On Sunday, April 21, Ukraine elected its new president: Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who satirizes the president on television. Zelensky captured 73% of the vote, with Petro Poroshenko, the current Ukrainian president, losing his reelection bid in a landslide. Dr. Veronika Velch, Rainey Center Associate Fellow and Ukrainian elections expert, shares her perspective below.
Rainey Center: Poroshenko's loss to Zelensky is shocking - though not altogether surprising, since it was predicted in pre-election polls. How would you describe Zelensky's message, and why did it resonate with such a large majority of Ukrainian voters?
Dr. Veronika Velch: Zelensky brings hope. He positions himself as anti-establishment, as someone who doesn’t care about high level positions but who is daring to try to challenge the old system. Ukrainians see him as someone who has not have real political ambitions, but rather good will to fix what’s broken. They see him as someone who understands them and is sincere in his intentions. As someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. It’s a very common to hear among Ukrainians “I would govern better than...”
As well known Ukrainian sociologist, Irina Bekeshkina said: “Zelensky did not unite Ukrainian voters.” They are still very polarized. For instance, according to Ilko Kucheriv “Democratic Initiative” Foundation, 37% of his supporters want to see Ukraine as a member of NATO, 33% wants Ukraine to have a neutral status, and 6% supports a military union with Russia. There is no way that Zelensky can keep everyone happy. Volodymyr Zelensky has never been very articulate about his vision of Ukraine, so he is going to deal with a pure projection of people’s hopes and dreams. It’s going to be a disappointing experience for millions again.
RC: This is clearly a devastating loss for Poroshenko. What about his 5 years in office led Ukrainians to reject him so strongly?
VV: JUSTICE has been the main demand since Euromaidan. Ukrainians expected way much more from President Petro Poroshenko. Another question is how reasonable those expectations were and how fast people wanted to see changes. When Putin invaded Ukraine and started the war, it was like getting a bleeding wound in a body: It’s hard to focus on smaller problems when you have such a big one. But, of course, there was an obvious lack of anti-corruption reforms. There were numerous attacks on, and killings of, activists and journalists -- members of civil society. Those crimes were investigated only nominally. There was nepotism. The combination of all those factors didn’t make Poroshenko look good.
Also, there is an obvious misunderstanding of Constitutional duties of a president. I don’t think that many people really understood what Poroshenko was able to do, versus what was beyond his presidential duties. I have a deep respect for how Poroshenko represented Ukraine on international arena and how he resisted Putin’s Russia.
RC: Zelensky is a comedic actor whose character becomes president by accident on a popular television series. In an odd case of life imitating art, he'll be at the helm of the Ukrainian government for the next 5 years. Do you think he will be able to successfully implement the policies he promised?
VV: I don’t think that Zelensky's character becoming president on the TV series was necessarily by accident. The launch of the show was a moment when Volodymyr Zelensky has started to run for presidential post. It was an amazing way to build a deep emotional connection with Ukrainians.
To the question about policies. Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t promise some certain policies, so how could he fail? He promised to support everything good and fight everything bad. I am very eager to see Zelensky’s action plan.
RC: Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for change, but change can mean different things to different people. What specific reforms do you see as being most critical to the success (or failure) of Zelensky's administration?
VV: There are two dimensions: the war and domestic reforms. Ukrainians want to stop the war, but they also want to win the war. This would mean restoring Ukrainian borders and sovereignty as they were in January 2014. We have paid too high price to let everything fall into Putin’s hands now. If someone would travel to Ukraine -- and in addition to spending time at numerous hipster places -- visit a cemetery, then they would see rows and rows and rows of fresh graves. All those people died in this meaningless war. Most of them were born in the 1990s. It’s heartbreaking. It’s shocking. That smell of fresh soil gives such a strong feeling that we have to stand up against evil to the very end.
Yesterday, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that she hopes for the reset and expressed her expectations. Then Kadyrov, Medvedev, and Yanukovich sent their congratulations. It seems like Russians still couldn’t understand that in Ukraine, unlike Russia, one person does not decide for the whole nation. Zelensky announced a full scale informational war to stop fire at Donbas. We will see what it means.
The second dimension is domestic reforms. Zelensky has already promised to replace Yuriy Lutsenko, the current Prosecutor General of Ukraine. It’s not clear who is going to be appointed. This will determine a lot. There will be Parliamentarian elections next fall. President can’t do that much without Parliament. So, one step at the time.