Social media outlets in Ukraine this past week have gone to the dogs, literally. It all started when a member of Ukraine’s parliament from President Zelenskyy’s ruling party, Yevhen Brahar, made a somewhat flippant, and in retrospect highly unfortunate remark when asked how cash-strapped pensioners would be able to cope with the recent significant increase in the price of gas for heating. He said they should sell some of their assets, such as their dog for instance.
Since then, there has been no end of satirical and often hilarious posts taking this meme to the extreme. There have been numerous posts, calculating how many dogs one would need to sell to pay for heat during this winter, posts showing terrified dogs trying to escape their owners, posts asking how long one could live on one dog, and posts asking whether selling cats was allowable as well. One post I saw showed a man being asked whether he would be paying for gas with cash or credit, and he replied, neither – that he had an elite show dog! Another post claimed that Ukraine now had a new currency, the Pes-o, a play on the Ukrainian word for dog “Pes”.
This latest issue “dogging” President Zelenskyy’s government reflects some of the difficulty he will have in making much needed economic reforms. The price of natural gas has always been heavily subsidized by the government, and the recent increase in prices to consumers was meant to bring it closer to the real market price, which it should be in a true free-enterprise economy. While the Ukrainian economy has been improving in recent years, pensioners who live on a fixed income have been finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, and are being forced to unfairly, in their minds, bear the brunt of such increases.
As painful as this cost of living increase may be to some, there is one encouraging aspect about how this is playing out in Ukraine. Ukrainians are showing their displeasure, not by protests and riots in the street, but with a wicked sense of humour that is likely to be far more effective in making the required impact on the government. Ridicule can be a very potent weapon.
To me, all this also demonstrates that a certain amount of civil society maturity has evolved in Ukraine, and that despite continuing challenges, there is growing optimism about the future. The Ukrainian economy is improving steadily with good GDP growth and a stable currency, the Hryvnia, that is in fact increasing in value against the major world currencies. Average salaries have more than doubled over the past three years. Ukrainians are now able to travel visa-free throughout Europe, and many are making good wages working in neighbouring European countries.
All this is being reflected in various recent polls in Ukraine that measure levels of national satisfaction and optimism. One such poll showed that some 60% of Ukrainians believe that 2020 will be a better year than 2019. Another one showed that 44% of the population thought that Ukraine was developing in the right direction. While 44% is not a majority, one should keep in mind that a decade ago, a similar poll had that number at 9%.
One should also note that President Zelenskyy’s popularity also continues to hold steady despite some minor setbacks, crises and gaffes. A December poll showed that he still had an approval rating of 62% with the Ukrainian population. By and large, Ukrainians are giving Zelenskyy the benefit of the doubt for now.
There is obviously a fairly vociferous and vocal minority of Ukrainians that do not look kindly upon Zelenskyy and his government, and who are convinced that he has a subversive and anti-Ukrainian agenda. Opposing political forces are more than happy to fuel such perceptions, though I seriously doubt that there is much substance to such claims. Considering his background, history and experience, Zelenskyy may be a flawed and less than ideal President, but Ukraine has seen far worse in the past three decades, and at least with Zelenskyy there is some hope and promise that Ukraine may in the near term future escape from the clutches of oligarchs, corruption and political and economic stagnation.