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Through the paths of wrong choices - or why Ukrainians believe in populism so much

By Maryna Balamut

Vyacheslav Chornovil

As it is known, history does not know the words ‘what if?’. It consists of facts, events that have already occurred and are unchangeable. We can only learn from past mistakes. We can do this, but why don’t we do it?

Indeed this phrase ‘what if’ is always so sweet. You constantly look back at your past, the past of your country, and constantly think ‘what if?’.

What if we had made a different choice? What if I were there? What would have gone differently, and how would it have changed the future? What was done wrong?

These thoughts often cross my mind when I reflect on the history of the Presidency in our Ukraine. I am Ukrainian and sincerely love my country and the people who live there. But, honestly, sometimes I don’t understand the choices of our people.

So, let’s start from the beginning. The first elections in independent Ukraine. We had two main candidates, Leonid Kravchuk and Viacheslav Chornovil. I cannot remember those times and judge the honesty and transparency of those elections. But Chornovil seemed like the obvious winner. He was the man who secured independence for Ukraine, one of the most legendary figures in modern Ukraine. A person who devoted his entire life to Ukraine, maybe even his death. But in the elections, the non-partisan Leonid Kravchuk wins.

In my opinion, this was the biggest ‘wrong turn’ because Ukraine desperately needed a patriotic president at that time. As Hrushevskyi (the first President of Ukraine) once wrote, ‘The misfortune of Ukraine is that it is governed by those who do not need it.’ Powerful words from a great man that are unfortunately still relevant today.

Perhaps Chornovil stepped back and weakened his campaign because he was hinted that an independent Ukraine could only exist with a pro-Russian president. But Chornovil, a person with undeniable political talent, should have understood all the consequences of such an action, if, of course, he had a choice.

In the next elections, a pro-Russian president, Kuchma, won. And sadly, he stayed in power for two terms. In a country already in deep crisis, where people survive on pennies, with a terrible salary debt, they re-elect the same person for a second term.  For the expensive pre-election campaign and promises of a quick, rosy future. Certainly, taking into account the fact that Kuchma had very weak opponents is important. Chornovil, a person who could truly compete, tragically dies in a strange car accident just before the elections. As a result, the main opponent becomes a candidate from the Communist Party.

Finally, when one more pro-Russian president wins the elections, our country starts to wake up. The Maidan happens. The Ukrainian people finally manage to be heard, society learns to defend its choice. And the events of 2014 confirm this. The second Maidan, where the people protest against the same person imposed on them by Russia. This Maidan definitively shows that Ukraine rejects Russian influence and pro-Russian politicians. We paid dearly for it and continue to pay, but it was necessary.

After the Maidan, it seemed like Ukraine was moving in the right direction. The military potential grows, ties with Russia are severed, an independent church is created. Maybe not as quickly as desired due to problems, but the economy is growing, the state is becoming stronger.

And then, in the 2019 elections, I understand the truth of our problems. Yes, Ukrainians have learned to demand respect for their choice. But have they learned how to make that choice?

I did not vote for Zelensky (although I was his fan when he was an actor). I opposed him from the beginning and I still do. But I believe he legitimately came to power. Those 73% did vote for him. Most people I knew voted for him, 90% of my family and friends. So, there was indeed a majority for Zelensky, unquestionably. We saw in 2004 and 2014 what happens when elections are manipulated in Ukraine. But why do Ukrainians vote this way? I couldn’t believe that a nation that went through two revolutions, sacrificing so much to protect their rights and freedoms, continues to blindly believe in populism, in the image on the screen, in a nice picture, in sweet words and promises of quick improvement.

There are many reasons, probably a topic for separate research, but it seems to me that one of the main reasons is that the majority of Ukrainians (especially the older population) lack any political education and experience in making choices. Schools in Ukraine during Soviet times did not provide any political-legal knowledge. They taught that there was only one party and that was it. Society was not taught how the political-legal system works, how decisions are made in the country, who is responsible for them, and who should implement them.

So I urge all Ukrainian citizens, let’s learn ourselves and teach our children for their future. Let’s teach them how to make the right choice, explain to them that this choice determines everything and how it’s all connected. Let’s look a bit deeper than beautiful posters and nice words. Understand how realistic the candidates’ promises are and what consequences they may have. And even better, look at what they have already done in real life.


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