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Zelensky’s Secret Weapon? The Ukrainian Civic Nation That Made Him
What happens when two political scientists, one Ukrainian and one American, who have studied Ukrainian political behaviour and identity together for years are faced with the horrific realization that not only are the country and people they study (their friends and family among them) targets of a horrific all-out Russian-invasion - but also - that ‘western’ policy makers, journalists, and even intelligence officers are misunderstanding the nature of the war, reasons for Russian aggression, as well as, capacity and strength of Ukrainian resistance? Well, they pause their R&Rs, rejig their planned books-in-progress, put over eight years of data collection (including 11 nationally representative surveys) and analyses to swift action, and write an empirically detailed and theoretically nuanced book that explains Ukraine’s resistance in 2022 as a story of both a nation and a leader.
That is what Henry Hale, my co-author, and I did in March 2022. When speaking on the news or with policy makers in the UK and US it became clear to us that much of the story was missing or misunderstood. We knew that we had the data few others did but more importantly we already had the analyses to show what can happen when a president works creatively and consistently (over several years) to shore up what social scientists call “civic national identity” - an inclusive version of who belongs to the nation, and links it to democratic, pro-European, and liberal values. Our research to-date was already showing that this phenomenon was happening over several waves of “rally around the flag” effects (in 2019 after his election, 2020-2021 during the worst periods of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then again in February 2022). We felt that it was vitally important to ensure that policy makers and other observers knew of this too. And so, The Zelensky Effect (Hurst/Oxford University Press), a term first used in my MOBILISE Project research in 2019, came into being as book hoping to reach diverse audiences world-wide.
In the book we make clear that this “effect” is not simply Zelensky’s doing alone. Providing a deeper historical perspective, which the book addresses in Chapters 2–4, we show how Zelensky himself is a product of a Ukrainian political culture steeped in the same sense of civic national belonging and duty that he advocates, advances, and now symbolizes. Herein lies Ukraine’s and Ukrainians’ success in the fight of their lives. It is also the formula behind what we call the Zelensky Effect. At the same time, we trace Zelensky’s political rise, historical Presidential campaign and win to show that there were key constituencies in Ukraine which he and his party Servant of The People helped rally. In fact, employing statistical analyses, we show how Zelensky rallied specifically south-eastern and Russophone Ukrainians (many of whose homes are on the front lines of the war today) to supporting democracy, pro-EU, and NATO policy preferences, and more generally to a fierce attachment to the contemporary Ukrainian state above all other identities they many hold.
Thus, in the book, we show that The Zelensky Effect, is like two sides of the same coin. It is both about the rich contemporary history of democratic Ukraine that raises, nurtures and “makes” Zelensky and millions just like him. Creating a generation of citizens fiercely attached to the Ukrainian state and its democratic future. And it is also about the ability of Zelensky himself to double down on this civic sense of belonging and duty, mirror it in his actions, and motivate even more ordinary Ukrainians to rally in support of their state and democracy.
Unlike other recent books on Ukraine, the war, or Zelensky, our book is unique in that it employs a rich array of original qualitative and quantitative data and analyses that we hope would please any contemporary politics expert, whilst providing both a history of independent Ukraine and a biography of Zelensky. By doing so, the book explains why Ukraine’s resistance has been so powerful, why so few expected it, and why Putin launched his war when he did (not least why his as well as western intelligence was so wrong). At the same time, we strove to keep the book highly readable, integrating this careful empirical contemporary history of Ukraine and Zelensky with colourful personal stories and humorous material from Zelensky’s career as a political satirist, TV star, and president (we even make Ukrainian song suggestions at the end of each chapter which we think convey the spirit of the themes). This multifaceted analysis allows the book to explode pre-war stereotypes of Zelensky as a political neophyte or “clown,” and supplies a balanced analysis of Zelensky’s rise to power and his presidency.
But this is not the only myth we bust empirically - we stress that a failure to understand Ukraine lies at the heart of Western intelligence failures, policy mistakes and misunderstanding among political scientists too. For one, Ukraine is not and was not the “divided nation” so often portrayed in mass media and much scholarship before February 2022. Second, we show that Zelensky was actually a relatively successful president prior to February 2022, not someone who only rose to the occasion when faced with Russia’s invasion. And third, we present evidence that Zelensky has been consistently underestimated in the West because his political opponents have had disproportionate influence in Western media and policymaking circles. And yet, at the same time, we warn that many Ukrainians (namely the so-called 25% who did not vote for him 2019 and remain strong critics) harbour strong doubts about Zelensky even as they now set their opposition aside in order to fight the war against Russia.
Zelensky might have not been the man that all Ukrainians wanted to win, or thought would be a good leader – but he proved many of them wrong. That being said, there remain serious critiques by his political opponents their supporters who when pressed would not support his presidency even if an overwhelming majority do. Thus, making it clear that Zelensky whilst beloved by many, is not able to rule as he simply pleases. He is a product of and born out of the Ukrainian civic nation and he will have to contend with Ukraine’s 44 million army’s (its citizens) preferences, be it in negotiations, reconstruction or even in the case of future peace-time policy reforms necessary for EU accession.
Olga Onuch @oonuch is Senior Lecturer [Associate Professor] in Politics at the University of Manchester. Her research appears regularly in The Washington Post, The Times, The Guardian, BBC, ITV, Al Jazeera, and others.
Her co-author, Henry E. Hale Henry E. Hale is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.
The Zelensky Effect | Hurst Publishers (Nov 2022)