Last year’s stunning victory by Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine’s Presidential election with 73% of the votes cast marked a seismic shift in Ukrainian politics. This was followed up by the equally stunning success of his newly minted Sluha Narodu party in the subsequent parliamentary elections, where it won an absolute majority of 254 or the 450 seats in the Verkhovna Rada.
Barely two years ago, Zelenskyy was just a popular comedian and entertainer with no political experience or ambition, and almost nobody, including myself would have predicted what would follow next. Ever since then, I have been trying to understand the causes and dynamics of this phenomenon. I believe I am finally starting to appreciate what happened, and the essence of it lies in the emerging influence of a new generation of Ukrainians that I have christened as the Zellenials.
A demographic analysis of Zelenskyy’s impressive victory shows that he won because he garnered the overwhelming support of the younger generations of Ukrainian voters. The distinguishing feature of this voting bloc is that they are Ukrainians who grew up in the post-Communist era, and did not inherit the repressed mind set and psychological scars of their parents’ generation who had been shaped by the brutal realities of Soviet life. Their values, expectations and strong desire to join the rest of the free and “westernized” world, spurred them to totally reject the existing political parties and leaders, and take a risk on something completely new and untainted by the corrupt and stagnating political establishment that had held sway since Ukraine became in dependent in 1991.
Prior to last year’s elections, I had seriously underestimated the level of discontent of this Zellenial generation and its determination to end the continuing domination of Ukrainian politics by a generation of politicians that were the last damaging legacy of the Soviet system. Though they espoused democracy and free enterprise, their real agendas were the acquisition of power, control and personal privilege. Under the Soviet system, they had learned the arts of manipulation, disinformation and populistic propaganda, and they used these to create the shady, oligarchic system that has ruled Ukraine for some three decades.
The older generation of Ukrainians, emerging from a lifetime of oppression, and lacking any knowledge or experience of democratic processes, were easily manipulated into accepting a token amount of democracy and some minor improvement in their economic well-being, while the shrewd and well-positioned ex-Soviet bureaucrats and power brokers seized control of the country’s wealth and all of the power. Those older generations are now dying off, and the emerging Zellenial majority have now made it clear that they are, to borrow a phrase, “mad as hell, and won’t take it anymore!”
In retrospect, I wonder how it was that I didn’t see this coming? The answer to that is two-fold. First of all, most of my contacts in Ukraine that I rely on to stay on top of what is happening there, are people mostly of my age and generation, i.e. they are of that older generation of Ukrainians that grew up in a “Soviet” Ukraine. Consequently, I was only getting a partial perspective of what was happening in contemporary Ukrainian society.
Secondly, my analysis of Ukrainian politics is heavily influenced by the diaspora factor. A lot of my sources for Ukrainian news and views comes from Ukrainian media and organizations here in Canada, as well as the U.S. These sources deal primarily with the dominant political, cultural and media establishment in Ukraine, which are not necessarily reflective of grass-roots realities, especially amongst young Ukrainians. The end result has been that I have been getting a biased view of what has been happening in Ukraine over the past few years, something which troubles me and needs to change if I hope to remain a knowledgeable and relevant observer and analyst of Ukrainian affairs.
I am going to be visiting Ukraine in a few months time, after an absence of some eight years. I am determined on this visit to spend a little less time with my traditional older contacts and relatives and prioritize getting together and listening to the Zellenials – those in the twenty to thirty-five years of age bracket, who are now shaping Ukraine’s future. I obviously have a knowledge gap that needs attending to.