Political Studies 42, no. 8 (August 2009): 1040, doi:10.1177/0010414009331721.

[6] Robert Beard, “1936 Constitution of the USSR, TOC,” 1996, http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/russian/const/1936toc.html.

[7] МОЗ України, “Реформа системи охорони здоров’я та виведення української медицини на європейський рівень — один із пріоритетів діяльності Уряду,” November 17, 2016, http://www.moz.gov.ua/ua/portal/pre_20161117_a.html.

[8] Lekhan V et al., “Ukraine: Health System Review.,” Health Systems in Transition 17, no. 2 (March 2015): 1–154 (see Abstract).

[9] Олег Ляшко, Ляшко: Пацієнтів у Лікарнях Навіть Нагодувати Не Можуть, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLGLawPDo4Y (translated by me).

[10] V et al., “Ukraine,” 18, 30.

[11] Олег Ляшко, Ляшко: Де Взяти Гроші Людям, Які Не Займаються Корупцією?, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23x1UnVuQx0. (translated by me).

[12] Oleksandra Betliy, “The Minimum Salary Raise in Ukraine: Why so Suddenly and at What Cost for the Economy?,” VoxUkraine, November 25, 2016, https://voxukraine.org/2016/11/25/minimal-wage-en/.

[13] IMF Communications Department, “IMF Executive Board Completes the Second Review under EFF with Ukraine, Approves US Billion Disbursement, and Discusses Ex-Post Evaluation of 2014–15 SBA,” September 14, 2016, http://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2016/09/14/PR16407-Ukraine-IMF-Executive-Board-Completes-the-Second-Review-under-EFF.

[14] Олег Ляшко, Лозовий: МВФ Бачить Україну Сировинним Придатком, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykkEmHGy9Gg.

Further recommended literature:

Jan-Werner Müller, “What is Populism?,” University of Pennsylvania




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