On 21 April, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for change. Volodymyr Zelensky, a successful TV producer and actor with no previous political experience, won a landslide victory against an eloquent, but old-fashioned oligarch, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky won on the agenda of leaving the past behind and moving Ukraine into the future. During his short and somewhat muted campaign, he promised to make a difference in a country that has tried unsuccessfully to shrug off its past many times over the past three decades.
This promise of change will linger over Zelensky’s term in office. He will need to make a visible attempt to rule differently and come up with a new approach to Ukraine’s two main problems: endemic corruption, fueled by the oversized role of the country’s oligarchs in politics, and Kiev’s prolonged conflict with Moscow. So what can he do differently?
Poroshenko, who came to power in 2014, represented the enthusiasm of a country that just went through a bloody political upheaval, largely propelled by nationalist, anti-Russian sentiment. The Maidan movement pushed a group of Donetsk-based elites out of power and defined Ukraine’s short-term future primarily as moving away from Russia as far and as quickly as possible.
Poroshenko also represented a military commander, who led the country’s defense at a time of very intense combat against Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east. Ukraine and the whole world were mesmerized by how far this conflict would go. In 2015, the Minsk agreements were signed, freezing the conflict for an indefinite future.
In short, Poroshenko was a president who had to respond to a revolutionary sentiment – he had to offer simple solutions to complex problems. At the beginning, it worked, but with time, Ukrainians started to seek more tangible results. This is where Poroshenko failed to deliver largely because of the war, but also because of his own vested business interests – as a tycoon in the manufacturing, financial and media sectors.
Zelensky promised to achieve significant progress with the conflict with Russia and the economy. He will have to deliver fast. Ukrainians are hopeful now, but as it has been shown by previous presidencies, their hopes dim quickly. Zelensky will have a few months, perhaps a year to prove his campaign promises. Until October, when the parliamentary elections will take place, he will lack the support of a loyal party in the Ukrainian Rada. Also, he will still have to deal with public opinion, which is still very polarized on the issues of language and history (the new President comes from the city of Kryvyi Rih and speaks Russian primarily, though the bulk of his official statements are in Ukrainian. He will also need to deal with the Ukrainian oligarchs and the old guard political elite, which will not voluntarily give up their interests in the system that enriched them. Zelensky himself is widely believed to be connected with one of them, Ihor Kolomoisky, a classic example of a post-Soviet oligarch, with interests in oil, banking and the media.
With regard to Russia, Zelensky already made a number of telling statements. He said that he is ready to reset the Minsk format, inviting Britain and the United States to the negotiating table. He also said that he would not be ready to send troops to solve the problem militarily. Finally, he said that he does not believe Ukraine can get Crimea back before the government changes in Moscow. This means that Ukraine will turn a blind eye to the annexed peninsula, WAITING for a change in the Kremlin.
All these things represent a significant shift. Bearing in mind that Zelensky was most likely limited in what he could reveal during the campaigning period, in reality he might be even more flexible with Russia. Direct flights between Russian and Ukrainian cities might be restored. While he already announced an “information war” against Russia in the east, he also said that more Russian artists should be allowed to travel to Ukraine and that television language quotas should be reviewed. In his public speeches, he switched from Ukrainian to Russian and then back to Ukrainian. These are significant signs that Zelensky aims to create a new majority in Ukraine by uniting both Russian and Ukrainian speakers around the idea of internal renewal and a more prosperous economy.
Solving the conflict in the east and finding a way to mend ties with Russia without giving up too much will be a difficult task. Getting rid of corruption and fighting against Ukrainian oligarchs will be an almost impossible feat. The two are also interrelated. Many Ukrainian businessmen are profiting from the conflict, many others are suffering from disrupted economic relations with Russia. What is more important, all major media outlets in Ukraine are owned by local oligarchs. Therefore, they can twist public opinion in favor or against Zelensky. Here, it will be a tightrope too.
The new President already announced some members of his team. Many of these people are pragmatic professionals and there are no nationalist firebrands among them. It does not mean that Ukraine will move away from its declared goals of becoming a member of NATO and the European Union. However, new people will do it in a more down-to-earth and sober way. The change might resemble the one that happened in Georgia in 2012, after ecstatically anti-Russian President Mikheil Saakashvili was replaced with oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and his acolytes.
Hopefully, Zelensky will be successful in his endeavors. This will set a new example for other post-Soviet countries. Given how important Ukraine is for Russia, the Russian society will follow his moves closely. This will present a new challenge to President Vladimir Putin, who has been ruling Russia for almost two decades now – a new face that came to power via a competitive election. Just like Ukrainians, Russians are also tired of conflicts. They want to see more internal change. Zelensky might set a positive example of this in his own country. This would pose a threat to Putin, so it is no wonder that he did not want to congratulate Zelensky on his victory.