The third best result of Oleh Liashko in the early presidential elections was a great surprise. More than 8 percent of the electorate voted for him. What attracted voters in this eccentric and rather strange Ukrainian politician, for just 18 months ago his Radical Party gained a mere 1.08 percent of votes? “I voted for a politician who, unlike the others, never compromised himself, who spoke the truth, and who never went back on this word,” says Kateryna from Kyiv, who supported Liashko. Let us not go now into the details of the fact the third best runner in the presidential race is not at all whiter than white, as it may seem to many. Moreover, he is not a novice in politics – he has held official offices.
Liashko is positioning himself today as strong, principled, and strong-willed. His high-sounding slogans are full of national and bellicose populism. He is witty, not squeamish about a biting or even foul word, and his phrases are often widely quoted and become Internet memes. Oleh Liashko is not afraid to “lay it in the line” at the Verkhovna Rada and TV evening-time talk shows, with Regionnaires and Communists, as well as former oppositionists, coming under his scathing criticism. But, as talk show host Savik Shuster confessed in 2013, Liashko was a regular guest of his programs at the request of the Presidential Administration headed by Serhii Liovochkin at the time.
In the latest election campaign, Liashko absorbed most of the Ukrainian nationalist sentiments, the proof of which is his high rating and lukewarm support for Svoboda and Right Sector candidates.
So what is the phenomenon of Liashko?
“IN NO WAY CAN LIASHKO BE COMPARED TO ZHIRINOVSKY”
Vadym SKURATIVSKY, art critic, historian, literature researcher, political writer:
“Liashko is a politician who takes advantage of the national character features that emerged centuries ago. Whenever a Catholic insulted a Ukrainian, the latter was at first patient but then drew a saber if he was a servicemen or a rake if he was a peasant. The electoral masses are fond of this as a matter of national instinct. Whenever Liashko appeared in parliament in the last while and said ‘bastard’ to a gentleman, everybody seemed to agree with him. As he comes from my native Chernihiv region, I like this behavior. And not only I. The point is the Ukrainian grassroots have experienced so much that they are ready to grab the same implement to show their role in history.
“Tiahnybok- or Yarosh-type nationalists are full of ideology and Stepan Bandera quotations. This is, to a large extent, an intellectual phenomenon associated with the three founding fathers of the most radical nationalism: Dmytro Dontsov, Stepan Bandera, and… Vladimir Putin. The latter is one of the most energetic cofounders of radical Ukrainian nationalism. By contrast, Liashko is a purely peasant-style phenomenon, which reminds me of my grandfather at the moment when he was being ‘dispossessed as a kulak.’ For this reason, I take a positive attitude to Mr. Liashko, although I vote for other characters.
“We do not know to what extent frankly he does this. We must ask him about this. But we know that he shouted at Symonenko in parliament: ‘And this bastard has come here and is barking.’ But this at least shows the way the oppositionist peasant and the rank-and-file Cossack behaved in history.
“Society is divided into daredevils and very cautious ones. I think among those who voted for Liashko were also doctors of sciences whose nerves were on edge.
“In no way can he be compared to Zhirinovsky, for the latter is a provincial bastard who knows which side his bread is buttered on. I can judge about the behavior of this character as a visual arts expert, but it is an imitation lizard that accordingly changes its color. And he is an absolute KGB derivative. Zhirinovsky is absolutely in power that dominates in Russia this time or another. It is an ugly creature, for it has defiled the two sacred ‘substances’ of Western civilization – ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic.’”
“HE MIRRORS SENTIMENTS OF THE PEOPLE WHO ARE ‘AGAINST All’”
Volodymyr FESENKO, political scientist:
“Liashko mirrors, as some other do, certain significant trends in Ukrainian politics and society. In this country, elections are won by those who comply with topical political sentiments and the national particularities of our politics. If you fit in with these sentiments, you will succeed in the elections, which the Liashko phenomenon has confirmed.
“His success is comparable with that of Svoboda in 2012. The situations are different, but the demand for radicalism and political toughness is the same. Add to this mistrust towards the politicians who have long been in parliament and acted accordingly. Conversely, Liashko is an unconventional figure that differs from the others by its shocking behavior. He has opposed himself to all the other – Batkivshchyna, Poroshenko, and the Regionnaires.
“Liashko mirrors sentiments of the people who are ‘against all.’ And, incidentally, this also played for the success of Vadym Rabinovych. What also played is that Liashko is a very organic figure for the central Ukrainian hinterland. Even his language and manners confirm this. It is mostly Volyn and central Ukraine that voted for him.
“On the other hand, there is a demand for new faces, new leaders. The people who sought these leaders did not vote for Poroshenko or Tymoshenko – they voted for Liashko, Hrytsenko, and Bohomolets. Then differences in the voters’ life philosophies played their role. Those who took a more rational approach to the choice voted for Hrytsenko or Bohomolets and those who took a less rational approach voted for Liashko.
“Liashko has in fact filled the niche of aggressive Ukrainian populism which has defeated Ukrainian nationalists. He stole the voices of those who had previously voted for Svoboda which they considered as ‘opposition commandos.’ But it turned that they were no commandos. Besides, about 2/3 of Liashko’s electorate used to be Tymoshenko’s voters.
“Just a year ago, well before the Maidan, Liashko played the role of a ‘troll.’ He trolled his former Batkivshchyna friends and some oppositionists. He was a functional figure on television. Then an interesting thing occurred: some people liked him – not his trolling but his image and style. Liashko began to be used as a ‘promising candidate.’ In Europe, too, there is a demand for shocking politicians. We have a different context but the same trend. Spin masters and investors have noticed this.
“After the Maidan, Liashko waited for advice from those who had financed him before, but he began to show activity, which was his personal choice. Like Poroshenko, he is one of those who reaped the greatest benefit from the Maidan, and Liashko began to use his aggressiveness in a new political reality not only in word – he began to fight, in the literal sense of the word, in the east. People liked this because voters prefer the politics of action. Liashko’s past is of lesser interest to voters.”