Ukraine shows unrest, elects comedian as president

Courtesy of Ukrinform TV/Wikimedia Commons

When the presidential election results were announced in Ukraine on Sunday, April 21, 2019, no longtime observer of the nation was surprised. For months, polls had been predicting the victory of actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy over the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko. Zelenskiy won a landslide 73 percent of the vote and carried 24 of the 25 regions where voting was held (Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, did not participate). Speaking after the election, the president-elect stated, “To all former Soviet countries—look at us, everything is possible” (New York Post, “Ukrainian comedian wins presidential election in landslide,” 04.21.2019).

His victory demonstrates the public’s deep frustration with the ineptitude of the existing Ukrainian political ruling class. Ukraine’s previous leaders failed to address the nation’s problems in the five years since the Maidan Revolution, an event which toppled pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych and triggered Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russia’s sponsorship of a separatist uprising in the Donbas. Poroshenko made genuine accomplishments during his time in office, including devoting more administration to the country’s regional governments and securing recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from the Moscow Patriarchate. He failed to tackle Ukraine’s epidemic of corruption, however, and was unable to rein in the influence of the oligarchs.

Poroshenko, himself a billionaire oligarch, was often implicated in that corruption. The Panama Papers, an anonymous leak of financial documents, revealed that Poroshenko had set up an offshore company to unofficially maintain control of his business empire, despite pledging to transfer his business interests to a “blind trust” to avoid conflicts of interest (Organized Crime and Reporting Project, “President Poroshenko’s Lawyers Go on the Defensive,” 06.26.2018).

In contrast, prior to running for president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s only political experience had been playing the president on the TV show “Servant of the People,” which follows the story of a school teacher who becomes president after his rant on corruption goes viral. Zelenskiy’s lack of history in political life, as well as his reluctance to clearly detail his policies, allowed him to serve as a blank canvas for millions of Ukrainians to project their vision of a better country. This lack of a concrete political position, in addition to Zelenskiy’s ties to the oligarch and former governor Ihor Kolomoisky, may bring future disappointment to Ukraine’s discontented citizens (The Economist, “Ukraine elects Volodymyr Zelensky, TV star and political neophyte,” 04.22.2019).
However, Zelenskiy’s victory does elicit hope on a variety of fronts. First, the election was deemed competitive and credible, and the results were accepted by Petro Poroshenko without protest. Poroshenko tweeted, “We succeeded to ensure free, fair, democratic and competitive elections. No doubt that Ukraine has put a new high standard for the democratic electoral campaign. I will accept the will of Ukrainian people” (Twitter, @[poroshenko], 04.21.2019). Despite its deep structural issues, Ukrainian democracy remains leaps and bounds ahead of the authoritarian, so-called “managed-democracy” of the Russian Federation.

Second, the fact that the vast majority of the nation backed a Russian-speaking Jew like Zelenskiy for the presidency indicates that far-right ethnonationalism is not representative of the beliefs of the majority of the Ukrainian public, as some have feared. During his tenure, Poroshenko was reluctant to check neo-fascist Ukrainian Nationalist groups like the Azov Battalion. Poroshenko also actively cultivated the support of the cultural right through his heavy-handed introduction of the Ukrainian language into areas primarily populated by Russian-speakers (Reuters, “Commentary: Ukraine’s neo-Nazi problem,” 03.19.2019). Zelenskiy may be able to articulate a civic nationalism more suited to Ukraine’s ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Third, Zelenskiy’s foreign-policy instincts are generally on the mark. He understands that the soundest strategy to ensuring Ukraine’s future prosperity is greater integration with the European Union. European leaders have made clear that any further integration will be influenced by Ukraine’s continued commitment to economic and anti-corruption reforms (Politico, “EU leaders congratulate Zelenskiy, stress need for reform in Ukraine,” 04.22.2019). Zelenskiy’s pro-European liberalism is a refreshing departure from the pattern set by outsider politicians like Beppe Grillo, another comedian, who shares Zelenskiy’s anti-corruption stance while promoting eurosceptic viewpoints.

Whether or not Zelenskiy will acquire an enduring popular mandate to execute his policies will be seen in Ukraine’s upcoming Parliamentary elections, which are slated for October but may be moved forward. Zelenskiy’s new party, “Servant of the People,” will face off against the rival parties that currently control the nation’s powerful legislature (Tass, “Zelensky will hardly manage to disband Ukrainian parliament, analysts say,” 04.22.2019). Let us hope that Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his party utilize the months they have to clearly lay out a set of ambitious policies worthy of the hope that Zelenskiy has already inspired.

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