President Viktor Yanukovych and ex-football star Andriy Shevchenko shake hands this summer, before Shevchenko announced on July 28 that he was leaving the sport to join the Ukraine-Forward Party led by member of parliament Nataliya Korolevska.
Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine’s most accomplished football player and all-around golden boy, recently announced he was retiring from football to pursue a career in politics and would run for parliament in the Oct. 28 election. Shevchenko aligned himself with the small Ukraine-Forward Party, which is in the middle of a star-studded media blitz that has also seen prominent Ukrainian actor Ostap Stupka join its ranks.
Despite technically joining an opposition party, Shevchenko’s opposition credentials have been short-lived, both because the announcement came just a day after a high-profile meeting between Shevchenko and President Viktor Yanukovych heavy with smiles and handshakes, and because as political scientist and pundit Andreas Umland put it: “Andriy Shevchenko has joined Korolevska’s Ukraine-Forward! - a puppet party whose sole task is to drag away voters from the opposition parties.”
So far, the mysterious source of Ukraine-Forward’s bursting election war chest, surprising for a party uncertain to even make it past the five-percent threshold and into the Rada, supports that claim.
Ukraine-Forward’s charm offensive and Soviet throwback name aside, however, Shevchenko’s newfound political career is still part of a wider trend: celebrities playing an ever larger role in Ukrainian politics.
Perhaps most notable is WBC heavyweight champion, Vitali Klitshko.
Klitschko has previously unsuccessfully run for mayor of Kyiv, and his party, UDAR, has competed in regional elections and will also be competing in the parliamentary contest (though apparently it won’t be coordinating its campaign with the main opposition party, Fatherland).
Though less politically accomplished, even Andriy Danylko, better known as the sequined Eurovision star Verka Serduchka, once tried to register his own political bloc. Originally called “Against Everyone,” after the popular ballot option that allowed voters to vote against all listed candidates, it was later renamed “For Our Own.”
Though Danylko’s short-lived political career verged closer on farce than the more serious efforts by Klitschko and now Shevchenko, his parody struck close to the truth. The name of his would-be block, “For Our Own,” has strong overtones of corruption, emphasizing how parties work to benefit themselves and their backers. At the same time, this pervasive corruption is the same reason so many Ukrainian celebrities feel the need to take vows of political service.
Celebrities’ campaigns, of course, are in and of themselves assertions that “professional” politicians are incapable of solving Ukraine’s problems (a claim many Ukrainians would agree with and not unrelated to corruption). The appeal is that with career politicians unable or unwilling to do what needs to be done,new decisive and effective decision makers need to be pulled in from other arenas; essentially that Shevchenko could lead Ukraine to victory as easily as he did so many football teams, or that Klitshko could knock out Ukraine’s problems from corruption to the global financial crisis as easily as he does boxers.
Ukraine’s career politicians are no fools, however, and celebrities wishing to bring Ukraine salvation through their newfound political involvement are often unsurprisingly unsure exactly how to do that. They need established politicians and parties, minor or major, to aid their transition. For their part, the celebrities provide newfound window-dressing and sex appeal to stale parties unable or uninterested in distinguishing themselves from other parties, as Shevchenko is now doing for Ukraine-Forward.
This certainly is the case in Ukraine’s large neighbor to the north, where an impressive array of actors, singers, and models are used to spruce up the otherwise monotonous dominance of Putin’s United Russia.
But there is more to it than that. Parties across the world run on politicians’ appeal and personal charisma, but in Ukraine personalities and parties are linked in a way they are in few other countries. Parties coalesce around personalities they then live and die with. Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine died with his own political career, and President Viktor Yanukovych seems to believe Fatherland will waste away without Tymoshenko and Lutsenko. He may well be right.
The issue is that in Ukraine people trust individuals and not parties. It is hard to say why. Perhaps it is the result of so long being part of a state with only one party in no particular hurry to help anyone and individual contacts were the only way to get anything done, perhaps it is part of a longer tradition of electing and following charismatic leaders that goes back to the Zaporizhian Sich and beyond.
No matter what the reason, the strength of a party is dependent on the strength of its defining personality, or occasionally personalities. Ukrainian celebrities are able to make such easy transitions into politics because they are able to transfer the trust and respect they earned in another field into political capital. The fact that they don’t come from within the broken political establishment only works to their advantage.
Freelance journalist Ian Bateson can be followed on Twitter here: @ianbateson.