“War, Peace and Populist Discourse in Ukraine” by Olga Baisha, an associate professor at the Faculty of Creative Industries at the Higher School of Economics
Moscow hosted the presentation of the book “War, Peace and Populist Discourse in Ukraine”, published by the international scientific publishing house Routledge. The work’s author is Olga Baisha, an associate professor at the Faculty of Creative Industries at the Higher School of Economics and the author of four monographs on the discursive construction of the Ukrainian crisis.
Let’s start with basic definitions and concepts. The title of your book contains the term “populist discourse”. What is it, and on what principles is it built?
We speak of populism when one or another political or public figure presents a complex social reality consisting of many conflicting interests of various social groups as a simple dichotomy of “good people” and “bad elites”.
The people are thus discursively constructed as something homogeneous and presented as the bearer of all that is good. And the elite – of all that is bad (evil). The danger of this populist simplification of reality is that it destroys any symbolic space necessary for communication, negotiation and compromise. This is fraught with the most acute social conflicts.
The task of society is to unbalance the dichotomies proposed by populists. It is necessary to proceed from the understanding that, whatever the goals and objectives of populists, the result of their activities can be the destruction of the possibility for compromise and eternal conflict. Both internal and external.
What exactly is the problem of populism among Ukrainian political elites in the context of the crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relations?
The populism preached by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is civilizational populism.
Ukraine is presented as an integral part of the global civilized community that opposes barbaric Russia.
Zelensky calls Russians people of the Middle Ages who have no idea what civilization is. Stop the invasion of the barbarians on the civilized world! With this message, he almost daily, since the start of a special military operation, addressed world audiences. It is in an attempt to create a global anti-Russian coalition.
Russians in Zelensky’s speeches are called monsters, freaks, cattle, nonhumans, etc. Such discursive constructions do not imply the existence of anything in common between the warring parties.
This extreme degree of antagonism is the narrative of Armageddon. The final battle between Good and Evil.
What was the starting point of such a discourse in Ukraine? By whom and when was it launched?
Anti-Russian populist discourse (“we are not them”) has become dominant in Ukraine since the victory of Euromaidan in 2014. But even before his victory, when the leaders of the Euromaidan were talking about its peaceful and democratic nature, stories were already heard from the podium of the central square of Kiev that Ukrainians are free people with self-respect, opposing “slaves”, “Colorados”, “scoops “and” padded jackets.
The latter, according to the speakers at the Maidan, lived in the East of Ukraine. In regions that massively advocated close ties with Russia. They were not seen as normal Ukrainians. They were “radically excluded” (in the language of Ernesto Laclau, the populist theorist) from Ukrainian society.
These “others” were excluded from the field of political representation in Ukraine. First symbolically (discursively) and, after the victory of the Maidan, also physically. Anti-Maidan activists were killed, imprisoned and simply intimidated.
How does the entry into politics of Vladimir Zelensky fit into this context?
At the beginning of Zelensky’s political career, the “people” to whom the former comedian appealed were different from the “people” to whom the right-wing radicalism of the Maidan appealed.
In Zelensky’s view, the people of Ukraine, although they spoke different languages, were still a single whole. “What difference does it make who speaks what language?” Zelensky asked, addressing his future voters in Russian.
The “radical excluded” of Zelensky’s “Ukrainian people” at that moment was only the oligarchs and their puppets. Or – corrupt politicians and paid radicals of various persuasions.
It is noteworthy that in the series Servant of the People, where Zelensky played the fictional president of Ukraine, Vasyl Goloborodko and which he used as an informal election program, residents of the western and eastern parts of the country unite when they throw off their corrupt rulers from the thrones.
Considering that Zelenskiy himself owned the studio that produced the series and was involved in the development of the script, this was his own extremely simplified vision of the socio-political field of Ukraine. As he admitted in a few campaign interviews, “We didn’t make it all up. We all felt it.”
Zelensky’s “feelings,” reflected in the series, implied the following: it is enough to destroy the old system of political power, peace will reign in the country by itself, all contradictions will disappear, and Ukraine will turn into a prosperous state.
Why, unlike the Ukrainian one, the Russian state narrative does not find such international support and remains exclusively marginal in the West? What are the possible ways to solve this problem?
Global media are controlled by the same global institutions of power, in the interests of which the coup on the Maidan was carried out first, and then the “coup” in a different sense, when a poorly educated and completely inexperienced joker in politics was brought to power, which is easy to manage.
It is absolutely obvious that in this scenario, there is no chance that the Russian narrative will be presented at least on an equal footing with what Zelensky says.
Note that from February 24, 2022, to October 10, 2022, he delivered 127 speeches to Western audiences. On average, 1 speech or interview in 2 days. This opportunity was created for him by the same global neoliberal centres interested in Ukraine remaining in the zone of their undeniable influence.
No other modern statesman had such an opportunity.
The question is not even whether Zelensky himself wrote all the speeches he made. The question is, who controls the global information space? Who turns his speech into a normalized representation of reality.
How to deal with it? Use alternative media – they also exist. Among educated people in the same West, the demand for these media is huge. Write scientific articles, and books. Also, speak at conferences, and educate critically thinking intellectual elites. There will always be someone who will read and hear. And it is possible that this “someone” represents future elites who will decide the fate of the global world tomorrow.
As Michel Foucault said, modern power works capillary, and it can be resisted similarly. We do not like postmodernists and in vain. They analyzed just the same Western society with which we are dealing today. It needs to be studied and understood.