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IRI Expert Explores Trends in Ukrainian Public Opinion in Atlantic Council Blog

August 30, 2017

Things Are Looking Up in Ukraine 

UkraineAlert (Atlantic Council) 

By Katie LaRoque 

For the first time since Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity, the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) polls show a slight improvement in the country. It’s finally possible to be cautiously optimistic about Ukraine. Here are the four key takeaways from IRI’s latest national public opinion survey.

1. Households are beginning to feel the economic recovery. Although overall public perceptions of Ukraine’s economic performance remain negative, since February 2016 views of the national economy and household finances have been trending upwards. This finding is significant, as the World Bank and other bodies have reported that the economy is beginning to recover.

Although the public has just begun to feel the economy rebound, the data indicates that voters are not giving credit to the national government. President Petro Poroshenko's and the Cabinet of Ministers’ approval ratings remain low at 17 percent and 15 percent, respectively. This dissatisfaction is likely due to ongoing frustrations with the state of the country, including the troubling fact that corruption is now statistically tied with the military conflict in the Donbas as the most important issue facing Ukraine.

2. Visa-free travel to the EU is having a positive effect on Ukrainian society. In June, Poroshenko marked Ukraine’s first day of visa-free travel to EU countries by saying it represented “a final exit of our country from the Russian Empire.” IRI’s poll found increased favorable attitudes toward the EU and its member countries, which we anticipate will continue to grow as the effects of visa-free travel continue to sink in.

3. Ukraine’s political landscape continues to shift. Although many analysts agree that early parliamentary elections would be problematic for the country, IRI fields regular “ballot test” questions to assess shifts in support for Ukraine’s many political parties. This poll found that in the event of early parliamentary elections, the following political parties would cross the five-percent threshold (when looking at the responses of “likely voters”): Fatherland (Batkivshchyna), For Life (Za Zhyttia), Radical Party, Bloc Petro Poroshenko, and Opposition Bloc.

Given the policy platforms of these parties, it would undoubtedly prove challenging for a “pro-European” governing coalition to form. Moreover, two of Ukraine’s pro-European parties, Self-Reliance (Samopomich) and Civic Position, may not have sufficient support among likely voters to enter parliament—though they are still within the margin of error.

Below is a chart illustrating how Ukraine’s political party landscape has shifted since February 2014.

4. Local-level progress and optimism are real. In addition to its national sample, this IRI poll also included “deep dive” oversamples in the cities of Dnipro, Mariupol, Khmelnytskyi, and Mykolaiv, where IRI is active. Consistent with previous IRI poll findings, and in contrast to the overall national situation, there continues to be a discernable sense of optimism at the municipal level. In contrast to the high levels of pessimism in each city on the national level, poll respondents are considerably more optimistic about the direction of their municipality:

City  Right Track for Ukraine   Right Track for City
Dnipro 20%   55%
Khmelnytskyi  37%   75%
Mariupol 7%   55%
Mykolaiv 16%   32%

For example, 55 percent of Mariupol residents believe that their city is going in the right direction, while only 7 percent say Ukraine is headed in the right direction. This is remarkable given the fact that Mariupol is on the frontlines of the ongoing war with Russia.

Support for local governments (i.e., both mayors and city councils) is quite high across the cities surveyed, particularly compared to national authorities’ ratings. Additionally, an overwhelming percentage of residents are proud of their cities. This suggests that Ukrainian communities are seeing the benefits of local reforms—and it is this energy and progress that is keeping the spirit of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity alive.

Although much work remains in Ukraine, particularly in the fight against corruption, this recent data shows encouraging signs that visa-free travel and the economic recovery are starting to have an impact on the national level, and clearly reflects progress at the local level. Despite the many challenges that remain—particularly in the low approval ratings of political parties—there may be reason for cautious optimism.

Katie LaRoque is the Program Manager for Ukraine at the International Republican Institute. She tweets @katielaroque.