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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 22 New Delhi May 18, 2019

From ‘fiction to reality’ : Zelenskiy Emerges Victorious in Ukraine’s Presidential Poll

Saturday 18 May 2019

by R.G. Gidadhubli

The Ukrainian presidential election, held on April 21, 2019, has created history by electing 41-year-old comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy as the head of state with a landslide victory; he secured 73 per cent of votes against 53-year-old incumbent President Petro Poroshenko who got 24 per cent. He has thus ensured his success to take over the presidency of Ukraine from June 3, 2019 and will be the sixth President after Ukraine became independent. It needs to be stated that in the opinion polls and in official rounds of candidates for election, held since March 2019, Zelenskiy always maintained his lead as a favorable candidate for presidency when 37 persons filed their papers for contesting for the President’s post; but a majority of them failed to qualify. Subsequently, the opinion poll released on April 14, 2019 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) also showed lead for Zelenskiy over Poroshenko. Similarly, a rating group poll issued on April 18 showed Zelenskiy with 52 per cent of voters’ support compared to Poroshenko’s 19 per cent.

Looking back, it was reported on April 2 that former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko failed to qualify for a presidential runoff election after official results put her in the third place in the first round. Here again it was won by Volodymyr Zelenskiy with the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, finishing second. Thus it was amazing and an indication of the final outcome that political newcomer Zelenskiy might overtake both the political leaders who have spent most of their life in politics. It is important that this shows consistent support given to Zelenskiy by the people of Ukraine who want a newcomer to become the President and fulfil their hopes and expectations.

How and Why Zelenskiy Attained Success

By his career Zelenskiy is not a professional politician but a comedian who acts in a TV show ‘Servant of the People’ in which he plays the role of a school teacher who becomes a ‘Fictional President’ in his fight against corruption and for change in the system. That earned him great popularity in the country and immensely helped in his victory from ‘Fiction to Reality’ in the election. As reported by international monitors of the election, the Ukrainian election was competitive, free, and fair. Several leaders of the world including US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among the many who sent messages of support to Zelenskiy after his win.

It needs to be mentioned that the victory of Zelensky in the election was possible with the active support and advice of his team comprising of political leaders and specialists, who also advised him to contest the election. Mention may be made of former Finance Minister Oleksandr Danylyuk, former Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, and a former member of the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption (NAPC), Rouslan Riaboshapka, who were among the Zelenskiy camp’s team providing insight into the candidate’s thinking and plans.

There are also reports that the 56-year-old billionaire Kolomoyskiy, who seems to be living in Israel, owns the TV channel on which Zelenskiy’s comedy programmes are aired and provided security, lawyers, and vehicles for the candidate. A US report mentioned that Kolomoyskiy has several international activities such as metal, fossil-fuel, and finance businesses. He started a private bank in Kiev which was nationalised a few years ago. He is a strong opponent of Poroshenko and supporter of Zelensky.

Tasks Ahead 

There are several problems and tasks ahead for the new President. Ukraine has been facing many economic problems during the last two decades. The economy is shrinking and is in a bad shape reflecting declining growth, unemployment and so on. The IMF is predicting a 2.7 per cent growth for Ukraine in 2019. Hence improving the economic growth will be a major task for Zelenskiy. In fact the Russian media, “Rossia Segodnya”, made a strong and sarcastic comment on the state of Ukraine by observing: “The country has degraded economically and ecologically, demographically and culturally.” Corruption is a major problem facing Ukraine which ranks 120 out of 180 countries in the world as per Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 and this issue has been a key factor in the election. Hence it is not a coincidence that this was the main theme of the TV serial in which Zelensky plays a key role as a teacher forming the Servant of the People Party fighting against corruption and becomes the (fictional) President. In fact that gave him immense popularity in reality in Ukraine and also in this election campaign thus leading to his victory. In fact even as efforts made so far have not yielded much result, Zelenskiy has already signalled his objective to take on these issues after taking over the presidency. In contrast Poroshenko’s popularity has plummeted as many Ukrainians blame him for the country’s slow pace of reform and for failing to tackle corruption.

As opined by some analysts, this slogan of fight against corruption and need for change in the election in Ukraine could make some impact on the voters in other republics of the former Soviet Union which have been controlled by entrenched leaders for over two decades and in many of which corruption has become rampant. In fact, as expected, Zelenskiy has announced: “Let the entire former Soviet Union look at us and see that anything is possible.” This is also opined by academics specialising on Ukraine at the University of Manchester, Prof Kharchenko and Prof Olha Onuch, highlighting that for the Ukrainian electorate economic concerns and a demand for greater efforts to combat endemic corruption were important; these are also prevalent in many post-Soviet republics.

In fact despite the sneering tone in the Russian state media, some Russians were looking with envy about the success of Zelenskiy over Porosheko. Russia’s political leader, Aleksei Navalny, who is a strong critic of Russian President Putin put on his Twitter: “Congratu-lations to Ukraine and Ukrainians. And to everyone for a fair election—a rare thing on the territory of the former USSR. Let Ukraine flourish, and Russia will only benefit.” This was possibly an indication that elections in many post-Soviet states are not free and fair with no change in leadership.

As a part of policy measures, Zelenskiy’s team has already indicated that as President he would ban those convicted of corruption offences from holding government posts and forbid those charged with corruption to be released on bail. Moreover, Zelenskiy would “relaunch” the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s office and other anticorruption agencies and “guarantee their independence”. He has promised that “we’ll institute the same rules for everyone. There’s one law for everyone. Just like I learned in law school,” he told Ukrayinska Pravda.

Moreover, Zelenskiy’s plan is to create a favourable climate for foreign and domestic investments in Ukraine that could boost economic growth. Zelenskiy has stated his support for health-care reform and pension benefits to all citizens including those in eastern regions where many ethnic Russians are living.

Poroshenko Factor

 

The outgoing President Poroshenko has vowed to remain in politics and said publicly that his successor Zelenskiy will face “strong opposition” in parliament. This is because Poroshenko’s party and its allies control the current parliament. As per the Constitution, Ukraine’s President does not head the government, but the office does wield significant influence, including veto power over parliament and the authority to appoint some senior officials. The Ukrainian President is also the Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces, a crucial role given the ongoing conflict in the Donbas.

Poroshenko has been candid in stating that he intends to “ensure that Ukraine does not change its course” toward integration with the European Union and NATO. Addressing thousands of supporters in Kyiv on April 22, Poroshenko promised to reclaim the presidency in the elections-to-come and told his backers: “Together we will go into the parliamentary elections.”

Relations with Russia

 

During the last over two decades Ukraine has been in a dilemma as regards its relations with Russia in the east and the European Union and NATO in the west. Of late Ukraine has to take a decision on the issue of joining the NATO. Zelenskiy has pledged to hold a referendum on whether or not Kyiv should join the NATO. Zelenskiy has also stated that he would work to convince the people in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine to overcome their negative view of the NATO. Moreover Zelenskiy has said he supports the Minsk Peace Accords and the two agreements between Moscow and Kyiv, signed in September 2014 and February 2015, that provide a road-map to peace.

On the other hand, Poroshenko has sought to portray Zelenskiy as unfit to defend Ukraine from Russia. Poroshenko, being critical of Russia, opined that under Zelenskiy Ukraine “could be quickly returned to Russia’s orbit of influence”. In fact some of Zelenskiy’s critics, including Poroshenko, have questioned his ties to the foreign-based Ukrainian oligarch whose TV station airs Zelenskiy’s programmes, Ihor Kolomoyskiy. But disagreeing with this allegation, the Ukrainian President-elect Zelenskiy has worked hard to publicly distance himself from all controversial oligarchs including Ihor Kolomoyskiy.

Notwithstanding all these, it is appreciable that Poroshenko pledged cooperation with Zelenskiy and said he would respect the will of the Ukrainian people. But he also used the opportunity to warn that Zelenskiy’s victory was a win for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Poroshenko seems to contend that Zelenskiy will be under the control and influence of the Kremlin.

It is important to note that Porosheko is from the western part of Ukraine whereas Zelenskiy is from the south-eastern part. Moreover, as opined by analysts, Zelenskiy is more comfortable with the Russian language and has criticised Poroshenko for restricting the use and teaching of the Russian language in schools and in government, the media and art. Hence the east-west dilemma persists. In fact restricting the use of the Russian language is not rational and not in the larger interest of Ukraine.

At the same time contrary to the perception and criticism of Poroshenko, Zelenskiy is aware that he has to face challenges in dealing with Russia. For instance, Zelenskiy has complained that the war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has dragged on for five years and devoured more than 13,000 lives, needs to stop. He has vowed to negotiate directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he has also said in an interview with the Ukraine TV channel after his victory that he would never agree to sacrifice any territory or citizens of Ukraine. Moreover, Zelenskiy has promised that one of his priorities would be that he would work to secure the release of 24 Ukrainian sailors who were captured last year by Russia along with their three vessels while trying to pass through the Kerch Strait near Crimea.

Even as Zelenskiy is to take over the presidency of Ukraine, a new issue has emerged. Western specialist on Russian affairs Steve Gutterman has commented that while with-holding congratulations on an electoral landslide that sent powerful signals to the Kremlin, on April 25 Vladimir Putin greeted his soon-to-be Ukrainian counterpart with the Citizenship Decree, of issuing Russian passports to ‘Russian-speaking and Russian-thinking people in Ukraine’. In reality this could help hundreds of thousands of people in the Donbas and Lunask regions of Ukraine. Looking back in 2002, during Putin’s first term, Moscow began issuing Russian passports to residents of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—laying the groundwork for the move by adopting a law allowing Russian citizenship to be granted to people who did not receive citizenship of any country after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

In fact this seems to be part of Putin’s concept of Malo-Russia (Mini-Russia) which might create new problems for Ukraine. But this may also generate conflicts and differences in the near future. Western countries and also the OSCE have criticised Russia on this new Decree. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin commented that “Russia’s decision to issue passports in the occupied Ukrainian territories is the continuation of aggression and interference in our internal affairs”, adding: “This is a new ‘passport’ stage of the occupation of the Donbas.” But disagreeing with this criticism, Putin contends that Moscow has “no desire to create problems for the new Ukrainian authorities” and called it “a purely humanitarian matter”. Even this contention may not be acceptable by Ukraine and the Western powers.

In fact notwithstanding all such criticism, Putin has gone one step ahead. On April 27, 2019 Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that his administration was considering a plan to ease the process of granting Russian citizenship to all Ukrainians, not only those in the war-torn parts of eastern Ukraine. Even as this is a shrewd policy-decision of Putin and might aggravate bilateral ties, Zelenskiy shrewdly responded by advising Putin ‘not to waste his time’ since Ukrainians understand that Russian citizenship means “the right to be arrested for peaceful protests”, and “the right not to have free and competitive elections”,

In contrast to Poroshenko’s critical pro-Russian opinion about an elected President, the response of Zelenskiy was highly critical of Russia and might worsen relations between the two countries. As per reports, Zelenskiy issued a statement condemning Russia as an “occupying state” and an “aggressor country that is waging war against Ukraine”. He called for “increased diplomatic and sanctions pressure on the Russian Federation”. In view of the unsolved Minsk Deal and Crimean issue which have adversely affected bilateral relations between Ukraine and Russia since 2014, the Russia-Ukraine strains might get aggravated when Zelenskiy takes over the presidency.

In the context of what is stated above several questions arise. While Zelenskiy has succeeded in converting his Fictional role of President into Reality, will he succeed in converting his promises of ending Corruption and Change into Reality? Will Zelenskiy succeed in achieving his promise to ensure economic growth? Problems facing the country are quite serious and pose major challenges for the new President. Zelenskiy’s success could depend largely on support from the team that he builds around him and if he manages to bring professionals on board that can compensate for his lack of personal experience. There are different assessments by analysts. Vadim Karasev, a Ukrainian political analyst, does not seem to be very optimistic as he has opined that there could be little change in the policy under a new leadership in Ukraine. According to him, “there’ll be no reversal” in Ukrainian politics.

Dr Gidabhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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