By Laura Valkovic*
Ukraine has just voted in a new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. While the rest of the world looked on in dumbfounded amazement, he won the position in a landslide victory: a man who played the president on TV is taking up the office in real life.
The former Soviet state has become something of a flashpoint for the divide between Russia and the West. Nobody really knows what this new president stands for, and many wonder what his leadership will mean for the country and the rest of the world. Will he be a Putin puppet or bring the country into the European Union fold? Will he tackle corruption, or is he in the pocket of powerful oligarchs?
Zelensky is a former comedian and actor who until recently played the role of schoolteacher-turned-president in a television program called Servant of the People. In the show, his character makes a surprise ascension to leader of the country after being captured in a viral video railing against government corruption. Imagine what that says about the frustrations of the Ukrainian people, that this actor became a frontrunner to become the country’s real president six months before announcing his candidacy in late 2018. As the face of a newly created political party with the same name as his show, he has now won the presidency with 73% of the vote.
The West vs. Russia
Nestled between two regional giants – the European Union and Russia – Ukraine has been in the middle of a tug of war as these two powers grapple for dominance in the region. Formerly a Soviet state, Ukraine achieved independence in 1991. Shortly thereafter, it declared itself a neutral state and performed that balancing act reasonably well until 2013, when President Viktor Yanukovych decided to abandon an association with the European Union and pursue closer relations with Russia. The decision sparked protests and eventually the 2014 Ukrainian or “Euromaidan” revolution. Yanukovych and his government were ousted, to be replaced by pro-E.U. interim leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk and a soon-elected Petro Poroshenko.
From the Russian perspective, the new government was illegitimate, the result of a military coup and not a popular revolution. Pro-Russian regions of Ukraine responded with their own round of protests, culminating in the War of Donbass, in which these regions were taken over by Russian-backed rebels. The country remains in an uncomfortable stalemate to this day. Will Zelensky be able to tip the balance in one direction or the other?
He has already been congratulated by some European national and E.U. leaders, as well as President Trump. Russia, on the other hand, has been rather less forthcoming. “We respect the Ukrainian elections, more so that the verdict was very clear,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. “But the legitimacy of these elections is still under question given that 3.5 million people were unable to vote,” he added, referring to those living in conflict zones held by pro-Russian rebels. Russian state outlets RT and Sputnik notably have been reserved in their coverage of the event.
Zelensky has seemed supportive of “eurointegration” and NATO and recently said that “of course” he views Russian President Vladimir Putin as an “enemy.” Poroshenko pursued a pro-European Union agenda, even pledging in February to apply for membership to the E.U. and move toward NATO membership (which requires the changing of the constitution) by 2023, and it appears likely that Zelensky will continue along this route. He also has said he hopes to negotiate with Putin to resolve the Donbass conflict, although some in the West have questioned whether he has the experience or ability to stand up to the haughty Russian leader. It doesn’t appear that the rejection of Poroshenko represents a rejection of the E.U., however. In fact, the issue of international relations seems to have been less motivating to voters than domestic corruption.
Nicknamed the “Chocolate King” for one of his most recognizable business ventures, Poroshenko is a wealthy man who vowed to break the hold oligarchs have over Ukrainian society. He failed to do so effectively, however, and now Zelensky has been swept in as a supposedly independent voice. As he told Poroshenko during a televised debate, “I am the result of your mistakes.” It has been noted, however, that Zelensky may have close ties to one of Ukraine’s richest oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoisky, whose television station broadcasts Servant of the People. While his campaign denied any affiliation, Zelensky did take 13 trips over the past two years to Geneva and Tel Aviv, where Kolomoisky resides in self-imposed exile, claim investigative journalists.
What Do Ukrainians Think?
It appears that, like many peoples across the world, Ukrainians are sick of their elite class and simply wanted to upset the apple cart. Some supported the “authoritative” Poroshenko, while Zelensky attracted voters looking for a change.
“For me personally, the upcoming election is a torture,” said Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova, a pro-European activist, to Al Jazeera. “Yes, I will probably support [Poroshenko], but I will do it reluctantly while feeling ashamed …. The promised reforms have failed …. All those shady deals between the government and business world, and the criminal business [remain a norm].”
Serhii Maliutin, a student who had fled the rebel-held region of Luhansk, said, “I like that his [Zelensky’s] campaign programme is oriented more towards the people. He does not have big administrative resources and he is using new technologies to reach his audiences …. He is doing everything over the internet – Instagram, Telegram, Youtube. He is a breath of fresh air.”
“I voted for Zelenskiy because I believe that he will be able to defeat corruption in the country,” Elena Kalynyna, an IT worker in Kiev, told Politico. “If he does like he’s promised, to completely change the entire power structure, then that should do the trick.” While Svitlana Bondarenko, an education administrator, told Al Jazeera that he is “a made-up image of what people want to see,” she added, “[Zelensky] is a great project, but no one knows what this project will turn out to be.”
It seems Zelensky embodies “swamp-drainer” Donald Trump, the “fresh face” of France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Italy’s tech-savvy Five-Star Movement, all rolled into one enigmatic figure. For now, it appears he can be whatever you want him to be.