Volodymyr Zelenskiy, elected to Ukraine’s presidency Sunday in a landslide, may be one of the least prepared leaders to head a democracy in world history. Not only is he an outsider, whose main experience of politics has been to play a president in a satirical television program, he has done little to prepare for the job.
With polls putting Ukraine’s incumbent president Petro Poroshenko far behind TV actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy ahead of Sunday’s run-off election, it is worth considering how the West helped put this secretive comedian, backed by oligarchs, on the cusp of becoming commander-in-chief of a country at war with the Kremlin.
A case in point occurred in February, a month before the first round gave Zelenskiy 30 percent compared to Poroshenko’s 16 percent. When Denis Bihus, a muckraking journalist funded by the United States and the European Union, accused “the president’s friends” of smuggling Russian military parts in 2014, it seemed like a bombshell.
In fact, it was a hatchet job.
There’s election fever in Kyiv, and with less than a week before Ukrainians go to the polls to likely elect an inexperienced comedian as their next president, the outcome is all but certain. Volodymyr Zelenskiy should easily defeat incumbent President Petro Poroshenko on April 21.
The far more interesting question is who will win the October parliamentary elections and who will lead the next government.
The day of judgement in the Ukrainian presidential election is almost upon us. This is not just a contest between two political contenders and their supporters, representing different backgrounds, styles, and constituencies, or even visions, but something more fundamental.
It is a clash between the old and the new. Between traditional Ukraine, in the political sense, of the last thirty years, as represented by incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, an establishment figure, and between modernity, represented by political newcomer, showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The frontrunner is a young, successful Russophone showman, with a novel approach to politics, projecting his appeal and winning power. He is a product of the post-Revolution of Dignity Ukraine and the inchoate modern political nation that has been crystallizing during a time of war with Russia in the east and the country’s simultaneous determined movement westward.
The election is not about Ukraine’s orientation, east or west. That issue has been decided. Neither Poroshenko nor Zelenskiy have questioned this. It is mainly about the way in which the country has been managed, or rather mismanaged during the last five years, and whether a change, not only at the top, but of the system as such, is needed.
Voters knew the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on March 31 was a freebie, but they will make their vote count in the run-off on April 21. It was clear to the public that there would be no candidate who would receive 50 percent in round one, so Ukrainians were able to vote their conscience as well as send a message to the political establishment. The message was one of disappointment and anger directed toward incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. The incumbent received 16 percent, enough to make the runoff. Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy scored 30 percent, which slightly exceeded expectations. Now that the run-off will produce the next president, voters may be more circumspect this time.
In the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, the leading pro-Russian candidate secured 11 percent of the vote. Compare this to 2010 when pro-Kremlin candidate Viktor Yanukovych received 49 percent. This dramatic decline reflects the scale of the damage done to Russian interests in Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s ongoing war. Russian aggression has alienated millions of Ukrainian voters while disenfranchising many more, leading to an unprecedented collapse of Kremlin influence in a country that has been at the heart of Russia’s imperial identity for centuries. Could the remarkable rise of comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy help to reverse this Russian retreat?
Between the two rounds of the presidential election, a strange calm has grasped Kyiv. The election billboards are gone, and so are the many local protests. The only drama takes place on the Internet, where the two remaining candidates duel with videos. This is a propitious moment to take the temperature of the Ukrainian economy.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s stunning victory in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on March 31 would have sparked scenes of mass panic in virtually any other European country. With a novice comedian poised to take over the country’s top job and assume responsibility for an ongoing war with Russia, many people would have begun packing their bags, stockpiling tinned food, and preparing for impending catastrophe.
There was little evidence of this in Ukraine in the first days of April as the dust settled on Zelenskiy’s triumph. The majority of Ukrainians simply shrugged and got on with their daily lives, perhaps pausing to gossip about the latest political circus as they enjoyed the fine spring weather. The economy did not crash and there was no rush on the country’s banks. Instead, the Ukrainian national currency actually strengthened slightly against the dollar. Once again, Ukrainians had provided a reminder of why they are the undisputed world champions when it comes to coping with crisis.
In 2019, Ukraine celebrates the centennial anniversary of the unification of its national lands. On January 22, 1919, the Act of Union marked a historic milestone: for the first time in centuries, the Ukrainian people had revived their nation and unified most of its territories. Then Russian aggression destroyed our freedom, like it did again in 2014. The aggression of the Bolsheviks was tragically supplemented by the West's shortsighted policy of pressure, misunderstanding, and non-recognition of Ukraine. The division and occupation of Ukraine subsequently created the conditions for the emergence of the Soviet empire and eventually led to colossal historical upheavals and causalities both on our land as well as throughout Europe.
The anniversary of Ukraine’s unity is a symbol that captures the continuity of our struggle for independence and unity. For Ukrainians it is also a reminder of the high price of political mistakes and mass ignorance. For Europe and the world, it is an important reminder that it must not sacrifice the weak and or permit the local agendas of its neighbors to abandon its strategic values.
Next week, we welcome government officials, experts, and diplomats to Kyiv for the annual Kyiv Security Forum. This year’s forum takes place between the first and second round of Ukraine’s presidential election, which is linked with the election of a new parliament in October and the subsequent formation of a new parliamentary coalition. The danger of a prolonged political confrontation and the high probability that the results of election cycle will yield a president limited in actions, a fragmented parliament, and an incapacitated government is no less a threat than Russian aggression in Ukraine’s east.
The results of the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election did not surprise many. The four exit polls were remarkably close to one another and to the last comprehensive polls. They all displayed a similar picture: Volodymyr Zelenskiy would face off in the run-off with Poroshenko, who beat Tymoshenko. With the votes now counted, Zelenskiy took 30 percent, Poroshenko 16, and Tymoshenko 13.
There were a few surprises.