The comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy will be Ukraine’s next president. But hardly anyone knows what he might actually do once elected.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s strong showing in the first round of the presidential election in Ukraine came as a surprise to many. Although he had led in the polls, most Ukrainians assume these are unreliable, so many were stunned that a TV comedian could win even more votes than predicted. What was perceived initially as a “prank” turned out to be an elegant political experiment, with wide-reaching impact.
Still, it may be a luxury a country fighting an array of hostile pressures can ill afford.
The election results demonstrated that Ukraine has successfully established a democratic voting process, in dramatic contrast with regional norms, especially with neighboring Russia. The average Ukrainian voter is still politically immature, and tends to support populists – although, the recent examples in the U.K. and the U.S. demonstrate that even world’s leading democracies suffer from a very same phenomenon.
The ambiguous and sweeping slogan – “For all things good, against all things evil” – turned out to be irresistible. It was a protest vote or simply a longing for “new faces” in politics. Others only saw the honest and fearless (fictional) “President” that Zelensky had portrayed in a popular TV show.
It’s hardly surprising that people want change. Critics point to the current President Petro Poroshenko’s failure to tackle corruption, his controversial appointments, his ineffective communication… Somehow, they feel, he should have been able to do more. Still, the popular discontent probably has more to do with unrealistic expectations from a nation that slid from revolution into war in the spring of 2014 and now desperately needed its own Messiah.
And to be fair, Poroshenko did accomplish a lot, especially given the condition of the country he was entrusted with. The effects of his reforms may not be immediately visible, but if continued, they will have the intended effect. For one, he championed the national identity, fundamental to fighting a foreign enemy, while breathing new life into Ukrainian film-making, music, and publishing. He also re-established an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, something that went unnoticed by many Europeans but was in fact an epochal event with a legacy of historical justice, correcting its annexation by the Russian Orthodox in the 15th century.
But perhaps Poroshenko’s most significant achievement was the revitalizing of Ukraine’s military and security services, critically undermined under ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. Russian aggression was crippled as much by the self-sacrifice of thousands of Ukrainians, as by the economic sanctions and strong international support for Ukraine under President Poroshenko. : This was in part because Ukrainians understood that under Poroshenko, Ukraine would never submit to Russian pressure, be diverted from the Euro-Atlantic integration course or start trading territories. In all likelihood it will eventually regain sovereignty – hopefully through diplomacy – over both the Crimea and the occupied regions of Donbass. By the same token, Ukraine’s military needs to continue to grow to dissuade the aggressor from any further hostile steps.
The devil you know
With this record, Poroshenko is the last person that Moscow wants to see re-elected in Ukraine. As a result, his competitor Zelenskiy is praised on Russian TV. While he may not be a Kremlin puppet, it suggests that Russia hopes Zelenskiy will be more compliant on critical issues.
Still, the greatest unknown is who Zelenskiy actually is: He has no program, no vision for Ukraine’s strategic course nor any approach to fighting Russian aggression. And while one assumes he has backers, nobody knows who is running the show behind this political rookie and who will hold key government positions once he is president.
Zelenskiy’s team is rife with people who previously worked for Ukrainian oligarchs. Their actions and interests may point to possible payback by those overthrown in the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. So one wonders: How much authority would Zelenskiy have in making key appointments? Would he be able to oppose those “recommended” from outside, almost certainly including some serving Russia’s interests?
New faces in politics
The demand for “new faces” in politics is only reasonable when those faces are well-known, and capable enough to ensure positive change in a rules-based system. The “new faces” currently flocking around Zelenskiy are short of those characteristics. Zelenskiy himself has been communicating with the public through a series of pre-recorded clips, his silence a deliberate strategy that allows each voter to imagine his favorite version of a president in a future country with cheap services and high salaries instead of corruption and war.
A much more seasoned politician and manager, Poroshenko is aware that his best chance is in confronting Zelenskiy directly during debates that force his rival to speak publically about the issues. So he was looking for every opportunity to engage in direct dialogue. If he succeeds, the ultimate winner in the debates will be not just Poroshenko, but the entire nation, who may finally learn who Zelenskiy really is.
At this writing, one day after the vote, Zelenskiy did finally appear on a late night political discussion program on the TV channel owned his main backer – hardly an objective forum. Even so, he struggled: Speaking on the pre-arranged topics, he still unnerved some of his supporters by introducing potential appointees with long records of working for corrupt and autocrat governments. The final showbiz-style debates to be held the next day in the country’s main football stadium will have little effect on the many whose minds are long since made up.
As it stands, pundits and technocrats are trying to convince Ukrainian voters to buy a pig in a poke. Ukraine’s partners in the West are also confused, not having a slightest idea of what to expect after April 21, the day voters opted for the mysterious Mr. Zelenskiy.