Marco Levytsky, National Affairs Editor.
Both incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and television comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy made it to the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election, scheduled for April 21 with Zelenskyy holding what appears to be an insurmountable lead. Zelenskyy led Poroshenko by almost 2-1 winning 30.24 % of the vote to Poroshenko’s 15.95. Add to that the vote of the two pro-Russian holdbacks from the Yanukovych regime, Yuri Boyko (with 11.67) and Oleksandr Vilkul (4.15), whose supporters can most certainly be counted in the Zelenskyy camp for the second round, and you’ve got a total of over 46%. This quite closely mirrors exit polls where respondents were asked whom they would vote for in the second round. The result was a resounding 49.4% for Zelenskyy compared to 19.8% for Poroshenko.
Zelenskyy is tapping into a very deep well of discontent. His vote represents an outright rejection of the current political class in Ukraine, which is viewed by a vast number of the population as an incorrigibly corrupt oligarchy. His main strength lies in the public’s view of him as an outsider insofar as the political landscape is concerned and the feeling among many that only someone who is outside the traditional political class, can implement effective reform.
This is an understandable sentiment, but it is also one which is fraught with danger.
For one thing, Zelenskyy’s campaign and his popularity have almost totally been based upon a character he plays on a television sitcom entitled “Servant of the People” – a schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president, then launches an all-out attack on corruption. To support a candidate solely on the basis of a fictional character he plays is a case of wishful thinking carried to the point of absurdity – an assumption that life can imitate art, that fiction can become reality.
Taking that into consideration, Zelenskyy’s candidacy can be compared quite appropriately with that of US President Donald Trump – a reality television star with no political experience who pledged to clean up the Washington “swamp”.
Another, and even more ominous comparison with Trump, is a perceived pro-Russian bias. Alexander J. Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark and an astute observer of Ukrainian politics, raised this issue in an article posted on the Foreign Affairs website the day after the first round and entitled “Ukraine’s TV President Is Dangerously Pro-Russian”. Like Ukraine’s voters, Motyl also bases his assessment on the television show itself. Among his observations are the following:
• Most of the characters speak Russian most of the time, as opposed to Ukrainian;
• Ukrainian nationalists are portrayed in a negative light. “In the third season, crazed Ukrainian nationalists (with the slogan ‘Freedom, Surname, Country’) stage a coup that leads to his (character’s) arrest”, writes Motyl;
• The absence of any reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas and the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov.
“By ignoring all these facts, the show adopts Putin’s narrative — one that he began expounding years ago and then perfected during the Euromaidan revolution. Russia was forced to occupy Crimea and invade southeastern Ukraine, he insists, in order to save the country from the supposedly fascist junta that had ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, threatened the lives of Ukraine’s Russian speakers, and made plans to join the U.S.-led imperialist alliance known as NATO. The show effectively says Russians aren’t to be blamed for any of the country’s problems; blame Ukrainians, it argues, more specifically Ukrainian patriots who think they can rely on the West,” writes Motyl.
Zelenskyy also claims he can bring peace to the country by negotiating with Putin. This is a pipedream. There is no peace treaty with Putin that can be reached without surrendering a substantial degree of sovereignty and independence to the Russian Federation. Even if the impossible – a fair agreement – is achieved, the question that immediately pops up is when did Moscow ever honour any treaty it signed with Ukraine? Like it or not, the stalemate that currently exists is the only alternative we have because all the others are even worse.
Nevertheless, Poroshenko needs a true miracle if he is to overcome Zelenskyy’s formidable lead. This would mean convincing a massive number of voters to change their minds between now and April 21 – a very unlikely scenario. Perhaps a proper debate between the two could expose Zelenskyy’s inexperience. But what is being proposed – a debate before 70,000 people at Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium — is more likely to turn into a circus than any serious exchange of ideas that would lead to the enlightenment of the voters.
While we may well have to reconcile ourselves to a Zelenskyy victory, we also have to keep an open mind. For one thing, we must acknowledge that as an unknown entity, Zelenskyy may still surprise his critics. Only time will tell. For another, we can take comfort in the fact that while Ukraine may be an emerging and still imperfect democracy, it is nevertheless a democracy. As such, it has seen the creation of a civil society that is growing considerably in strength and serves as a check on the power of the leadership. It is also a society that has shown its willingness to take to the streets should that be deemed necessary. Thus, for example, should any peace agreement be signed with the Russian Federation that would curtail Ukraine’s sovereignty, it would be met with vigorous and, most likely violent opposition – especially from the armed volunteers that have sacrificed so much to defend it. Were that to happen, one could see a third Maidan that would make the first two look like Sunday picnics by comparison.
Yet a third factor to take into consideration is the extreme volatility of the Ukrainian electorate – one which gave Poroshenko a resounding landslide five years ago and is now prepared to hand him a humiliating defeat. Parliamentary elections are six months away and that can be an eternity – especially where Ukrainian politics are concerned. Should Zelenskyy fail to live up to the promise of his fictional television character, the reaction may result in the election of a hostile parliament which will also serve as a check upon his own power.
Although the diaspora has greeted the prospect of a Zelenskyy Presidency with considerable consternation, we must both accept the will of the people of Ukraine and recognize the deep-seated frustration that has led to such a result. We must engage the new leader, but we must also remain vigilant to ensure that the accomplishments of Poroshenko’s tenure, like the revitalization of the Ukrainian army, the Ukrainian language and culture and the successful campaign for the recognition of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, will not be reversed. We must also continue to support Ukraine in its war against Russia, support Ukraine on the international stage, support the progress towards democratic and economic reform, support the battle against corruption, and support the continued growth and development of the civil society which is so vital to a viable democracy.