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The ambivalence of the Zelenskiy candidacy

Could the jester become king?

February 22, 2019 - Andreas Umland - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Jester statue by James Butler in Stratford upon Avon, UK. Photo: Matt Brown (cc) flickr.com

Most political experts in and outside of Ukraine have reacted negatively or very negatively to Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s announcement, on New Year’s eve, that he will be a candidate in Ukraine’s presidential elections, scheduled for March 31st (first round) and April 21st 2019 (run-off). Indeed, Zelenskiy’s submission is in various ways problematic. His candidacy is probably an even more ambivalent enterprise than those of the other two top contenders, opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko and incumbent president Petro Poroshenko. Still, for all the apt skepticism there is also – as in the case of certain positive aspects of Tymoshenko’s and Poroshenko’s runs – a bright side to the announcement of Zelenskiy. One can identify, at least, three seriously risky or negative, but also three relatively encouraging, dimensions of Zelenskiy’s entry into the race.

The first and foremost problem with Zelenskiy is that he would be a politically and diplomatically inexperienced president. While he holds a degree in law, he has not held any governmental or any other public-sector office before, and has no proper team familiar with the conduct of public policy and foreign affairs. In contrast, his two main competitors, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, have each held, over many years, parliamentary seats, party chairpersonships as well as high executive posts. They are also well-connected internationally, for instance, via the European People’s Party, while Zelenskiy seems to have no relevant international exposure.

In peaceful times and under stable conditions, Zelenskiy’s assumption of power would, perhaps, be an experiment worth trying. Yet, as Ukraine’s current geopolitical situation is extremely complicated, a Zelenskiy presidency would be a chancy development. His partially naïve statements on Ukraine’s international relations so far, and announced recruitment of an explicitly non-political team indicate that there would have to be a transition period before a Zelenskiy administration becomes more or less functional. Ukraine’s various foreign challenges may not provide the time and opportunity for such an interregnum after the presidential elections.

The same old game?

Second, it remains unclear how truly novel a Zelenskiy presidency would eventually be, in terms of its approach to the old semi-criminal patronage networks – the main cancer of Ukrainian politics. To be sure, Zelenskiy is justified emphasising his clean hands, and non-involvement in the shadowy schemes of Ukraine’s post-Soviet oligarchic rule. He is rich but made his money on everybody’s watch, as a popular television star and producer of successful entertainment programs.

Yet, there is much suspicion in Kyiv about his links to Ihor Kolomoyskiy, a notorious oligarch and owner of the influential TV channel 1+1 that airs most of Zelenskiy’s programs. A major reason for Zelenskiy’s popularity is his brilliantly played role as the non-corruptible and oligarchy-slaying Ukrainian president Vasyl Holoborodko in the popular TV sitcom “Servant of the People” (now also the title of his emerging party). But many Ukrainian experts do not believe that a real President Zelenskiy would be as effective as the fictional President Holoborodko in curbing the impact of private business interests on Ukraine’s governmental affairs.

Third, the political-satirical aspects of Zelenskiy’s comedy work and of his major TV show “Vechernyi kvartal” (Evening Block) have acquired a strange aftertaste, following Zelenskiy’s entry of the race. His “95-yy kvartal” (95th Block) team has numerous times made fun of various presidential candidates, including Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. In several sketches, Zelenskiy has personally played Poroshenko as well Radical Party leader Oleh Liashko, another likely presidential candidate.

While Zelenskiy and his team’s political satire was and is often extremely sharp, topical and funny, it now starts looking odd. The well-written and played video parodies, still widely watched on TV, YouTube and other outlets, have recently gained a second meaning as support for Zelenskiy’s presidential bid. They now seem to be parts of an unconventional negative electoral campaign by Zelenskiy ridiculing his political opponents.

Yet, there are also some arguably bright aspects of Zelenskiy’s entry into politics, especially if it goes beyond his – perhaps, unsuccessful – presidential bid in spring. Zelenskiy’s mere participation in the campaign is stirring up Ukrainian political debates on the elections and public interest for different visions of Ukraine’s future. Until December 31st, 2018, it looked as if the 2019 contest will be largely between incumbent Poroshenko and his Solidarity party, on the one side, and veteran challenger Tymoshenko and her Fatherland party, on the other. Both of these politicians have been active in Ukrainian politics for more than 20 years. Although Poroshenko and Tymoshenko have become irreconcilable enemies over the last fifteen years, many Ukrainians perceive them as being of a similar generation, type and quality.

Neglected advantages of Zelenskiy’s rise

There are also other alternative Ukrainian third forces, on the right and left as well as in the political centre. But Zelenskiy’s arrival has an especially high potential to break old templates of party competition, political technology and oligarchic bickering. Many analysts in Kyiv suspect, to be sure, that Zelenskiy is merely another instrument of manipulation in the hands of behind-the-scenes patrons, especially of the unpopular Kolomoiskiy. Yet, even if Zelenskiy may be obliged to one or more oligarchs, it will be not easy for him to repay his possible debts.

Given his self-styled image as a no-nonsense corruption fighter and new type of politician, it would be especially damaging for Zelenskiy if he becomes perceived as being just another medium for the infiltration of private interests into governmental affairs. This constraint may be even more important for his possible future faction in parliament than for Zelenskiy himself. While the unexperienced politician and his team might be unsuitable for taking over the presidential administration, they could form a useful Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council, Ukraine’s legislative body) group.

To be sure, Zelenskiy and his entourage will be as much targets of seductive corruption schemes as other political parties and individual deputies. Yet, the team of Zelenskiy- Holoborodko will – given his public image as a clean politician – be especially vulnerable to any disclosures of bribe-taking, kick-backs, nepotism etc. which were major themes of the “Servant of the People” TV series. Chances thus are that Zelenskiy’s faction will become a relatively alien element in Ukraine’s notoriously corruption-ridden parliament. Whatever shakes the old structures of post-Soviet political advancement, patronage and decision-making is arguably good for Ukraine’s legislatures and executives on the national, regional and local levels.

A second positive aspect of Zelenskiy’s possible rise are his roots in southeastern Ukraine and his special appeal to Russophone Ukrainians. Zelenskiy is less demonstratively and outspokenly pro-Western than Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. Yet, he presents himself as a Ukrainian patriot, has taken a clear position in the Russian-Ukrainian war, apparently knows English well, and seems to be intuitively liberal. That makes him for many nationalistically-inclined Ukrainian journalists and experts still insufficiently trustworthy.

Yet, even these commentators might agree that a strong Zelenskiy party would be far more preferable as a representation of Russophone eastern and southern Ukraine, within the Verkhovna Rada as well as regional and local parliaments, than the various successor organisations of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, with their continuing ties to Moscow. If Zelenskiy creates a real party that becomes popular, electable and successful in eastern and southern Ukraine, he might be able to make a substantial contribution to Ukrainian nation-building.

A final, in Ukraine largely ignored, positive (especially foreign) political aspect of Zelenskiy’s possible rise is his Jewish family background. To be sure, many Ukrainians know of, or easily recognize, Zelenskiy’s Jewish roots. But – remarkably – this fact is not, or at least has not yet, become a topic of wider public debate, much in the same way in which Prime-Minister Volodymyr Hroysman’s Jewish origins are only rarely mentioned in Ukraine. Such private biographic aspects of various politicians are in Ukrainian politics and media – as it should be – largely non-issues.

Zelenskiy’s rise and Ukraine’s image in the West

Yet, Hroysman’s, Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian politicians’ roots in Ukraine’s ethnic minorities have considerable weight within the skewed international imagination of, and tendentious public communication regarding, post-Euromaidan Ukraine. Lingering Soviet-era propaganda memes, post-Soviet Russian defamation campaigns, radically left-wing anti-American alarmism, and dilletante post-modern commentaries on Ukrainian politics in the West continue to reproduce an imbalanced image of Ukraine as infected with ethno-nationalism to an allegedly extraordinary degree. To be sure, Ukraine has various problems related to its radical right-wing parties, internationally offensive memory policies, violent ultra-nationalist war veterans, as well as popular chauvinism directed, above all, against Roma, colored immigrants, and sexual minorities.

With the partial exception of its extra-academic official historical discourse since 2014, there is nothing special about Ukraine’s various issues with ethno-nationalism – a phenomenon nowadays widely spread across Europe and the world as a whole. In fact, the relatively weak electoral performance and low parliamentary representation of the Ukrainian far right during the last quarter of a century makes post-Soviet Ukraine, if seen in a comparative perspective, a positive rather than negative exception. The party-political and electoral marginality of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism has recently become even more surprising, in view of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, bloody war in eastern Ukraine, and deep economic downturn in 2014.

The rise of Zelenskiy will become yet another source of cognitive dissonance within the continuing international reproduction of the stereotype about Ukraine as a hotbed of xenophobia. Whereas this geopolitical aspect of Zelenskiy’s rise may look irrelevant or even bizarre to many Ukrainians, it may turn into a real factor in the correction of Ukraine’s foreign image. In sum, while Zelenskiy may not (yet) be a suitable president for Ukraine, his increasing engagement in Ukrainian party politics, parliamentary affairs, public discourse, foreign relations and, possibly, a governmental coalition may not be that bad. 

Andreas Umland is Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Centre for European Security of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Principal Researcher with the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and General Editor of the ibidem­-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” distributed by Columbia University Press.

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