Understanding Ukraine’s Internet Party Politics Through 'Star Wars'
Ukrainians are using 'Star Wars' characters to show the absurdity of their elected officials and their political system.
You’ll find Ukraine is full of surprises. It’s where Chewbacca was arrested while driving Darth Vader to elections in the city of Odessa. In that same port city, Emperor Palpatine won an election for city council. Ukrainians also redecorated a statue of former Soviet Premier Vladimir Lenin into a statue honoring the actual dark lord of the Sith, Darth Vader.
The Star Wars shenanigans can be traced to the Internet Party of Ukraine, a tangential party trying to upend political apathy. But the bizarre mix of wookiees and ballots goes beyond one party. Devin Ackles, a political and economic risk consultant who works for the non-profit political think tank CASE Ukraine and has lived in Ukraine for years, explained Ukrainians’ absurdist fanboy politics.
Sean Hutchinson: Are you aware of the Internet Party of Ukraine? Where did they come from?
Devin Ackles: Yes, I’m aware that the party exists. They were founded back in 2007 and had their first official “convention” then as well, though they were only officially registered as a party in Ukraine in 2011. It was allegedly founded by Dmitry Golubov, a hacker from the city of Odessa who used to run a card scam website to steal credit card/debit card information via viruses called CardPlanet with dozens of other Russian and Ukrainian hackers.
He hasn’t had much to do with the party for some time. In 2005 he was arrested by the Ukrainian authorities based on information provided by Russia’s FSB and the U.S. Treasury Department. After sitting for a few months in prison while his case was ongoing, the court decided to place him under house arrest. The bail needed to pay for his house arrest was paid for by two Party of Regions MPs. This is and was President Yanukovych’s party. He’s the president who fled Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution. After years of appeals, the court cited a lack of evidence and dismissed the charges against him. In all likelihood, the politicians convinced — bribed — the judge to have the charges dismissed.
Golubov is actually an MP in national parliament now (the Verkhovna Rada) and is a member of the current president’s party, the “Poroshenko Bloc”. Judging by his voting record, he more or less votes the party line. He’s the author of 17 draft laws, a respectable number – though only one has passed.
So how serious is their reach within Ukrainian politics?
The party is basically a non-entity in Ukrainian politics. It got a lot of media attention last year and this year as well with their publicity stunts, but in the 2014 parliamentary elections they got only 0.36 percent of the vote, which is about 58,197 votes. None of their members were elected. It appears they ran in 2015 in the local and regional elections as well, but none of their people were elected either.
Interestingly enough, an unrelated party called the Darth Vader Bloc was registered in 2015 and ran in the local elections. None of their candidates won.
But what about the Emperor Palpatine who won a local election?
Dmitry Palpatine did win a seat in the Odessa City Council, but it was for another party called Believe in Action. He also has an officially registered business called the Palpatine Financial Group, though they don’t appear to be doing any real business. It was just registered for fun.
The Internet Party has a very minimal reach within Ukrainian politics and mostly appeal to individuals who are disenchanted with the way dirty politics work here. People find it humorous. Their party program for the 2014 elections, which they are required by law to submit if they’re running, called for eliminating most government bureaucracy services by replacing them with e-services. It’s not too far from what most reformers are calling for as a means of taking out the middleman and ending a lot of the corruption that goes on at various levels of government.
Why do you think members of the party or otherwise have latched on to Star Wars as a focus in particular?
The party has its origins in Odessa, a city that is historically known for its absurd sense of humor throughout the former Soviet Union. Ukrainian politics are so absurd, from the endless populism to the false divides politicians try to create between voters, that following the Maidan Revolution, the annexation of Crimea, and the war starting in the Donbass, this was a way to have a good bit of fun and make things a little less tense.
They seemed to try pretty hard.
They’ve invested in high quality costumes, officially registered themselves for elections, legally changed their names – they went all the way!
The candidates actually went so far as to get their first and last names changed, though they kept their proper middle names like Darth Viktorovich Vader, Emperor Viktorovich Palpatine, Stepan Mikhailovich Chewbacca, Padme Mykolaivna Amidala, and Master Volodymyrovych Yoda.
You mentioned the region’s longstanding sense of humor. Has there been anything similar to this on the local or national level in Ukrainian politics before?
While there is a strong culture of humor surrounding all things political in Ukraine, this is the first time that there has been this much publicity surrounding something like this. There hasn’t ever been another party that has dedicated itself to the kind of publicity that the Internet Party of Ukraine has with their antics, nor others who have taken up the Star Wars banner. No one else has really done anything similar in the past.
By co-opting the political process is this just a juvenile semi-prank instead of a serious move?
More than anything it’s public theater of the absurd. While they did submit a serious party program in 2014, they haven’t engaged voters in real discussion about their platform or what they are hoping to achieve if they were elected into office.
What do you think this kind of political representation by way of fictional characters says about the current Ukrainian political climate?
The political scene in Ukraine is full of its own characters and the public takes great delight in coming up with pet names for some of the more popular individuals, typically based on a physical or personal characteristic. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, for example, is regularly humorously referred to as “rabbit” because of his resemblance to the Soviet version of Winnie the Pooh.
Despite the very serious issues facing Ukraine today, problems that could lead to it failing as a state or losing its sovereignty, Ukrainian politicians continue to make promises of reform, to fight corruption, and even when there is a war going on and people are dying to protect the country, they continue to perpetuate the same corrupt schemes and behind-closed-door deals that they did before.
There is a great deal of despair among the Ukrainian public about the lack of political leadership and the untrustworthiness of even the most “patriotic” politicians, whom all seem to be tied up in one or another corrupt network.
Do you think these pop culture political moves within Ukraine have any bearing on politics elsewhere? Is it simply self-contained?
The general apathy which has plagued Ukrainian politics for much of its history since becoming independent again in 1991 is not unique to Ukraine, but is found throughout much of the former Soviet Union. The difference is that in Ukraine, like in Georgia, the public gets fed up with politicians constantly lying to them, stealing their taxpayer money for their own personal enrichment, and encroaching on their freedom.
A majority of other former Soviet republics have many of the same problems that Ukraine has traditionally had, but in places like Belarus and Kazakhstan, the public generally prefers “stability,” or the absence of any significant economic turbulence, which many associated with the fall of the Soviet Union or the late 1990s – both of which are related to eras of “instability” that was caused by reform.
In the long run, however, the political changes in Ukraine will have a significant impact on the future of nearly all of the former Soviet republics. Clowning on politicians is nothing new to the former Soviet Union, but whereas it use to be Russia that was generating much of the satire, it will gradually shift to Ukraine until freedom of speech and expression is restored in Russia – or it may just be that Odessa’s peculiar humor will continue to carry on, leading the way.