Extreme Rhetoric in the 2004 Presidential Campaign: Images of Geopolitical and Regional Division

By Pavlyuk, Lyudmyla | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Extreme Rhetoric in the 2004 Presidential Campaign: Images of Geopolitical and Regional Division


Pavlyuk, Lyudmyla, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Presidential rhetoric, as a constitutive part of elections, tends to take all images, statements, and expressions to their extremes. It makes latent conflicts apparent, vague symptoms visible, and old traumas especially painful. In such a period "no issue is too trivial to pursue, no behaviour too private and irrelevant to be the subject of partisan passion."1 "Us" versus "Them" controversies, present in all political games and in all fights for power, turned out to be especially harsh and tense in the 2004 presidential elections in Ukraine-at the turning point of Ukrainian history when the country faced a choice between a return to the model of closed society or integration into the democratic world. Choosing the country's president became a matter of determining the contours of the Ukrainian future. Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych personified the battle between democracy and the "corrupted regime," between European politics and the Soviet-style model of identity for Ukraine. Public discourse of that period abounded in numerous expressions of polarization: "This presidential campaign is a choice between democracy and authoritarianism," "we choose between values of democratic society or the prospects of totalitarianism," "freedom or tyranny," "opposition of criminal Ukraine and Ukraine under the rule of law."

A state of polarization during a campaign carries some natural implication of "normality." In a sense, polarization can be equated to political mobilization-the opposite to indifference and political apathy. It serves as an antidepressant for the nation, reduces ambivalence, prepares to answer questions clearly in terms of "yes" and "no," and structures society, thus shaping future voting results and parameters of self-understanding. After all, polarization is evidence for democracy or some basic possibilities for democracy. Yet, real polarization can rarely avoid those emotional and behavioural side effects and by-products that are best described as "dirty," "mudslinging," and using the metaphor of "information war." If polarization in its purified and reified form is normal, then what can be said about its extremes? Of course, they are deviant, undesirable, and sometimes illegal. Yet extremes are unavoidable and thus "natural" under especially pressing circumstances that alternate criteria of social judgment. The prototypical example of "natural deviation" is a state of war with its stoic and cynical psychology-à la guerre comme à la guerre. When politics, as a game-like activity, becomes a rather war-like affair few people care about the weapons they use and apply moral criteria exclusively to their opponents.

The elections of 2004 in Ukraine were an example of a classical, "normal" war. In summer 2004 Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, concerned with the results of the upcoming political battle, predicted an especially "dirty" campaign. In accordance with many predictions and expectations (and much beyond any expectations), the campaign was particularly rich in discursive and behavioural cruelty. Information abuse ranged from the spread of fictitious themes and allegations of media bias to direct intimidation of journalists. Extreme rhetoric went in line with extreme "hands-on" activities: the scarred face of Yushchenko and the echoes of the Hryhorii Gongadze case framed the electoral race in a manner of a thriller genre movie.

Besides the pressing domestic reasons for escalation of extreme rhetoric, namely the need to change the "corrupted regime" and-on the other side-the fierce refusal of the regime to be changed, there were important outside factors that boosted tensions and stirred emotions. Collisions of choice and polarization were not only domestic. Due to geopolitical accents in the international media Ukraine once again became aware of its vulnerability as a state on the "border between two civilizations," and incorporated external categories of thinking about itself in terms of being an object of outside interest. …

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