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Why a Zelenskiy presidency will not be the end of Ukraine

Zelenskiy’s likely success in Ukraine’s upcoming presidential elections will be an enormous aberration. It will create high risks because of the new president’s lack of experience, yet also provide new opportunities of integration between Ukraine’s state and society.

April 17, 2019 - Andreas Umland - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Karl Marx avenue in Kryvyi Rih, the city where presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy was born Photo: Igor Kvochka (cc) wikimedia.org

Large parts of Ukraine’s elite, chatting class, diaspora and foreign friends are nothing less than horrified by the likely outcome of the second round of the presidential elections on April 21st. After winning the first round on March 31st with a wide margin, it looks now almost certain that the actor, comedian and businessman, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, will become Ukraine’s next president. To be sure, the second-placed candidate (from the first round), incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, still has a chance to overtake Zelenskiy in the second round. Yet, as of mid-April, it appears far more probable that Zelenskiy will also win the second round.

This is not only because Zelenskiy attracted the support of more than 30 per cent of the votes on March 31st and thus almost twice as much support as Poroshenko. So far, it seems likely that many (if not most) of those who voted for other candidates in the first round (i.e. Yulia Tymoshenko, Yury Boiko and Oleksandr Vilkul) will vote for Zelenskiy rather than Poroshenko, in the second round. Unless some major scandal arises during this week that manages to damage Zelenskiy’s reputation, he seems destined to become Ukraine’s sixth post-Soviet head of state. How should one interpret this fateful turn of events?

Why Zelenskiy rose

A Zelenskiy presidency would not only be a political aberration, but a historical one as well. Zelenskiy is not merely an outsider to Kyiv high politics. He would, moreover, be the first such newcomer who would have made it so high. In 2014, the former boxing champion, Vitali Klitschko, became the mayor of Kyiv. Other outsiders have advanced into Ukraine’s parliament or taken high ministerial posts before. Yet never before has a political novice come as close to occupying Ukraine’s highest public office.

The obvious explanation for Zelenskiy’s popularity is the deep disappointment many Ukrainians feel with their governing class. After almost three decades of electing either relatively pro-Russian or officially pro-western candidates from its supposed economic and political elite to the presidential office, Ukraine remains one of the poorest and insecure nations in Europe. To be sure, many of the more recent socio-economic problems are a result of Russia’s ruthless hybrid war against Ukraine, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s hidden occupation in much of the Donets Basin. Yet at least in the Ukrainian public’s perception, the slow recovery from the 2014 shock, and other continuing problems, are largely due to Poroshenko & Co.’s various failures as reformers and statesmen (few women are found in important positions).

Indeed, there are not only many destructive repercussions as a result of the ongoing Russian occupation of, and war against, Ukraine. There are also various weighty reasons for Ukrainians’ fundamental disappointment with their old ruling circle. Against this specific background, Ukraine’s choice of a successful showman not linked (or, at least, not visibly tied) to the old political class as head of state is less surprising than it would otherwise be. It is also less an expression of some deeper socio-political pathology than the sudden rise of dubious personalities like Donald Trump or Beppe Grillo.

Many populist voters’ subjective sense of alienation from the “old system” in Ukraine and the West may be partly comparable. Yet the objective situation in Ukraine, as a country fighting a long war and suffering from extreme poverty, as well as being haunted by a high level of systemic corruption and personal insecurity is different. It makes Ukraine’s current problems a lot more pressing compared to the challenges that average western citizens encounter during their lives. The far more daunting task of managing one’s professional and private affairs as an average Ukrainian citizen, makes this society’s functioning principally different from that of those in most of the EU and NATO member states (including the US and Italy).

A different kind of populist

Against this background, Ukraine’s election result is only on the surface a continuation of larger transformative trends currently happening in many countries across Europe. The context of the Zelenskiy detour from earlier political patterns is determined by other factors than what we are witnessing in western democracies. One could go as far as to argue that the re-election of Poroshenko would have been – given Ukraine’s distinctly negative experiences with him and presidents like him in power since 1991 – an expression of regressive social immobility.

This somewhat “rational” aspect of Ukraine’s voters’ choice (of an otherwise unlikely figure) provides also some reason for hope. It means the starting point for his outsider presidency is different from the more irrational impulses behind the sudden rise of, say, Donald Trump. Arguably the American political elite’s standards – in terms of its self-organisation, professionalism and plain decency – are higher than Ukraine’s. In light of the low quality of traditional Ukrainian party politicians and of their performance in government, during the last 30 years, the American election of an outsider like Trump as president appears more unreasonable than the choice of an outsider like Zelenskiy in Ukraine.

Many patriotic Ukrainian intellectuals find their compatriots’ vote for “the clown” Zelenskiy stupid, outrageous and even dangerous. Yet given the historical record of Ukraine’s political elite, and given the alternatives at hand in 2019, voting for a politically inexperienced candidate like Zelenskiy does not appear entirely arbitrary. Five times Ukrainians elected presidents who had made careers within the “old system”. In some way, it has become high time to try something new.

Such a contextualisation does not diminish the considerable risks involved with Zelenskiy’s lack of both relevant administrative experience as well as of an adequate team of assistants and advisors. In times of war, Ukraine does not have the luxury of political experimentation and governmental dilettantism at the top. On the other hand, during the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2013/2014 Revolution of Dignity, Ukrainian activists, politicians and intellectuals have shown themselves to be surprisingly good at improvising. This quality may come in handy today.

Strategic thinking and long-term planning may not be among the Ukrainian elite’s supreme strengths. Yet in times of transition, Ukrainian civil society has proven to be able to mobilise massively and intrude deeply into political affairs in, moreover, relatively peaceful, orderly and democratic ways. Ukraine’s two spectacular uprisings of the last 15 years have diminished the neo-Soviet insulation of Ukrainian high politics.

Minimising the risk

Against this background, there is hope that Zelenskiy’s rise will benefit from established links between Ukraine’s civil and political societies and promote their further interpenetration. His dearth of political connections and experience could make it easier for civic activists and independent experts to gain access to the making of his political formation and decisions. Should such an interplay between Ukraine’s future presidential administration and civil society happen, this could lower the risks stemming from Zelenskiy’s lack of experience.

In any case, Ukraine is formally a parliamentary-presidential republic with considerable prerogatives concentrated in the hands of the parliamentary majority, governmental apparatus and prime minister’s office. Poroshenko’s astuteness as a political dealer-wheeler partly nullified the effects of the formal constitutional divisions of power in Ukraine. Yet during – and after – the 2019 electoral season, the balance of power between parliament and government, on the one side, and the president and his administration on the other, may shift to the former. As a result, Ukraine’s political system could become more parliamentarian.

Ukraine’s president may then be left to his constitutionally defined fields of responsibilities. He has the official authority to determine Ukraine’s foreign, security, judicial and defence policies. Zelenskiy – apart from some English-language knowledge and a degree in law – is not well-prepared for any of these tasks. Yet he can – and hopefully will – appoint competent ministers and bureaucrats with relevant higher education and work records in these fields. Ideally, he will be modest enough to let himself be partly guided by them.

Andreas Umland is a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for European Security of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, a principal researcher at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv and general editor of the ibidem­-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” and “Ukrainian Voices” distributed by Columbia University Press.

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