Ukrainians have chosen a comedian to lead them. But the new president, elected amid promises of draining the swamp, may soon discover that swamp water is the lymph and blood of Ukrainian political culture.
In late April, five years after the Revolution of Dignity and the start of an ongoing war with Russia, political newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky defeated the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, in a landslide victory, garnering more than 70% of the votes in the run-offs.
The election clearly reflected Ukrainians’ widespread frustration. Despite some progress in several areas, Ukraine has maintained a deeply corrupt political system. Its “oligarchal pluralism” was only marginally weakened with Poroshenko, himself a prominent oligarch, at the helm. The revolution did, however, spark a realignment of forces toward a more pro-European posture. Although Poroshenko could vaunt a number of achievements since he took office with Ukraine on the brink of disintegration, voters punished him for the slow pace of change.
Yet given Ukraine’s hybrid presidential-parliamentary system, it is unlikely that Zelensky will be able to effect any substantial changes before parliamentary elections in October. His nascent political party, Servant of the People, exists more on paper than in the halls power. And there is little the president can do without parliament backing him. To begin to fulfill some of his campaign promises before a new parliament is elected he could act quickly on nominating a new prosecutor-general and anti-corruption prosecutor. He could also choose a Minister of Defense and the head of the security services.
One litmus test for Zelensky will be how he deals with the “fugitive” oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who is generally viewed as the éminence grise behind the Zelensky phenomenon. (Kolomoisky owns the TV station that broadcasts Zelensky’s hugely popular cabaret program, and Kolomoisky’s lawyer was Zelensky’s campaign manager.) Under Poroshenko, the Ukrainian government nationalized Kolomoisky’s PrivatBank and threatened to indict him on charges of fraud. Kolomoisky had been living in Tel Aviv since 2018 and returned to Ukraine on May 16. How Zelensky deals with him should be a clear indication of how he intends to move throughout his tenure.
Ukraine will almost certainly experience yet another realignment of oligarchic powers. Among the dozen or so oligarchs who control the country’s major industries, shifting alliances have been the norm. Zelensky will have to cobble together a coalition and will be rudely awoken by the fact that alliances, especially alliances of convenience, come at a price.
Ostensibly, Zelensky will remain pro-European, but behind the lip service there will always be interest groups that need to do business with Russia (not least of which his own production company). So while it may be too early for him to espouse any pro-Russian policy – especially with soldiers still dying on the front – Zelensky may try to cut a deal with the overtly pro-Russian parties, which did surprisingly well in the first round of the election, getting 15% of the votes.
The wild card element in Ukraine’s future is how Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to test the neophyte president. Less than a week after the election, Moscow offered Ukrainians living in the occupied regions of the Donbass a fast track to Russian citizenship. More provocations can be expected.
Since the Ukrainian president is primarily responsible for national security and foreign policy, Zelensky will have to bear the responsibility for his reaction to any provocation. Any move that endangers Ukrainian sovereignty will be contested by the nationalists and spark a backlash – possibly even a violent one.
In all probability, however, Ukrainians will face continued frustration as Zelensky confronts the harsh reality that it is much easier to criticize a flawed government than rectify it. Nevertheless, the Zelensky phenomenon will be interesting to watch because it reflects a worldwide trend. The electorate in post-social media democracies expect a certain level of excitement or entertainment value from their leaders. (In previous times they might have called it “charisma.”) Zelensky has been familiar to Ukrainians as a TV personality for over a decade and it is hard not to be fond of someone who brings laughter into your life. Ukraine’s new president should serve to confirm that in democratic politics, style is now more important than substance.