The world is in turmoil, Russia occupies part of Ukraine, reforms in Ukraine still have a way to go, and democracy is in retreat in much of Europe.
One would think Ukrainians would be worried. One would think they would want an experienced person at the helm. Instead, they may be about to elect the 41-year-old television comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, as their next president.
On February 7, hundreds of Facebook users in Ukraine posted videos with red nose filters. Everyone ended up looking like a clown, and that was precisely the point. Ukrainians are clowns because they’ve allowed the country’s political elites to rob them blind, keeping salaries and social benefits low. This was part of a flash mob started by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Ukrainian comedian and the surprise leader in the latest polls for the presidential election slated for March 31.
Elections may be on the horizon, but I firmly believe that reforms will continue through 2020 and beyond. Now that Ukraine has enshrined EU and NATO accession as the fundamental direction of the country, whoever comes to power, Ukraine’s pro-western economic development and orientation cannot be reversed.
On February 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would suspend its obligations under the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Pompeo said Russia had violated the treaty for years. The next day, the State Department notified the Russian embassy and the embassies of the other treaty parties, including Ukraine, of the US intention to withdraw from the treaty. President Vladimir Putin that same day said that Russia also would suspend its treaty obligations.
Unfortunately, the INF Treaty is headed for demise.
The international community is preparing for the annual Munich Security Conference, which will host more than 500 guests, including forty heads of state and government. I too will attend. Before the conference, I spent part of the week in Kramatorsk, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine, which underwent Russian occupation but was freed by the Ukrainian army. Four years ago, on February 10, Kramatorsk was fired upon by a Russian Smerch Multiple Launch Rocket System in a salvo of attacks with prohibited cluster warheads. Seventeen people were killed, and sixty-four were wounded.
In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, we spoke about Ukraine’s recent decision to adopt a constitutional amendment, which consolidates Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and the importance of uniting efforts so that no one can prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU eventually.
When I go abroad, I am always asked about the status of the ceasefire. Here I don’t have good news. A ceasefire at the contact line, as envisioned in the signing of the Minsk arrangements, has not become a reality. Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin still maintains the fiction that his country is not involved in the Donbas, Russia is undoubtedly the aggressor state. Putin hopes for a more pliable president after Ukraine’s spring presidential elections.
In Kramatorsk, we visited checkpoints, which function as de facto borders within a sovereign state. When Ukraine modernizes these checkpoints and increases the number of heating stations, waiting rooms, and windows for border guards, people told me that they fear that these checkpoints will remain forever. Here they understand the new global order has rapidly changed.
In Kyiv, the word karandash (pencil) is an ordinary word one might encounter in an office supply store or an elementary school. But in eastern Ukraine, where the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has killed more than 10,000, displaced another 1.7 million, and injured thousands of civilians, karandash means something else. The Ukrainian military uses it to describe 122-millimeter grad rocket launchers.
On February 11, Vladislav Surkov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key aides and ideologists, published a reveling article called “Putin’s Long State.”
It is not an ordinary piece; it makes the case for a new kind of Russian expansionism, and it should be read closely and taken seriously.
Russia’s attack on Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov on November 25 may have been a probe to test the West’s reaction before the launch of other offensives aimed at destabilizing Ukraine at a crucial time.
2019 is Ukraine’s election year. And it is one of double importance with presidential and parliamentary elections taking place six months within one another. But Ukraine’s domestic politics, including President Petro Poroshenko’s hold on power, remain shaky.
Three months before voters head to the polls, 30 percent of the electorate is undecided about whom to vote for and nearly 82 percent said that they have no confidence in the president. This means there’s still plenty of room to sway public opinion—a craft the Kremlin has overwhelmingly succeeded at on foreign territory.
In a few weeks, a comedian may become the next president of Ukraine.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an unlikely candidate who plays an ordinary history teacher that becomes president of Ukraine on his popular TV series, Servant of the People, ranks as one of the most popular candidates in Ukraine’s March presidential election. Zelenskiy’s character, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, is a Kyiv-based secondary school teacher, whose rant about government corruption and waste goes viral while he’s unknowingly filmed and vaults him to the presidency.
While much is known about Zelenskiy’s television character, relatively little is known about Zelenskiy the candidate and his stance on issues of importance to Ukrainian voters. A political neophyte whose political party is named for his television series, Servant of the People, Zelenskiy has surged to first place in a number of national surveys among a competitive field of candidates vying for the presidency. He’s edging out more established candidates, including incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and longtime politician and current Member of Parliament Yulia Tymoshenko.
On February 4, a group of Ukrainian politicians and activists announced the formation of a new political platform. In Ukraine, this would hardly make news. New political platforms are announced regularly, especially during election years.
But this new platform, the Euro-Atlantic Agenda for Ukraine, deserves a second look. (We previously reported that this platform was getting organized.)
Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, is the most recognizable of its leaders.