Reanimation package of reforms > News > Interview > Iryna Bekeshkina: Zelenskyi has received the message, “No, you can’t do anything you want”

Iryna Bekeshkina: Zelenskyi has received the message, “No, you can’t do anything you want”


Few people understand Ukrainians as well as Iryna Bekeshkina does, she has been researching our society for almost 30 years. And now is a unique time – Ukrainian society loves and trusts the government, or more precisely, President Volodymyr Zelenskyi. 

The editor-in-chief of spoke with Ms. Bekeshkina at the annual YES conference organized by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. In an interview, the sociologist told what the Zelenskyi’s phenomenon is about, whether there is a threat to democracy and the risks of authoritarianism, what issues can divide the country, and why ‘Lukashenko’ always wins over ‘Putin’ in Ukraine.   

– This year’s theme of YES forum is happiness. According to the study presented here, we are the unhappiest out of the 15 countries. But we are interested in your opinion, as an expert on Ukrainians – have the residents of our country been happy for the past six months?

– After the elections, Ukrainians feel enthusiastic. If you have a look at the dynamics of the answer to the standard question – “What do you feel when you think about the future of Ukraine?”, the level of optimism at its highest now. As usual, hope remains the main emotion. But concern ranked second all the years before. And now it’s optimism. Less concerns, more optimism.

I will give you some figures. Never before have Ukrainians appreciated the president’s activities so much – 70% of Ukrainians in the poll gave a positive assessment of the first 100 days of the president. The level of confidence reached 70% – no president has ever had it.

I do not know how it affects happiness, but at least it obviously has a very positive effect on social wellbeing.

– What is the phenomenon of Zelenskyi’s popularity?

– To put it briefly, he is perceived by people as “our man”. “Finally, we have elected our representative there.” And the election results, both parliamentary and presidential, were a “middle finger” from the people to our entire political elite. I do not agree that Zelenskyi was chosen simply because they were against Poroshenko. They voted not just against the former president, there was a great choice of candidates, but they voted for a person who has nothing to do with politics at all. It is a verdict on Ukrainian politics and the political class as a whole. That is why the dismissals of politicians by Zelenskyi are now accepted enthusiastically.

– Quite rude and not always meaningful dismissals of officials…

– Yes, brutal dismissals when they are publicly kicked out. Even with a bit of rudeness, which, frankly, is welcomed by Ukrainians. I think that at least people’s well-being is affected.

– Do they get happier (because of rudeness)?

– Happiness depends on many other factors, not only on society, but also on the economic and social situation in the country. I would like to focus your attention on one indicator of happiness research that was presented today: for Ukrainians, more than in all other countries, it is not their personal happiness that matters, but the “happiness of their children”. I would not say that it is positive. When the current generation says that they need their children to be happy – that indicates great anxiety for the children, we are not sure of their happiness.

– You said that the social well-being of Ukrainians is as good as ever. In addition to this “our guy” factor and president’s decisive television moves to dismiss bad officials, what else has affected the state of society?

– People really like the way he deals with the old political elite. People like that he is accessible. We saw him speak at YES opening today – nothing like, say, all the former presidents who would read the victorious speeches from a rostrum to foreigners. Zelenskyi had a conversation with the audience. And people like this dialogue. People like Zelenskyi as a human, you know. The price for this love – they expect a lot from him. How realistic this is – it is another question. They are waiting for a miracle now.

– If miracle does to happen, how long can this support last and what does it depend on?

– It depends on many factors. If there are no loud scandals, the ranking will decline, but rather gradually.

– Do you mean corruption scandals?

– Yes. In the team. As was the case with Yushchenko. It was not Yushchenko himself who was considered a corrupt official, but his close associates. But there are still factors, such as how urgent problems with the Donbas will be solved. This is what is being decided now and in the near future, under which conditions we get peace. If the peace at all costs and the price is expensive, it is obvious that at least western and partly central regions will be outraged. As they are not prone to any capitulation arrangements with Moscow.

– The population was very supportive of the hostage exchange, but it was essentially an exchange at all costs.

– Hostage exchange – yes. There is an emotion here – our heroes are back. But let’s say things like general amnesty are not supported by the majority. And let’s say the autonomy of part of Donbas is not supported either.  What is the price of autonomy, who will be there? Therefore, I think this question can be a serious test. Another issue that can divide the society is land.

– Land market issues?

– Yes. Last week, we published our poll on the attitude of Ukrainians to the land market. And what is more interesting – we have a stereotype that people are against the sale of land. Indeed. The standard question is “What do you think – can land be purchased and sold?” – 50% say no. And this result was also confirmed by the latest poll by the Institute of Sociology conducted in September. But we asked a simple question before this standard question: “Do you think that a person who owns the land has the right to sell it?” Simple question. And then it turns out that 50% believe that the owner should have such a right.

– A kind of usual Ukrainian dichotomy…

– And the next question we asked was standard – in general, about the sale of land. And it turns out that now 30% of people vs. 50% (as was the case before) are totally against the sale of land in any form. Because people started thinking in a different way: whose land it is, what the sale of land is – it should be sold by someone. But in these 50% exhibit very heterogeneous attitude to specific details. Some believe that it is unacceptable to sell to foreigners, others believe that restrictions on the amount of land for sale are needed, while others believe that it is necessary to set a price. A mere 8% are in favor of the absolute sale of land without any conditions. Therefore, in any case there will be those who will be dissatisfied with the project. It must be understood that this issue will be used by reform opponents. And there are someone there, and they have learned well over the 19 years of the moratorium.

– Where does the mythology of the land issue come from?

– It is interesting that many opponents of the land sale say that the land should belong to the person who cultivates it. But our survey showed that almost half of landowners rent it out and do not cultivate it. And we are well aware that mostly large corporations rent land. A mere 48% of owners cultivate it. And 38% of them are actually engaged in subsistence farming, they grow products for themselves, not for sale. A mere 10% can be classified as farmers.

– It seems logical, urbanization is taking over the world… 

– To be sure, census should be conducted because, according to statistics, 30% of the population lives in rural areas. I am sure this figure is lower. And the number will get smaller and smaller. In the developed countries, the percentage of rural population is 10-20%. That is the 10% that run farms.

– We have talked about the issues of Donbas, the land issues that affect or may affect social condition of people. How about the economic situation? The government and Zelenskyi pay much attention to the economy in their public speeches. How important is it?

– For people, it is not so much their economic situation that matters, but their own financial situation. And in the last year or two, there has been a significant increase in income. In my opinion, an important role was played by visa abolition – it’s not about going abroad to have a cup of coffee. The visa abolition has partially opened the European labor market: go for two months unofficially-semi-officially to work, reach an agreement, stay officially, etc. This means that the outflow of human resources is quite significant, and employers in Ukraine were forced to raise salaries. Otherwise they would not have employees. Salaries increased throughout Ukraine, with no corresponding increase in labor efficiency. I do not know how much it can be raised without efficiency increase.

– Look, the previous government was a champion in raising the minimum wage and raising the incomes of state employees, but it did not lead to the popularity of Hroisman or Poroshenko…

– Because people expected more. How much more is the question. But remember that no one knows exactly about the well-being of people – a very large proportion in the shadow economy. Each and every has raised the issue of deshadowing the economy. So what?

– When some real things started to deshadow the economy, for example, the introduction of cash registers, people started crying – businesses are being suffocated!

– Yes. That’s what I want to talk about. You know, taxes and deshadowing also affect the oligarchs, but we don’t have many. And the shadow economy means a whole lot of people who are working there. Take a look at how many working people we have – 10-11 million. What about the rest? Of course, they are working too, but without official employment. This means they do not pay taxes at all. Have a look at the biographies of the newly elected MPs, at the amount of “unemployed” there. Were they living on welfare? Obviously, they were working and paid no taxes at all.

– Let’s go back to Zelenskyi. It seems that not quite democratic, in a way, populist actions and gestures of the president are perceived by society very well and positively.

– The main thing is fast. Fast and efficiently. And all these procedures are annoying for people.

– Doesn’t society push the president to authoritarianism with this perception? Do you see a threat to democracy in Ukraine?

– Yes. Moreover, we have always had a request for a strong leader. There is such an international question, and we will ask it again: “Do you think a strong leader will be able to do more for the country than all laws and discussions together?” And we usually get ‘yes’ from 60%. According to international indicators, this is an indicator of authoritarianism, a mere 27% is against. But we are shrewd sociologists, we are asking ф clarifying question: “Do you think that this strong leader should obey all laws of Ukraine, or sometimes, in the interests of the case, disobey these laws?” Then, almost 80% believe that the leader must comply with the law.

This is not quite authoritarianism, it is paternalism. That is, people believe that the God will come down to earth and do good quickly. But he must obey the laws of the country.

We are going to conduct this survey again – we’ll see.

You know, I invented a formula at one time: Ukrainians are more inclined to anarchy, while Russians to monarchy. And when Zelenskyi acts anarchically, people like it. In the imagination of people, he is more like Lukashenko rather than Putin. Lukashenko might have support here. And Putin can’t. We do not need a tyrant.

– But we need an honest father…

– Yes. We need an honest father. The annual monitoring of the Institute of Sociology has questions about the evaluation of different presidents.  So, for all time, among all the presidents (including US presidents), Lukashenko has always had the highest support.

– Does such attitude of Ukrainians prevent authoritarianism?

– No, I see the danger, but I think it does not come from public sentiment, or even from Zelenskyi himself. Rather, the political forces that team up around the president. These political forces may want to introduce some kind of single-party rule, I do not think they will want to usurp power. This can resonate with people. When we ask: “How many parties does Ukraine need?” some people respond that parties are not needed at all or only one party is needed. And this poses a threat.

For example, I am quite sure if you ask now: “Do you think that the Verkhovna Rada should be reduced to 100 MPs?” – most will be in favor. Why do we need so many MPs, why do we have to provide for these politicians? People were opposed to financing political parties. Moreover, in the trust rankings, parties are always at the bottom.

– Now it seems that confidence in the Parliament has reached an unprecedented 50%?

– Yes, the parliament has risen. But when we ask – do you trust the parties? They say no! Why – because parties are funded by oligarchs and protect their interests. It is stable. And when we ask people if they are ready to personally give money to a party that they will know for sure will represent their interests, a mere 10% is ready to do so. The sentiment is always as follows: “We don’t need these parties, we need a good president and that everything be done at the snap of a finger.”

– Is there any power, groups of people, social circles in Ukraine that can be a defense against authoritarianism in Ukraine?

– Active civil society, and this is not limited to public organizations. These are all active citizens. For example, when the new authorities decided to cancel the parade, the active citizens quickly got organized, and the authorities were then forced to hold their own parade and allow the “Walk of Dignity” parade.

– Are those people who came to this parade the part that might not support the “peace at any cost” formula?

– Yes. That too. Well, not all of them came, you see, but still some did. At their own expense, they quietly walked. It was a sign that “No, you can’t do anything you want.” I think that such restraining forces are always in Ukraine. Excuse me, but we have had two Maidans, if you please.

– Your 6-12 month public health and wellness projections.

– That’s a very long term…

– OK, 3-6 months. Bad and good scenario.

– A good scenario is when the government works successfully. By the way, I think that our government is by far not bad. We can argue about some people, but I said that for me the test of new authorities would be the government rather than President Zelenskyi. And the government withstood this test – the government is positive. If it is successful in reforming, if it can do what Zelenskyi spoke about today, that is: secure ownership, impede raiding, the first cases of the anti-corruption court, the verdicts of guilty, then it will be possible to reduce elitist corruption, the thieves will be finally scared, NABU will be given the opportunity to work, the first big investments will come. An important part of the positive scenario is that we do not agree to all Russia’s conditions in the peace process. Because, as I have said, it can lead to protests in society.

– And what about a bad scenario?

– And a bad scenario is when promises will not come true. If they make a lot of stupid things, and they are already done in some spheres. Well, for example, why did they need to break into the empty apartment of the former NBU head Valeriia Hontareva with guns and masks. Our foreign partners were shocked. What is that!?

– This is a signal from one of the oligarchs – Kolomoiskyi. How else can we explain that?

– I do not know. Kolomoiskyi does not control law enforcement agencies. Right? Decisive steps are good. People are expecting them. But, if they are decisive and stupid, this is the worst thing to do. This will scare away the investors even more. This will drive business further into the shadows. At least small and medium-sized businesses. For example, all of these attacks on individual entrepreneurs so that they paid more taxes. It is unclear why they started with individual entrepreneurs. They will not raise money, but they will slow down the economy.

They will agree to Russia’s terms on Donbas, and we will perform the Minsk agreements according to the priorities set by Russia. This obviously causes turmoil in Ukraine, chaos and havoc will begin. It is unlikely that the government will then hold out for more than a year, and what the future holds for us is unclear. Because there is no popular opposition either. This is a very bad scenario.

– What about the likelihood of a particular scenario?

– I’m an optimist. I would say 70% by 30%. And in fact, it will be something in between these scenarios. Some positive, some negative things, and very important, what the authorities are lacking now – the ability to hear criticism. Because they are now dismissing any criticism, any critics are “trolls who cooperated with the previous authorities”. This is wrong. Both authorities and experts have only one Ukraine. And we all wish Ukraine success, and Ukraine’s success, in this case, is the success of these authorities. Therefore, I sincerely wish it success.