The second round (on 21 April) of the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections witnessed a crushing victory—73.2% to 24.4%—by Volodymyr Zelensky over the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko. Given the extremely brief time in office so far, it is difficult to make any far-reaching predictions about the prospects for the sixth Ukrainian president, with his whole term ahead of him. However, this article will attempt to forecast what Zelensky’s presidency might mean for Ukraine, based on the country’s previous experience and Zelensky’s first appointments and early moves.
We should point out that the author maintains a pessimistic view since, realistically speaking, it is very difficult to imagine how the newly elected president will be able to smash the corruption that exists in the system, and deal successfully with the array of external challenges faced by Ukraine.
Who Are You, Mr Zelensky-Holoborodko?
Volodymyr Zelensky was born in 1978 in the city of Kryvyi Rih, where he also studied (Kryvyi Rih Institute of Economics) and began his remarkable professional career. Having performed in the KVN (a very popular Soviet and then Russian comedy competition), he and his team created the production company Kvartal 95, which specialises in making films, cartoons and TV comedy shows. One of these—Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People), which ran from 2015 to 2019—would make him one of the most recognisable figures in Ukraine,1 and pave his way towards the presidency. Zelensky’s victory is by no means down to one factor but several, which presented a peculiar combination of “hope for a miracle” (typical of the Slavic identity), the impatience of the electorate, his timely appearance on the political stage, and a number of strategic mistakes by Poroshenko and his team.
That said, two additional factors should be emphasised:
- The “Holoborodko factor”. Launched in 2015, the TV show Servant of the People gave an idealistic picture of how an ordinary schoolteacher, Vasyl Holoborodko (played by Zelensky), managed to become a truly national (narodnyii) president in a country controlled and unmercifully exploited by oligarchs. The image of Holoborodko and his path to the presidency—with his famous speech (generously filled with hidden foul language) culminating in “If I were there [the presidential office] for a just one week, I’d show them!”2—may have become one of the main reasons for Zelensky’s success. As the show unfolded, ordinary Ukrainians began to associate Zelensky firmly with his on-screen protagonist, and his on-screen opponents with the real Ukrainian political elite.
- The “Kvartal 95 factor”. The effect of Servant of the People was boosted by other immensely popular products by Kvartal 95, which, towards the end of 2018, had been turned into an open platform for agitation used by Zelensky’s team as a megaphone and an integral part of the electoral campaign. For instance, Zelensky announced his decision to run for president on the TV channel 1+1 during its New Year’s Eve show. Zelensky’s (pre)election rhetoric presented an extremely interesting combination of cynicism and ridiculing his opponent(s) on various grounds, conveyed to ordinary Ukrainians in plain language and thus easily understandable by the wider audience.
Very young (by political standards), easy-going, popular and not involved in the corrupt schemes of previous political regime(s), Zelensky was elected primarily thanks to his image and huge hopes pinned on a particular mixture of his real personality and the image of the screen hero Vasyl Holoborodko. In real life, however, a screen image and the truth are not always the same.
“Zelensky’s Deal”: Populism and Collective Irresponsibility?
Throughout history, times of crisis have seen various types of “deal” (social contract) offered by political leaders as a means to overcome economic and social strains. Among the best-known examples are America’s “Square Deal” (1910), “New Deal” (1933) and “Fair Deal” (1949). At this point, it might be interesting to look at what sort of “deal” Mr Zelensky and his team (whose whole campaign was built on unmerciful criticism of Poroshenko) might offer to the country. No programme has yet been presented, and there is a nagging fear that none exists. The impression is that the current version of a “deal” is (to paraphrase a famous quotation) “unrealistic promises wrapped in populism inside a demagogy”.
For example, Zelensky’s appeal to public servants to replace images of him with those of their children3 is adorable, but hardly commensurate with world practices, and has absolutely nothing to do with the nature of Ukraine’s problems. Similarly, his readiness “to lose [his] ratings and even the presidency for the sake of peace” while at the same time “not ceding any of the Ukrainian territories” including the Donbas and Crimea makes one wonder if Mr Zelensky and his advisers are familiar with Russia’s stance on both these issues. This overtly populistic rhetoric worked prior to the elections, but the time will soon come to deliver at least some of these promises. The only remedy left then would be to start blaming the previous regime for its “challenging legacy”—a trick used time and time again by Ukrainian politicians since 1991.
Populism, however, is just one side of the problem. From various statements, another aspect can be seen: a desire to somehow shift the burden of responsibility to the “Ukrainian people”. For example, when it comes to the relationship with Russia (by far the most serious issue, inseparable from both foreign and domestic affairs), it has been stated that “we are considering a public referendum … so that the Ukrainian people will make the final decision”.4
The ulterior motive behind this initiative (turning hugely controversial issues into a matter of collective responsibility) is plain and clear, yet not completely understandable. A 40-million-plus Ukraine is not a Greek city-state or an (early) modern proto-state (akin to the Zaporozhian Sich5), where a semblance of direct democracy might have worked. After all, history has proved that the more universal the mechanism of decision-making, the less order is present. The only result such a model is likely to lead to is ochlocracy and/or collective irresponsibility.
Messages from Moscow
Russia started to test Zelensky even before his victory. The first black mark was despatched in the form of energy-related threats, and the second via a declaration to facilitate the issue of Russian passports to people in the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin decided to exchange semi-sarcastic arguments with Zelensky: commenting on a remark by the Ukrainian president on his readiness to grant Ukrainian passports to Russians, Putin replied, “If they [Ukraine] grant us [Russians] their citizenship and we do the same to Ukrainians, we will rapidly arrive at a common denominator. We will have a common citizenship.”6 Jokes aside, Putin’s message is loud and clear. Russia will talk to Zelensky only if he (a) reaches out first, (b) does so exclusively on Russia’s terms, and (c) “earns” the trust of the Russian side.7
In other words, Kyiv must:
- drop the issue of Crimea once and for all;
- establish “dialogue” with the breakaway separatist entities (thereby admitting the existence of the “civil war” in Ukraine—a thesis that has been maintained by Russia since April–May 2014); and
- turn the Donbas into a de jure entity resembling Abkhazia or Transnistria—a perpetual ulcer that could be exploited by Russia at any time.
In addition, the Russian side has activated its most effective (and frequently used) tool: sabre-rattling and intimidation. On 5 April, the Russian Ministry of Defence published a video of naval manoeuvres in the Black Sea, which Russian military expert Yuri Kotenok described as “a warning to all ‘hotheads’ who might want to attempt an escalation”.8 Indeed, Moscow is perfectly aware of the fact that, in order to retain popularity, Zelensky must do something right now, and this “something” includes either a breakthrough on the issue of the Donbas (one of the main criticisms of Poroshenko) or the Ukrainian sailors unlawfully detained by Russian authorities in late 2018. On the first issue, as noted earlier, the Kremlin is not only ignoring the very fact of its involvement in the Donbas but has already made some adverse moves to demonstrate its resolve and commitment to its previous policies. On the second issue Moscow has demonstrated its utter disregard not just for the Ukrainian claims but also for international institutions.
It seems that the Kremlin has noticed that international pressure on Russia (because of its actions in south-eastern Ukrainian and the annexation of Crimea) has been weakening, which pleases Moscow. Regrettably, Russia has developed a sense of impunity and an understanding that the West (especially the EU, where voices against economic sanctions on Russia are becoming louder) will not risk further worsening political ties over Ukraine. Indeed, the incident in the Kerch Strait has corroborated Russia’s calculations to the best possible extent. Even in the case of Ukraine (the main target of aggressive Russian behaviour), where a growing share of the population seems ready to normalise relations with Russia, the only thing Moscow needs to do is wait.
The Vicious Circle Remains Unbroken
Last but not least, Zelensky’s ability to change the internal situation will be profoundly affected by two factors. First, the lack of a qualified and incorruptible cadre (at all levels of the power vertical). It is not at all clear how the new president is going to deal with this conundrum. Given the lack of viable alternatives for key government positions, Zelensky will probably be choosing candidates who (a) were in second- and third-tier roles during Poroshenko’s presidency or (b) were disgruntled with/opposed to the previous regime. This policy, however, is more commensurate with the principle of “lesser evil”, which is not a good basis for choosing advisers in terms of crucial political decisions.
The second factor is premised on the power of the oligarchs (which is likely to reach new heights), some of whom have either already returned to Ukraine or are planning to do so in the very near future. One of them, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who returned to Ukraine with his close associates Timur Mindich and Gennadiy Bogolyubov9 and is now touring the country, seems to be a much more frequent commentator on Ukraine’s political future than Zelensky himself. Many commentators have ascribed the first appointments made by Zelensky—Andrey Bogdan (“Kolomoyski’s lawyer”, who was sacked from public service after the law in lustration was adopted) as head of the presidential administration; and Ruslan Khomchak (who coordinated the Ukrainian armed forces in the final stage of the Donbas operation) as Chief of the General Staff—to the personal advocacy of Kolomoyski, who is now said to be pushing for Yulia Tymoshenko to become prime minister.
In addition to Kolomoyski, one should not overlook other stakeholders, such as Rinat Akhmetov, Victor Pinchuk, Serhiy Lovochkin and Dmytro Firtash—by and large the same group of strongmen that has been “managing” the Ukrainian political landscape for the past two decades. Thus, it is not at all apparent how and why Zelensky’s presidency will be different from that of his predecessors.
In the final analysis, it is worth mentioning that, despite his numerous flaws, objectively speaking Poroshenko has been the least-worst president in Ukraine’s post-1991 history (corroborated by facts and figures).10 Given the specificities of Ukrainian politics and how easily the majority of the electorate are becoming disenchanted with the new president, one might almost wonder when voices such as “it was better during Petia’s [Petro Poroshenko] presidency” will begin to appear among ordinary Ukrainians.
5 A semi-autonomous polity of Cossacks in the 16th to 18th centuries, centred in the region around today’s Kakhovka Reservoir spanning the lower River Dnieper in Ukraine.