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UkraineAlert April 25, 2019

What Zelenskiy’s victory means for Ukraine

By David J. Kramer

The temptation in Kyiv and elsewhere is to look past Sunday’s overwhelming victory by upstart Volodymyr Zelenskiy over incumbent Petro Poroshenko and try to divine what it means for Ukraine. This piece will yield to that temptation—but after acknowledging the importance of what happened Sunday and throughout the election campaign. Free and fair elections in a region not known for them should not be taken for granted.

Ukraine has developed a strong track record—with a few notable exceptions such as the 2010 local elections and the 2004 second-round presidential election that precipitated the Orange Revolution—of conducting decent elections. Ukrainians take their elections seriously and turn out to vote in numbers that exceed those in the United States. I co-led an observer mission with the International Republican Institute and, along with my colleagues, found only the most minor of problems on election day.

In a region in which incumbents usually don’t go quietly, Poroshenko quickly and graciously accepted the results. That speaks well of him and of Ukraine’s democratic maturity.

No one knew who would win Ukraine’s presidential race, a rarity in the region. Those who didn’t make it into the April 21 runoff accepted the results. There was no violence in the run-up to either round. Two days before the second round, on April 19, Poroshenko and Zelenskiy squared off in a raucous debate before a stadium audience, the envy of Russian and Belarusian citizens but not of the leaders in those countries.   

The only glaring problem with the election was the responsibility not of Ukrainian authorities but of the Kremlin. As a result of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donbas, nearly 16 percent of Ukrainian voters were de facto disenfranchised or faced great difficulty participating in the process. That this election took place at all, much like the elections in 2014, despite Russia’s war and invasion speaks volumes of Ukrainians’ determination to not let anyone, including Putin, derail them from their democratic, Euro-Atlantic-oriented path.

So what will a Zelenskiy presidency yield? Nobody knows for sure, including arguably Zelenskiy himself. IRI polls leading up to the election showed the war with Russia and corruption as the top two issues among voters’ concerns. Zelenskiy has talked about negotiating with Putin, but the reality of bearing presidential responsibility for resolving the conflict may change his thinking. He has talked about holding a referendum on joining NATO, though the Ukrainian parliament added an amendment to the country’s constitution making clear that membership in NATO and the European Union is a key pillar of Ukraine’s foreign policy, making a referendum unnecessary.

On corruption, Zekenskiy has called for revoking the immunity of parliamentary deputies and going after those involved in malfeasance. He has hinted at going after Poroshenko, a billionaire in his own right. Adhering to rule of law will be critical when it comes to fighting corruption, which remains a huge problem.

Ukraine divides power between the presidency and the parliament, and the Rada will hold elections in October that are as, if not, more important than the presidential race. That suggests that the parliamentary campaign will distract deputies from getting much done over the next six months, amid speculation over who will be the next prime minister.

Rumors are also rampant over whether Ihor Kolomoiskiy, an oligarch supporter of Zelenskiy who fled to Israel after his bank, Privatbank, was nationalized in 2016, will return to Ukraine once Zelenskiy takes office. Poroshenko and Kolomoiskiy became bitter rivals despite the latter’s backing for militias that may have saved part of southeast Ukraine from being gobbled up by Russia in 2014-15. There are also rumors that former Georgian President and Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili may return. Like Kolomoiskiy, Saakashvili had a dramatic falling out with Poroshenko. The return of either individual risks turning the political situation in Ukraine into a circus, something the country can ill afford.

For the international community, President George H.W. Bush’s vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace can never be realized without Ukraine. The United States, Canada (which has a sizable Ukrainian diaspora population) and our European allies must remain committed to supporting Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations by keeping the doors open to NATO and the European Union when Ukraine satisfies the admissions criteria. The West must not let Russian occupation of part of Ukrainian territory stand nor become a de facto veto over Ukraine’s integrationist goals. Democratic success in Ukraine is vital to Ukrainians, but it will also advance Western interests and eventually redound to the benefits of liberal-minded Russians as well. That, after all, is why Putin is so scared of seeing Ukraine succeed. 

David J. Kramer is senior fellow of the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, a former Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the Department of State, co-leader the election observer delegation to Ukraine for the International Republican Institute, and project leader for the Atlantic Council’s Task Force on Foreign Interference in Ukraine’s Elections.

Image: Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kyiv, Ukraine April 21, 2019./File Photo