Reality check

Ukraine's President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy looks on after meeting Parliament members in Kyiv, Ukraine May 4, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Ukraine’s presidential election was a veritable political earthquake. The fault line between the old and the new, the real and the illusory, and pseudo-nationalism and grassroots patriotism, has been dramatically exposed.

The old political establishment was shaken to its very foundations, and the strong tremors and shockwaves continue to be felt. The shifting political tectonic plates will settle only after the reconfiguration of political forces is completed, before and during the October parliamentary elections.  

While much still remains uncertain about the new president, political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy, certain things have already become clear.

Zelenskiy is not the clown and political incompetent as his rivals claimed.

The actor, with legal training, who has made a fortune honestly from his phenomenally popular comedy shows, TV series, and films, is a genuine star. Not only as a showman, but as a latter-day David who challenged and convincingly defeated Goliath, personified by the outgoing president Petro Poroshenko. And so emphatically, with the support of three-quarters of the voters.

Furthermore, Zelenskiy’s initial defiant statements addressed to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin have also projected him as a champion not only for Ukrainians who want positive changes in the way their country is run, but also for Russians, Belarusians, and others.

Zelenskiy achieved his landslide victory through the clever and novel use of the latest technologies through TV and social media. He skillfully managed to harness the pent-up frustration and silent anger of millions of Ukrainians who had watched the lip service paid by Poroshenko to the ideals of the Maidan.

The majority of those who voted against Poroshenko were convinced that instead of genuine renewal and a real opening up of the system, there was token reform to placate Western allies and creditors. Moreover, the concealment during a time of war with Russia, behind the fig-leaf of patriotism and movement westward, of enduring systemic corruption and disregard for fair practices, rooted in the stifling oligarchic setup, was considered all the more cynical and reprehensible.

Zelenskiy and his Quartal-95 show team did something unprecedented, not only in the former Soviet region, but also beyond it. Through their bold, relentless and, in the circumstances sophisticated and effective, political satire (which has been seen and enjoyed in Russia and other former Soviet states), they helped to raise social and political awareness. They also framed the thinking about, and responses to, the mismanagement, self-enrichment, self-importance, disdain for the need for the rule of law, and arrogant impunity demonstrated by the oligarchs and political class.

If Zelenskiy’s meteoric political rise took the entrenched Ukrainian political class by storm, and exposed how archaic it had become, it also revealed a deeper issue—the extent to which many of those considering themselves to be the country’s moral and intellectual leaders are out of step and tune deaf to moral and ethical standards. By rallying uncritically around a president, who while fighting for his political life, resorted to invoking patriotism, and more recently even crude nationalism, they may have discredited themselves.

Poroshenko’s team spared no effort to depict Zelenskiy not only as an unsophisticated clown and cocaine addict, but also as an un-patriotic Russophone, a puppet of Poroshenko’s oligarchic rival Ihor Kolomoisky, and even of Putin himself.   

Just before he faced Zelenskiy in a public debate on the eve of the run-off election on 19 April, Poroshenko did something expected of ultra-nationalists but not worthy of a serving president. He ended his address with the slogans: “Glory to the nation!  Death to the enemies! Ukraine above all else!”

The results of this divisive strategy was to deeply split the country between the 24.4 percent who voted for him and the 73.2 percent who supported Zelenskiy.  Even in his speech acknowledging defeat, Poroshenko continued to stoke the flames. He told his team he would remain the defender of Ukraine and seek to lead its patriotic forces, implying that Zelenskiy and the vast majority of Ukraine’s voters who backed him were somehow suspect or second-rate Ukrainians. 

This position has been parroted by Poroshenko’s supporters, both in Ukraine and in the diaspora, many of whom see themselves as a diehard patriotic elite defending Ukraine not only against Russia, but also against a de facto fifth column that rejected the “guarantor” of a “Ukrainian” Ukraine.  

Consequently, not since the time of the Maidan five years ago have so many friendships been strained or broken. And for the first time since the 1920s, the delicate question of what it is to be Ukrainian, to be a patriot, and particularly in the context of the relationship between Ukrainophones and Russophones, has been dramatically reopened.

Typically, a well-known Ukrainian book publisher wrote on my Facebook page that gopniky (“Russian white trash) have come to power. She added arrogantly:  “I’m ashamed of the country and its 75%.”  A celebrated writer, Yurii Andrukhovych, compared the rejection of Poroshenko to the crucifixion of Christ, encouraged by a gleeful rabble.

Oksana Zabuzhko, a leading Ukrainian literary figure who recently accepted a award from Poroshenko, maintains that Ukrainians voted for a candidate who was not real but virtual, as result of Moscow’s devious hybrid war. The election, in her view, was a reality check which Ukrainians have largely failed, and this is a warning for other countries.

The election was indeed a reality check but in a different sense. It was a test not only of the level of Ukraine’s political culture, but also its sense of what the country is today, what its core values are, and how it should be run. Patriotism defined in the traditional ethnocentric way, permitting the turning a blind eye to misrule and deceit in its name, or a state based on current principles of good governance and inclusion?

The result was an unambivalent call for national and moral regeneration, for a modern inclusive sense of political nationhood, and for a prioritization of the tasks at hand.

Ukraine is a large country with diverse regions and ethnic groups. As it continues to undergo transition and faces the challenge of withstanding aggression from Russia, it remains a complex project still in the making.

The forging of a modern Ukrainian state and inclusive political nation requires the application of contemporary standards, not those of the nineteenth century or Soviet period. This is the key message from the presidential election which both the country’s political class and “patriotic” elite need to heed.

Bohdan Nahaylo is a British-Ukrainian journalist and veteran Ukraine watcher based in Kyiv, Ukraine.