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April 3, 2019

On March 31, Ukrainians gave a first-round victory to Volodymyr Zelenskiy for president with an endorsement of just over 30 percent. The incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, obtained around 16 percent, entering the runoff over third placed Yulia Tymoshenko. The voters clearly expressed their disillusionment with the existing political establishment and have chosen as frontrunner an outsider with no political experience. The elections have been accepted by most observer missions as being run fairly with relatively few violations.

The key factor which appears to have been central to these results is the failure of the incumbent president to fulfill the promises which he made in the 2014 elections. We should recall that he swept into office with an overwhelming first-round win. The most glaring of broken promises include the failure to fight corruption, to bring to justice the criminals of the Yanukovych regime, to curb the power of the oligarchs, and to establish the rule of law. On the economic front, while a number of reforms were accomplished, improvement in the economic well-being of the average citizen was not realized. Unsurprisingly, Poroshenko was unable to deliver on his promise to “quickly” end Russian aggression in the Donbas though a strengthened army and a stand-off has been achieved. Sadly, the incumbent’s 2014 electoral promise of “Living in a New Way” never materialized and he lost the confidence of many voters.

Looking at the current frontrunner, the choice of the electorate appears to be quixotic. At 41, he is both young and inexperienced. His main career has been as a comedian. He has had extensive business ties with Ihor Kolomoisky, a highly discredited oligarch. He has conducted substantial business in Russia, Ukraine’s primary enemy which threatens its very existence. His political party is quite fledgling and lacks a broad base. He lacks experience in international diplomacy or military matters. He is a Russian speaker with no apparent cultural affinity to the largest ethnic portion of the population.

The main quality which he appears to be offering the electorate is his integrity and commitment to change the country’s corrupt system. At present, there is very little basis for evaluating the sincerity of these promises. There is, however, no blatant evidence of Zelenskiy’s involvement in major corruption and his willingness to act as a puppet of Kolomoisky is yet to be established. The TV serial “Servant of the People” which he produced and led to his popularity may offer some insight into his thinking. He plays a fictional high school teacher who is elected president. The fictional president battles oligarchs, politicians, and bureaucrats–all for the benefit of the people. The issues needing remedy are well understood and the satire is biting. There are no compromises while the challenges are not understated.

In Zelenskiy’s defense, it must also be pointed out that he is not simply a “clown” as his detractors and the opposition candidates have tried to represent him. Several known facts contradict such labeling. First, he is an educated individual with a law degree. Second, he is not only a performer but also a businessman who established and ran several successful entertainment production companies. While not in the super rich category, he is reported to be a multi-millionaire, implying both managerial competence and a capacity for maintaining independence. While primarily a Russian speaker, as many citizens of Ukraine, he is also fluent in Ukrainian and has a working knowledge of English. Lastly, people with direct contact attest to his high level of intelligence and openness.

In entering the second round of the elections, the main challenge that Zelenskiy now faces is to assemble a credible cadre of advisers and potential ministerial appointees with whom he would work to implement the changes he promises. In this he has made a good start by involving experienced reformers such as Aivaras Abromavicius, former minister of economic development, and Oleksandr Danylyuk, former minister of finance. By report, Zelenskiy recognizes the need to rely on professionals of integrity to provide him with input in various aspects of governance. Credible advisors on military matters and diplomatic affairs are urgently needed to demonstrate capacity to address the pressing issues related to the Russian aggression.

If Zelenskiy is to be accepted as a leader of all of Ukraine, he must address the cultural integrity of Ukraine. While the rights of citizens to use other languages, specifically Russian, should not be curtailed, the official language of the country is Ukrainian. Any president who wants to be accepted by the broad population and respected by foreign communities must show respect to the official language of the country which has been suppressed over centuries.

Zelenskiy must use every opportunity in the coming weeks to convince voters of his sincerity and the credibility of his promises. Suspicions of his ties to Kolomoisky or any Russian leanings must be countered by firm statement of positions. The development of a comprehensive platform, not merely a statement of intent, would help to alleviate such concerns. Clear indications of policy directions should be provided. While the electorate appears to be poised to vote for change and a new era may evolve, it is still uncertain that their confidence will not once again be betrayed.

Basil A. Kalymon is Professor Emeritus at Ivey Business School, University of Western Ontario, Canada.