Unscripted: The Serious Stakes for Ukraine’s New Leader

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April 26, 2019

Unscripted: The Serious Stakes for Ukraine’s New Leader

Written by Yaroslav Baran for Policy Magazine. Click here to read the original.

In the series Servant of the People, Volodymyr Zelenksiy played Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a school teacher who becomes the unlikely president of Ukraine. On April 21st, Zelenskiy lived that high-concept hook in a non-fiction setting. The issues facing a Ukraine turning towards Europe but still under Moscow’s thumb are serious and complex. Our resident Ukraine expert, Yaroslav Baran, lays out the context, the tensions and the stakes for the man and the country.

By the time Ukraine’s voters cast their ballots in the second round of presidential elections on April 21st, it was all but certain what the outcome would be — change was in the air.  Indeed, when the ballots were counted, 73 per cent of voters had voted for a new president. “Chocolate King” oligarch Petro Poroshenko – president since 2014 – was being dethroned by a 41-year old actor, comedian, and, aside from playing the president on TV, political neophyte.  

The comedy of the occasion is delicious. President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s biggest claim to fame is his hit television satire, Servant of the People (available on Netflix Canada) in which he plays a “regular guy” school teacher who runs for president and, improbably, wins. As often happens in Ukraine, life imitates art imitating life.

Some have chosen to assess Zelenskiy’s victory as yet another triumph of populism over establishment, but there was nothing particularly populist about Mr. Zelenskiy’s campaign. His iconoclasm was limited to campaign tactics – eschewing traditional rally and glad-handing whistlestop tours for a social media-centric blitz. He became known for his frequent Instagram video posts that Canadians might find eerily reminiscent of Rick Mercer rants. Populism, as we have come to understand the term in recent years, connotes a degree of demagoguery and exploitation of social cleavages, whereas there was something of a hopeful and unifying air in Zelenskiy’s tone – an overall message that Ukraine could do better, and that it’s time to transcend old debates. Not populist. Simply a vote for change. More specifically, a vote for change born of impatience.

Poroshenko does deserve credit for his accomplishments. He inherited a bankrupt state left behind by his Kremlin-puppet predecessor, with less than a million dollars left in the coffers. In a single five-year term, he embarked on broad-scope economic modernization despite the enormous cost of fighting a war with Russia. He tackled comprehensive institutional reform. He rebuilt the army — again, while fighting a war with Russia. He gutted and rebuilt state administrative infrastructure, down to replacing every computer his administration inherited for fear of ubiquitous Russian spyware. He modernized the police force. He signed a revolutionary visa-free travel treaty with the European Union. He concluded numerous free trade agreements, including with Canada. And his crowning political achievement:  he worked with Istanbul to wrestle the Ukrainian Orthodox Church out of the control of the Moscow Patriarchate — a church structure that has long been a blatant foreign policy tool of the Kremlin.

But for the residents of Ukraine, the pace of change was too slow. Bread and butter issues tend to trump institutional change and symbolism. The sluggish economy, rising cost of living, and wages that have failed to keep pace have left the electorate unsettled and impatient. His biggest Achilles’ heel, perhaps, was corruption. While Poroshenko did take a bite out of Ukraine’s post-Soviet corruption culture, his reforms were perceived as too little, too late, and too slow.

Zelenskiy capitalized on this. He focused on regular folks’ standard of living, and dismissed Poroshenko’s campaign as obsession with symbolism. He continually repeated that progress should be quicker, and also pledged to only serve a single term – a clear suggestion that those who stay in office indefinitely become corrupted by it. A generational shift and political house-cleaning has occurred. Outgoing president Petro Poroshenko was associated with the old guard, and was a minor oligarch in his own right.  Zelenskiy, in contrast, is a new face, not part of the political establishment. That’s what the voting public seemed to be yearning for. That’s what they are getting.

Zelenskiy also took a more tempered approach to language politics. In a country where a large minority speaks Russian as its mother tongue following three centuries of forced russification, the issue can be sensitive. While places like Quebec and Ireland are no strangers to political tension over linguistic renewal policies, Ukraine’s challenges are much more complex than merely balancing individual rights with collective rights and historical redress. Most Ukrainians no longer see language as a political statement, but rather an accident of history. But the Kremlin has weaponized language and continues to use it as a pretext for the revanchist irredentism that governs its foreign policy. The Kremlin has declared by fiat that the Russian state has a holy obligation to be the protector of all Russian-speaking peoples, regardless of ethnicity, no matter where they live. That could mean Georgia, Ukraine, Estonia or North York. Indeed, days after Ukraine’s election, Russia started to offer passports to any and all Russian speakers in the Donbas region of Ukraine’s east. Passports equal citizenship. Citizenship equals expats. Expats mean people who might “need to be rescued” from the state in which they are residing. It’s step one of the playbook used in Crimea, five years ago, as a pretext for invasion. It’s also a modern twist on Germany’s pretext for invading Czechoslovakia in 1938.  

In his first public statements following his election victory, Zelenskiy re-affirmed his commitment to Ukraine’s Euro-integration. He clearly knows what his country wants. He knows the polling. And he refers to this as a decision that has already been made well before he entered public life.

This is perhaps the most significant lesson of this election.  While all electoral battles draw contrast, this election was not between two competing visions or paths for the country. It was a joust between two different people, who largely share a common centrist, reformist, pro-European direction. In that respect, the election itself was a significant victory for the legacy of the Euromaidan “Revolution of Dignity” of 2014-2015. Ukrainians should also take solace in the regional breakdown of the final vote. The country has traditionally been known for significant cleavages between the east and west in both voter behaviour and political vision. Zelenskiy won the final round of voting with a majority across all regions — a national unity outcome. The country emerged united in both its choice of leadership and in its stated economic and foreign policy direction.

On a demographic note, once  Zelenskiy formally assumes office, Ukraine will interestingly become the only country other than Israel to have both a Jewish president and Jewish prime minister. One would hope this outcome might finally put a spike in the relentless disinformation campaigns by the Kremlin and western journalists on its payroll to portray post-Maidan Ukraine as rife with neo-Nazis and anti-Semites.  

There are, however, legitimate concerns Zelenskiy and his program.

First, he proposed a referendum on joining NATO. While the move was clearly intended as a side-step of what he thought might become a divisive issue, it probably was not a wise road to take. Polling data already shows a clear majority in favour of NATO integration, and across all regions of the country. That being the case, in a world of electoral meddling, St. Petersburg troll farms and Brexit, do we really need more referendums that can fabricate new socially divisive outcomes where they don’t exist?

Second, Zelenskiy has been hounded by suggestions he is too tight with Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who lives in Israel and owns the television empire that propelled the actor to fame. Zelenskiy would be wise to buttress himself against allegations that he is a puppet or front man for yet another business empire. They generally run counter to the brand he has so carefully crafted.

There was no shortage of irony to the 2019 presidential election in Ukraine.  As one columnist wrote in The Guardian, it shaped up to be “quintessentially Ukrainian: a president who promised to take on the oligarchs but is actually an oligarch himself, against an actor known for playing a fictional president who takes on the oligarchs, but who is in fact controlled by an oligarch.”

There will be interesting times ahead for Ukraine, but probably more stable ones than following most presidential elections in the post-Soviet era. Mr. Zelenskiy’s first name — Volodymyr — literally means “peaceful ruler”.  Perhaps he will be blessed with a calm and peaceful tenure. The country could use a stretch.  

Contributing writer Yaroslav Baran is a principal with Earnscliffe in Ottawa. He has also led numerous democratic and capacity-building projects in Ukraine.