Hegel once warned that ‘history is what takes place behind our backs’.
When Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced his candidacy for the presidency on 31 December last year, it appeared to be just another comic gesture. When he is sworn in by the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) about one month from now, he will be Ukraine’s sixth president, elected by a larger share of votes (73 percent) than any of his predecessors. Yet Petro Poroshenko’s poor showing (25 percent) has not been the worst. Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the Orange Revolution, was forced to abandon his second term ambitions in 2010 after securing a mere 5.4 percent in the first round. His fate, like that of Poroshenko’s is a warning of what happens in Ukraine to those who betray the expectations of their supporters.
There will be more history to come. We knew who Zelenskiy’s predecessors were, who they represented and, by and large, what they were capable of. For now, Zelenskiy has all the substance of the pied piper, and only faith can lead us to suppose that he knows where he is leading the country. Some of his ‘new faces’, the more promising ones, have been announced, but those unannounced include long-standing associates of Ihor Kolomoyskiy and Viktor Yanukovych, who has wasted no time congratulating the President Elect. Zelenskiy’s one serious policy interview was a study in ignorance and incoherence. His belief in ‘the people’ provides no indication of how borders are to be defended, armies commanded, shadow economic structures dismantled and the rule of law established. ‘I am just an ordinary person who has come to break the system’, he told President Poroshenko. Yet even an extraordinary person, a tried and seasoned opponent of this system, would find this a tall order.
Sistema in Ukraine is not founded upon ‘corruption’, but patron-client relationships, the competition and collusion, but by all means dominance, of a small oligarchy and the subordination of law to money and power. This system, adaptive and tenacious, reinvented itself after the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity, and already there are signs that it might do so again. ‘Breaking’ the system requires systematic effort, rather than drama, a cohesive team and a counter-elite with the means and ability to oppose the existing one. Does Zelenskiy possess the mettle and will to take on this challenge? Will he prefer showmanship to substance? Or will be become a fig leaf for some of the systemic forces his supporters revile? Before too long, we should be in a position to say.
Ukraine’s liberal-democratic forces will need to face three challenges early and squarely. The first of these is the creation of a coalition in the new parliament (which, according to the rules, should be elected in October) able to give ballast to Zelenskiy’s better instincts, provide meaningful but conditional support and lay down clear red lines. Zelenskiy needs a strong parliament, not another chorus of admirers.
The second will be to thwart any plans that Ihor Kolomoyskiy has to turn Zelenskiy from ‘servant of the people’ into his own. The fact that fourteen visits were made over two years to the exiled owner of the TV channel that gave Zelenskiy his following is no proof that a Faustian bargain was struck. But Kolomoyskiy’s motives require no proof. He is, quite understandably, determined to recover the assets that Poroshenko has frozen, and it would be astonishing if he did not wish to regain his standing as well. That other figures, banished or demoted by Poroshenko might view Zelenskiy’s rise as a route back to prominence is no indictment of Zelenskiy either, but it is a danger. Should the public conclude that Zelenskiy the populist is Zelenskiy the fraud, retribution could be swift and the consequences for Ukraine dire.
The third challenge is Russia. In Zelenskiy’s celebrated serial, ‘Servant of the People’, its name is rarely uttered. Its absence, along with Zelenskiy’s evident discomfort with the Ukrainian language, has lent plausibility to the string of fragmentary kompromat (comprising information) suggesting financial and even darker connections between him and Russia itself. Yet this material raises more questions than it answers. Why would an individual under the patronage of Ihor Kolomoyskiy require financial help from those whom this patron vilifies, and what would he possibly gain from it? After all, it was Kolomoyskiy who reduced Putin’s Novorossiya project to dust in Dnipro and, during the darkest days of 2014, provided finance for some of the volunteer battalions who routed Russia’s Donbas proxies in south-eastern Ukraine.
What seems incontestable is that, to this point, Zelenskiy has played the role of crusader rather than patriot, a man waging a private war against the internal ‘system’ rather than the external enemy. That is a legitimate worry about someone about to become the president of a country at war. Russia’s interest in his possible ‘potential’ is also a legitimate worry.
But one needs to understand Russia’s objectives. The Kremlin has learnt that having a ‘pro-Russian’ president of Ukraine is not necessarily the solution to its problems. Instead, since Yanukovych’s departure, it has invested in Ukraine’s de-stabilisation. In that enterprise, Zelenskiy might prove to be the Kremlin’s unwitting accomplice. But inadequacy is not the same as connivance. One must also remind oneself that Russia’s ‘main enemy’ in Ukraine is the West. In her congratulatory message to Zelenskiy, Chancellor Merkel said that ‘the stabilisation of Ukraine…is close to my heart’. The Kremlin believes that as long as Ukraine is stable, the West stays.
Ukraine has faced testing times in the past, and it is certain to do so now. Zelenskiy’s victory neither means that the Messiah has come nor that the Apocalypse is at hand. What Zelenskiy needs is more support than he would like rather than more demands than he can manage. Given those things, he might even rise to the occasion.