KRASNODAR, RUSSIA – Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory in Sunday’s Ukrainian Presidential election marks the moment when the Western populist wave comes to the post-Soviet space.
It also serves as a complete rejection of the divisive, ethno-nationalist policies pursued by his opponent, Petro Poroshenko, over the past five years.
Like US President Donald Trump and Italy’s Beppe Grillo, Zelensky has leveraged a major television profile for political gain, but he’s pulled it off on an inclusive platform in his campaigning, contrasting with the discordant rhetoric of his opponent.
Now, Ukraine faces an unusual situation. It has replaced an ideologically fanatical President with a complete unknown quantity. One who lacks any parliamentary power-base and must wait six months for elections to the legislature, the Rada.
The paradox of Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan was that it looked like a revolution, but its aftermath amounted to more of a re-arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic than any real change of power.
Now, those chickens may finally have come home to roost. And that movement’s Western backers can only blame themselves for having prioritized their own geopolitical interests over the genuine desire of Ukrainians for change.
Petro Poroshenko was the wrong choice to lead post-Maidan Ukraine, which was conceived on the promise of a complete overhaul of political elites. Selecting a billionaire who had served in cabinet under the Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovich administrations was an immediate betrayal of the promises made on the streets of Kiev.
Poroshenko and those around him were products of the nineties, when the post-Soviet oligarchic system was formed. And the limited reforms they acquiesced-to were enacted under pressure from the US and the EU.
Perhaps the elite was smart to resist. After all, the harsh measures inspired the emigration of millions of Ukrainians, mostly to Poland and Russia. The drift to the latter a glaring paradox, given Poroshenko’s hostility to his neighbor.
The outgoing president’s strategy was obvious. And cynical. He knew he could rely on Western support so long as he maintained an anti-Russian posture, and to hell with promised structural reforms. Because, as Poroshenko was acutely aware, Brussels and Washington will tolerate any transgressions which suit their geopolitical agenda.
For evidence, witness Western silence as he pushed one-time US darling Mikhail Saakashvili out of Ukrainian politics. In just over six months, the former Georgian President went from being Governor of Odessa to being rendered stateless, after Poroshenko revoked his Ukrainian citizenship and later had him deported. All done with barely a whimper of protest from a Western establishment which once lionized Saakashvili.
Sadly, for Poroshenko, Ukrainian voters were less accommodating. And now the West has to deal with Zelensky, who may just turn out to be more pro-Ukraine than “pro-West.” If so, he will know that, if Ukraine has any chance of prospering, it must somehow normalize relations with Moscow, which remains its largest trading partner.
Zelensky’s TV series ‘Servant of the People’ was essentially a dramatized campaign advert. Beaming the actor into the homes of millions and making ordinary Ukrainians comfortable with the concept of him leading the country. Although, of course, many may have voted for the idea of his character, Vasyl Holoborodko, rather than the real deal.
In the series, Holoborodko is a straight-shooter who battles corrupt elites. And, of course, corruption is the number one issue for Ukrainian voters, who know Poroshenko, as an oligarch himself, was never going to destroy the system which helped create his own fortune.
Thus, Zelensky, or at least the fictional politician he plays in the show, was obviously more credible than his opponent when promising to tackle graft.
Zelensky also chose a positive campaign platform, avoiding unrealistic promises. By contrast, Poroshenko stood on his ability to hold firm against Russia. But, in doing so, he often gave the impression he thought he was competing with Vladimir Putin instead of his actual opponent.
Furthermore, his Russia-bashing, often hysterical, alienated voters in central, southern and eastern regions, many of whom feel an affinity with Russian culture and use Russian as their primary tongue. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to have worked in the West either, as exit polls suggest Poroshenko lost in every region except the hyper-patriotic Galicia.
As an aside, whatever one may think about Poroshenko, he has at least cleared the way for a peaceful transfer of power and, more importantly, a peaceful change of elites. And this is something Russia, and much of the ex-USSR, has yet to experience.
That said, most people here viewed the Ukrainian election as circus and watched it like a form of reality TV. Not because they wished to emulate it. With this in mind, the conduct of the campaign probably did more harm than good to the prospects of Western-style democracy taking off in Russia.
Zelensky may turn out to be ineffective. And, unless he can somehow orchestrate a radical overhaul of the Rada this autumn, he will be rendered politically weak.
Nevertheless, his election victory confirms that Ukrainians are tired of being used as pawns by both external actors and their own elites.
The West backed the wrong man in Poroshenko. And, before that, Russia made the same mistake with his predecessor Yanukovich. Zelensky would be wise to put Ukraine first, and realize the zero-sum game has gotten his country nowhere.