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A new face on the Dnieper

A conversation with Milan Lelich, a Ukrainian political commentator.
Interviewer: Zbigniew Rokita.

June 3, 2019 - Milan Lelich Zbigniew Rokita - Interviews

Milan Lelich. Photo: Private collection

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: How did the comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy become president of a country with around 44 million inhabitants?

MILAN LELICH: There has been a great need for a “new face” in Ukrainian politics for quite some time; someone that could replace the familiar politicians who have been exchanging high-ranking positions between themselves for decades – one of them being Petro Poroshenko. This new person should fulfil the promises the now former president has made – securing a “new life” (this was Poroshenko’s election slogan in 2014 – editor’s note). This “new life” was understood and imagined differently depending on who you asked. The common themes were among others: just courts and police, the fight against corruption, increased standard of living and better conditions for business.

But this is a common theme in democratic countries – we are disappointed with the people governing, so we elect others. This process has gone a bit farther in Ukraine, with the disappointment in politics in general. Zelenskiy’s election seems to be against the rules of the game…

There is a clear anti-establishment trend in Ukraine similar to many other countries: from the United States, with Donald Trump, or Beppe Grillo in Italy and Marjan Šarec in Slovenia. Ukrainians also wanted something entirely new.

I remember three years ago Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the popular musician and frontman of the band Okean Elza, was third in the polls. In the end, he decided not to run.

When there were increasing opinions that a new face was needed, sociologistsstarted including people from outside politics into the polls to see what their chances were. At some point Zelenskiy was included even though he declared no political ambitions at the time. He is one of the most recognisable faces in the country, almost everyone knows him. It was surmised that Zelenskiy had more TV time than the former presidents had.

We still don’t know who decided to put Zelenskiy’s name on that first poll. It is likely that he started thinking about politics only after he saw that he could count on some support. In a sense, it was the polls that created the politician. Others claim that Servant of the People – the TV show where he plays an honest president – was an election campaign from the very start. Let’s return to Vakarchuk: would he have had any chance of winning had he been there instead of the Zelenkiy?

I think so, as almost everyone in Ukraine knows of him as well. If Vakarchuk had faced Poroshenko in the second round of voting, he might have grabbed even more votes than Zelenskiy. He wasn’t linked to any controversies which were the reason some Ukrainians emphatically rejected Zelenskiy, viewing him as a silly comedian. They were bothered that he spoke Russian and showed Ukrainians in a bad light in his cabarets. Vakarchuk speaks Ukrainian, and is a patriot who supported the Revolution of Dignity from the very beginning, criticising Russian aggression towards Ukraine. Yet, in the end, Vakarchuk decided not to run.

I see it differently. The fact that Zelenskiy hails from the south-eastern part of the country, is a Russian speaking Jew who doesn’t flirt with Russia and accepts the Revolution of Dignity, was rather helpful to him. Zelenskiy is a man of the centre, who isn’t dragged towards any of the extremes Ukraine has been traversing over the last 30 years: Neither towards the Galician nor the Donbas. This makes him acceptable for the larger part of the electorate…

Some commentators claim that Zelenskiy’s success is a protest against Ukrainianisation or decommunisation. I don’t fully agree with this. Zelenskiy is like a vessel everyone fills with their own expectations. Some expected he will arrive and put them all in jail. Others would want him to end with the “banderisation”, end the war and return to the former way of life – including warmer relations with Moscow. Another group simply saw him as a man of the people, one of us. There were those that would expect him to continue the path of integration with the West. Zelenskiy’s staff are aware of the fact that expectations are diverse. This is why he never says things that would make him lose any of the groups supporting him. He wants to please everyone. I believe many of his voters were surprised when he finally declared that he wants to bring Ukraine into NATO and that Bandera is a contradicting character who also fought for the independence of the country.

Almost every second vote for Zelenskiy, was a vote not for him but against Poroshenko, the polls show this.

Ukrainians did protest. In the case of many, this was an unreasonable youth style revolt – “come let’s break this window! Let everyone see.” Why break the window? Will the world be a better place? The focus was on showing the middle finger to the elite. I would like to stress that this phenomenon exists outside of Ukraine as well.

From what you’re saying one, could think that 73 per cent of Ukrainians, the ones who voted for Zelenskiy, are the unreasonable youth?

I don’t think everyone had immature motives. Some yes, some no. A part of the voters thought that since the current state of the country doesn’t work for them – and another term for Poroshenko would look like the first one – they would rather take a risk because the ambiguity of Zelenskiy was also an opportunity. These people are looking towards the future. They are not restricted to showing the symbolic middle finger to Poroshenko.

What can be confirmed about the beliefs of the new president?

So far we have only heard words and declarations, which in Ukraine not always go hand in hand with action. Zelenskiy himself has spoken very little, letting people from his inner circle do the talking. It is still unclear who will remain in his inner circle. From what he has said so far we can understand this: Putin is our enemy, but we will not bargain with our territories and citizens. We will work to regain Donbas and Crimea. There is no alternative to integration with the West. He wants to reform the country and doesn’t reject the Revolution of Dignity.

What about the fears that Zelenskiy will turn out to be a “pro-Russian” politician?

Some still believe this. The Kremlin is building a relationship with Zelenskiy from a position of strength: halting the transport of resources through Ukraine or easing Russian passport procedures for citizens of the occupied part of the Donbas. It wants to make it difficult for Zelenskiy from the very beginning of his term, put him in a difficult situation and force him to make a mistake they could use against him. Russia doesn’t respect any of the rules of the game, creating its own or improving them. When it sees a weakness it will press even harder. There are still people in the Ukrainian state apparatus not tied to Poroshenko who are high up and can explain the situation to Zelenskiy. For example, even agreeing to a face-to-face conversation with Putin would be a guaranteed defeat. His representatives have thankfully already declared no such talks will be held.

Ukraine is a parliamentary-presidential republic. The elections to the parliament will be very important…

…Even more so than the presidential election.

Can Zelenskiy stay popular for a few more months and enter his newly created movement into parliament? Could he take all the power? Without the parliament his options are limited.

This is a question all commentators along in Ukraine ask themselves. I think Zelenskiy will continue to lose support no matter what he does. It is possible that he could remain popular through the elections are planned. He is a capable populist. A few smart gestures could let him stay popular for a bit longer. He could put a corrupt official in prison or ride the bicycle to work. It is hard to say if the majority of the commentators are right about Zelenskiy being a weak president. An experienced expert told me that Alyaksandr Lukashenka was also deemed a weak politician in 1994. It turned out differently, although the situation was different in Belarus back then than today in Ukraine.

Is Zelenskiy able to change anything in the country until the parliamentary elections?

There is not enough time to introduce any fundamental changes. For now, alliances will be made shaping the future political stage. Zelenskiy is linked to Ihor Kolomoyskyi, one of the most powerful oligarchs. We will see how long this union will hold. According to my sources, other oligarchs are trying to get closer to the president-elect too.

If the difference between Poroshenko and Zelenskiy would have been smaller before the second round of voting, could he have attempted any unlawful measures?

I believe so. We would probably not have been witnesses to such transparent and democratic elections. If the polls would have given Poroshenko a chance, there could have been attempts to falsify and escalate the tensions in the country. From what I know, it seems that the West collectively played a part in the election as it went ahead in such a civilised manner. It was explained to Poroshenko that he has to respect the election results, not engage in any mischief or start another revolution. He listened.

This conversation was first published in Forum Dialog a German-Polish portal and partner of New Eastern Europe. You can read the original in Polish here or in German here

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Milan Lelich is a Ukrainian political commentator and a journalist for the press agency RBC-Ukraina.

Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish journalist specialising in Eastern Europe. He is the author of a recent book titled Królowie strzelców. Piłka w cieniu imperium – a report on Eastern Europe of the last century shown through the prism of sport and politics.

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