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Three reasons why a comedian should not be the president of Ukraine

As the Ukrainian presidential elections approach later this month, many political scientists are talking about the shocking popularity of comedian-candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy. But perhaps they should also spend more time discussing the negative aspects of the candidate and the struggles his potential election could bring to Ukraine.

March 19, 2019 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy Photo: Maksim Stoyalov (cc) wikimedia.org

I am heartened and saddened by Ukrainian opinion polls regarding the current presidential campaign. Saddened because Volodymyr Zelenskiy is in first place and, according to these polls, he could win in the second round of elections; heartened because, in other opinion polls, only five per cent of Ukrainian respondents say they believe Zelenskiy will win.

Why there is such a discrepancy across different polls is a question for sociologists, rather than political scientists such as myself. I would only caution that opinion polls failed to give us the right outcomes in the British Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential elections.

Regardless of what the polls are demonstrating, it is crucial at this moment to point out three very important reasons why a comedian such as Zelenskiy should not be President of Ukraine.

The first reason is that Ukrainians are not only electing a president, but also a commander-in-chief during a time of war. 72 per cent of Ukrainians believe Ukraine and Russia are in a state of war, including 62 per cent in the south and 47 per cent in the east of the country. The war will continue for a long time – certainly at least until 2024 when Vladimir Putin and the next Ukrainian president both end their terms in office.

Most Ukrainians assign responsibility for the war to Vladimir Putin, which is why 80 per cent hold negative views of him, the State Duma and Russian government. Once his final presidential term ends in 2024,  many Ukrainians believe there will be a greater chance for peace. But, sadly, they are wrong because they do not take into account that Putin is president for life. And even if he dies or is overthrown, there are many other anti-Western xenophobes and Russian chauvinists similar to or worse than Putin in Moscow.

Therefore, Ukrainians are electing a commander-in-chief who will have to fight a war with Russia until the end of Putin’s term in 2024. That should be a person who has respect in the armed forces and Ukrainian citizens, who can successfully negotiate international support in the West, lobby for the continuation of Western sanctions and halt Russian aggression. That person cannot be a comedian with no experience of politics or international affairs.

The second reason as to why Ukraine should not elect a comedian as president is that this act would confirm to Moscow that Ukraine is a fake nation. Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine is rooted in the concept of national identity, with many Russians believing that Ukraine is an artificial, failed state and that Ukrainians are, as Putin repeatedly has stated, a branch of the “Russian people”. Russia does not respect Ukraine’s right to exist, its sovereignty or territorial integrity.

Of course, it is utterly false to presume that Ukraine is not a “real” nation. But if Ukrainians elected a comedian, all of the above would be confirmed in the eyes of Russian chauvinists, nationalists and imperialists. Moscow would even more so portray Ukraine as fake news, a joke, a temporary entity that needs to be returned to the bosom of the Russian World. 

Zelenskiy is still under the illusion that Ukrainians view Russians as their “brothers”. He even said, “I really want to turn to Mr Putin. Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! Do not allow for your part even a hint of military conflict. Because Russia and Ukraine are really fraternal peoples. If you want, I can beg you on my lap. But do not put on your knees, please, our people.” Of course, the majority of Ukrainians no longer think Ukrainians and Russians are “brotherly peoples”, but the comedian’s willingness to go on his knees before Putin would mean nothing other than capitulation and surrender for the Ukrainian nation-state. Only 16% of Ukrainians, according to a recent poll, agree to secure peace at any cost while the a large majority weigh up peace proposals bearing in mind Ukrainian national interests.

Zelenskiy’s toadiness to Putin would also spell the end of Ukraine’s integration into Europe and a return to a pro-Russian multi-vector foreign policy. His election program says he would support a referendum to join NATO and other “security formations;” the only other “security formation” is the Russian-led Tashkent Treaty CIS Collective Security Organization. Zelenskiy shows his naivety when he believes countries can be in both “security formations.” No Ukrainian president, including Viktor Yanukovych, supported integration into the Tashkent Treaty.

The third reason why Ukraine should not elect a comedian as their next president is that Zelenskiy is not just a comedian: he is also a crook. It is no secret that oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi is funding Zelenskiy and that he is seeking revenge on Petro Poroshenko for taking from him his two illegal sources of money – Pryvat Bank and state oil refining company UkrNafta. Kolomoyskyi is Ukraine’s biggest corporate raider and his reputation is nearly as bad as that of Donetsk oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. By electing Zelensky, Ukrainians would be giving their country over to Kolomoyskyi. Daria Kaleniuk, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre NGO, told BBC 2 Newsnight earlier this month that the “Ideal scenario for Kolomoyskyi would be to have Zelenskiy, a comedian, and Tymoshenko, whom he likes, in the 2nd round of (Ukraine’s) presidential elections. It means that voters would choose who the president will be between Kolomoyskyi no.1 or Kolomoyskyi no.2.”

If Ukrainians elect the comedian Zelenskiy, they will be first, ruining one of Poroshenko’s major achievements of building a Ukrainian army; second, they will be proving to Moscow that Ukraine and Ukrainians are fake news; and third, they will also be electing Kolomoyskyi as Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, acting in contradiction to their own beliefs that oligarchs have too much power in Ukraine.

Ukrainians should not destroy their country, the achievements of the last five years, and the path to Europe by electing a comedian and Kolomoyskyi’s puppet.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science National University “Kyiv Mohyla Academy” and Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS. Joint author of The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order.

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