Foreign Policy Blogs

Ukraine’s Upcoming Presidential Elections: The Ambivalence of the Zelens’kyy Candidacy

Most political experts in and outside Ukraine have reacted negatively or very negatively to the announcement, on New Year’s eve, of Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelens’kyy that he will become a candidate in Ukraine’s presidential elections scheduled for 31 March (first round) and 21 April 2019 (second round of the two front-runners). Indeed, Zelens’kyy’s submission is – see below – in various ways problematic. Probably, his candidacy is an even more ambivalent enterprise than those of the other two top contenders, opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko and incumbent president Petro Poroshenko. Still, for all the apt skepticism, there is also – as in the case of certain positive aspects of Tymoshenko’s and Poroshenko’s runs – a bright side to the announcement of Zelens’kyy. One can identify, at least, three major risky or negative, but also three relatively encouraging dimension’s of Zelens’kyy’s entry into the race.

The first and foremost problem with Zelens’kyy is that he would be a politically and diplomatically unexperienced president. He has not held any governmental or any other public sector office before. His two main competitors Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, in contrast, have each held, over many years, parliamentary seats, party chairpersonships as well as high executive posts. They are also well-connected internationally, for instance, via the European People’s Party, while Zelens’kyy seems to have no foreign affairs exposure.

In peaceful times and under stable conditions, Zelens’skyy’s assumption of power would, perhaps, be an experiment worth trying. Yet, as Ukraine’s current geopolitical situation is extremely complicated, a Zelens’kyy presidency would be a chancy development. His partially naïve statements on Ukraine’s international relations so far, and announced recruitment of an explicitly non-political team indicate that there would have to be a transition period before a Zelens’kyy administration becomes more or less functional. Ukraine and her various foreign challenges may not have time for such an interregnum, after the presidential elections.

Second, it remains unclear how truly novel a Zelens’kyy presidency would eventually be, in terms of its approach to the old semi-criminal patronage networks – the main cancer of Ukrainian politics. To be sure, Zelens’skyy is justified emphasizing his clean hands, and non-involvement in the shadowy schemes of Ukraine’s post-Soviet oligarchic rule. He is rich and made his money on everybody’s watch, as a popular television star and producer of successful entertainment programs.

Yet, there is much suspicion in Kyiv about his links to Ihor Kolomoys’kyy, a notorious oligarch and owner of the influential TV channel 1+1 that airs most of Zelens’kyy’s programs. A major reason for Zelens’kyy’s popularity is his brilliantly played role as the non-corruptible and oligarchy-slaying Ukrainian president Vasyl’ Holoborod’ko in the popular TV sitcom “Servant of the People.” But many Ukrainian experts do not believe that a real president Zelens’kyy would be as effective as the fictional president Holoborod’ko, in curbing the impact of private business interests on Ukraine’s governmental affairs.

Third, the political-satirical aspects of Zelens’kyy’s comedy work and of his major TV show “Vechernyi kvartal” (Evening Block) have acquired a strange aftertaste, following Zelens’kyy’s entry of the race. His “95-yy kvartal” (95th Block) team has numerous times made fun of various presidential candidates including Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. In several sketches, Zelens’kyy has personally played Poroshenko as well Radical Party leader Oleh Liashko, another likely presidential candidate.

While Zelens’kyy’s and his team’s political satire was and is often extremely sharp, topical and funny, it now starts looking odd. The well-written and -played video parodies, still widely watched on TV, Youtube and other outlets, have recently gained a second meaning as support for Zelens’kyy’s presidential bid. They now seem to be parts of an unconventional negative electoral campaign by Zelens’kyy ridiculing his political opponents.

Yet, there are also some arguably bright aspects of Zelens’kyy’s entry into politics, and especially so, if it goes beyond his – likely unsuccessful – presidential bid in spring. Zelens’kyy’s mere participation in the campaign is stirring up Ukrainian political debates on the elections, and public interest for different visions of Ukraine’s future. Until 31 December 2018, it looked as if the 2019 contest will be largely between incumbent Poroshenko, his Solidarity party as well as his allies, on the one side, and veteran challenger Tymoshenko, her Fatherland party and her allies, on the other. Both of these politicians have been active in Ukrainian politics for more than 20 years. Although Poroshenko and Tymoshenko have become irreconcilable enemies over the last fifteen years, many Ukrainians perceive them as being of a similar generation, type and quality.

There are also other alternative Ukrainian third forces, on the right and left as well as in the political center. But Zelens’kyy arrival has an especially high potential to break old templates of party competition, political technology and oligarchic bickering. Many analysts in Kyiv suspect, to be sure, that Zelens’kyy is merely a novel instrument of manipulation in the hands of behind-the-scenes patrons, and especially of unpopular Kolomois’kyy. Yet, even if Zelens’kyy may be obliged to one or more oligarchs, it will be not easy for him to repay his possible debts.

Given his self-styled image as a non-nonsense corruption fighter and new type of politician, it would be especially damaging for Zelens’kyy, if he becomes perceived as being just another medium for infiltration of private interests into governmental affairs. This constraint may be even more important for his possible future faction in parliament than for Zelens’kyy himself. While the unexperienced politician and his team might be unsuitable for taking over the presidential administration, they could form a useful Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) group.

To be sure, Zelens’kyy and his entourage will be as much a target of seductive corruption schemes as other political parties and individual deputies. Yet, the followers of Zelens’kyy-Holoborod’ko will – given his public image as a new and clean politician – be especially vulnerable to any disclosures of bribe-taking, kick-backs, nepotism etc. Chances are that Zelens’kyy’s faction will thus become a relatively alien element in Ukraine’s corruption-ridden parliament. Whatever shakes the old structures of post-Soviet political advancement, procedure and decision-making is arguably good for Ukraine’s legislatures and executives on the national, regional and local levels.

A second positive aspect of Zelens’kyy’s possible rise are his roots in South-Eastern Ukraine, and his special appeal to Russophone Ukrainians. Zelens’kyy is less demonstratively and outspokenly pro-Western than Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. Yet, he presents himself as a Ukrainian patriot, has taken a clear position in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, apparently knows English well, and seems to be intuitively liberal. That makes him for many nationalistically inclined Ukrainian journalists and experts still insufficiently trustworthy.

Yet, even these commentators might agree that a Zelens’kyy party would be preferable as a representation of Russophone Eastern and Southern Ukraine, within the Verkhovna Rada and local parliaments, than the various successor organizations of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions with their continuing ties to Moscow. If Zelens’kyy creates a real party that becomes popular, electable and successful in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, he might be able to make a substantial contribution to Ukrainian nation-building.

A final, in Ukraine, largely ignored positive (especially foreign) political aspect of Zelens’kyy’s possible rise is his partly Jewish family background. To be sure, many Ukrainians know of, or/and easily recognize, Zelens’kyy ’s Jewish roots. But – remarkably – this fact is not, or, at least, has not yet become a topic of wider public debate, much in the same way in which Prime-Minister Volodymyr Hroysman’s Jewish origins are only rarely mentioned in Ukraine. Such private biographic aspects of various politicians are in Ukrainian politics and media – as it should be – largely non-issues.

Yet, Hroysman’s, Zelens’kyy ’s and other Ukrainian politicians’ ethnically non-Ukrainian roots have considerable weight within the skewed international informational sphere and political communication regarding post-Euromaidan Ukraine. Lingering Soviet-era propaganda memes, post-Soviet Russian defamation campaigns, radically left-wing anti-American alarmism, and dilletante post-modern commentaries on Ukrainian politics in the West continue to reproduce an imbalanced image of Ukraine as infected with ethno-nationalism to an allegedly extraordinary degree. To be sure, Ukraine has various problems related to its radical right-wing parties, internationally offensive memory policies, violent ultra-nationalist war veterans, as well as popular chauvinism directed, above all, against Roma, colored immigrants, and sexual minorities.

Yet, with the partial exception of its extra-academic official historical discourse since 2014, there is nothing special about Ukraine’s various issues with ethno-nationalism – a phenomenon nowadays widely spread across Europe and the world as a whole. In fact, the relatively weak electoral performance and low parliamentary representation of the Ukrainian far right during the last quarter of a century makes post-Soviet Ukraine, if seen in a comparative perspective, somewhat unusual. The party-political and electoral marginality of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism has recently become even more surprising, in view of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, bloody war in Eastern Ukraine, and deep economic downturn in 2014.

The rise of Zelens’kyy will be yet another source of cognitive dissonance within the continuing international reproduction of the stereotype about Ukraine as a hotbed of xenophobia. Whereas this geopolitical aspect of Zelens’kyy ’s rise may look irrelevant or bizarre to many Ukrainians, it will be a real factor in the formation of Ukraine’s foreign image. In sum, while Zelens’kyy may not (yet) be a suitable president for Ukraine, his forthcoming engagement in Ukrainian party politics, parliamentary affairs, public discourse, foreign relations, and, possibly, a governmental coalition may not be that bad. 

    

 

Author

Andreas Umland
Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland, Dr.Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph.D. (Cambridge), has been a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation at Kyiv, since 2014. He has held fellow- or lectureships at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, Catholic University of Eichstaett, and Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He is also General Editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" (ibidem-verlag.de/spps) and on the Boards of Directors of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (comfas.org) as well as German-Ukrainian NGO "Kyiv Dialogue" (kyiv-dialogue.org).

Personal web site: ieac.academia.edu/AndreasUmland

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