In a campaign that upended the established political system, gags came easy for Ukraine’s president-elect. He is, after all, a comedian. But as Volodymyr Zelensky looks beyond his momentus election victory, he’ll know punchline prowess stands for little. Beset with issues both foreign and domestic, the task ahead of him is no joke. He inherits a political system riddled with corruption and sorely lacking in public trust, and must square off with arguably the world’s greatest agitator – Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But as a newcomer to the political scene he bears no burden of the past, and has – for the time being at least – the faith of the people behind him.
An astounding 73% of voters backed political novice Zelensky in last month’s election. Perhaps more remarkable though was the border-to-border breadth of his victory. In a country normally riven along ethnolinguistic lines, his insurgent campaign managed to win all but a sprinkling of regions. For a man whose surname means green, maybe it was fate that he should unite the blue and yellow of Ukraine.
All the more surprising was Zelensky’s victory given his utter political inexperience. He might’ve played the president in TV comedy Servant of the People, but never before has he held actual public office. And that, experts say, is precisely why he was elected. His predecessor and presidential opponent Petro Poroshenko rose to power amid 2014’s Euromaidan Revolution. But he was guilty of the “capture, abuse and betrayal” of the movement’s progressive ideals says Balázs Jarábik, an expert in Ukrainian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A figurehead of the Ukrainian old guard, Poroshenko was dispensed of by a people seeking genuine change.
To capitalise on this sentiment, Zelensky must tackle Ukraine’s endemic corruption with vigour. On this, he talks a good game. Though his political agenda was generally vague, an anti-corruption message featured consistently throughout the campaign – and his aides have already announced measures to curtail malfeasance, including scrapping MPs’ immunity from prosecution and making military purchases transparent.
But some have been quick to question Mr Zelensky’s own probity. His connection with exiled media mogul Ihor Kolomoisky has been seized upon by opponents trying to align him with Ukraine’s oligarchy. Kolomoisky, who owns the TV channel that aired Zelensky’s hit series, was implicated in a clean-up of Ukraine’s banking system in 2016. Fearing judicial proceedings, he fled abroad after PrivatBank, which he owned, was nationalised. “Am I that crazy?” Zelensky retorted when asked whether he’d hand the bank back to Kolomoisky if elected.
Pithy responses have failed to sever the link between the two, however. During the campaign it was revealed that Kolomoisky’s lawyer Andriy Bohdan served in Zelensky’s team as chief legal advisor. Vehicles and security staff linked to the oligarch have been used by the president-elect, too. For a nation tarred by corruption, fears that Kolomoisky could be pulling the strings from afar are percolating. Voters had a stark choice says political consultant Radu Magdin: “An oligarch or someone possibly controlled by an oligarch, the puppet or a puppeteer?”
These frailties will be welcomed by one man in particular – Russia’s Vladimir Putin. When the Euromaidan protests threw from power a Ukrainian leadership growing ever closer to their Russian neighbour, Putin moved swiftly to stamp his influence. The Crimean peninsula was annexed and Ukraine’s most easterly region, the Donbass, was engulfed in a proxy war. This belligerence has driven down pro-Russian support, polls suggest, which typically split Ukrainians fifty-fifty.
Zelensky was widely accepted as Putin’s favoured candidate, Poroshenko being a stalwart enemy of the Russian strongman. As a political newcomer, the Kremlin will likely view the comedian-turned-president as an easier target than his predecessor. Already they’re testing the showman’s mettle. Shortly after the election Moscow announced that citizens of Donetsk and Luhansk would be entitled to Russian passports, and hinted at a Ukraine wide policy in the future. Zelensky responded to the provocation with characteristic levity, quipping that Russian citizenship granted only the right to be arrested for peaceful protest.
Wisecracks won’t worry Putin, but Zelensky’s unifying force certainly will. For the Kremlin, whose sponsorship of the Donbass war is costing countless lives, a divided Ukraine is the ultimate goal. If their western neighbour flourishes, the Russian public will bear witness to the benefits of open democracy – something Putin doesn’t want, especially now that his ratings have fallen to a record low. Both hard and soft power will be used by Moscow as they challenge the new Ukrainian president, says Olexiy Haran of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kiev, adding that “Putin will try to trap Zelensky in compromises on the Donbass and Crimea which will be beneficial for Russia”.
But if Zelensky wants to keep the international community onside, he’ll have to take a hard line with Putin. The Russian’s incursions into sovereign Ukraine have horrified the civilised world, the majority of which hopes to see a roll back in Kremlin aggression. Support for closer European relations is growing in Ukraine, something Zelensky is said to be personally keen on. And while President Trump’s relationship with Putin remains inscrutable, America as a whole wants a successful Ukraine outwith Russia’s orbit of influence. In exchange for military aid and political support from the US, Zelensky’s predecessor promised domestic reform – Ukraine’s new man would be wise to continue down this path.
But to what extent he will remains a mystery. Zelensky gave practically no interviews during the election and has offered few clues as to his presidential priorities. Whatever his plans, he’ll need to enact them quickly. Living standards are low and, despite his current popularity, Ukrainians are no strangers to civil revolt – as demonstrated five years ago. Rapprochement with Putin would almost certainly spark similar protests, as would alignment with the oligarchy. Zelensky is riding high, but as an episode of his presidential TV show depicts, a leader’s fall from grace can happen dizzyingly fast. That’s one dramatic parallel he’ll be hoping to avoid.