What can Ukraine expect under President Zelensky?

Three questions for our Project Director in Kiev

On April 21, the actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine – according to the preliminary results, he won 73.2 percent of the vote. The incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, received 24.5 percent, a hard slap in the face. A majority of Ukrainians have chosen risk over continuity.

In electing Volodymyr Zelensky president, Ukraine has chosen a TV star with no political experience but with ties to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. How surprising was this victory?

Immediately before the election, it was the expected outcome.

Zelensky had already won the first round with a substantial margin and was able to gain additional ground over the course of the last few weeks. On April 16, the Kiev International Institute for Sociology published a survey stating that 72.2 percent of voters had already decided to vote for Zelensky, with only 25.4 percent favouring Poroshenko. Nobody still believed in a Poroshenko victory at that point.

All things considered, however, it is astonishing that Ukrainians would elect what is essentially a virtual persona – a candidate whose image is based exclusively on television roles and who has all but completely declined, even as he was going into the run-off, to position himself politically.

The feud per YouTube video, the blood tests on live television, the wrangling about the debate in the Olympic Stadium – the three weeks following the first round can only be described as a circus solely orchestrated by Zelensky which Poroshenko went along with reluctantly and only because he was desperate.

It is remarkable that Zelensky remained unharmed by the copious amounts of negative PR that emerged during this period. There were reports, for instance, claiming that Zelensky dodged the draft on four separate occasions, or that his campaign was partially funded by Russia. Investigative reporters also uncovered his ties to Kolomoyskyi.

The risks inherent to a president with no political experience are obvious. The country remains in a de facto state of war with Russia, which continues to be unwilling to accept Ukraine's pivot to Europe.

How does a man whose election campaign all but lacked substance win by landslide?

On the one hand, Zelensky has mobilized many people with his excellent campaign, which was both funny and innovative by Ukrainian standards. The campaign was mostly on social media, in particular on Zelensky's Instagram channel, and on billboards. Voters were encouraged to write Zelensky's platform for him, posting their conceptions of the ‘country of their dreams’ on the Internet. During the Olympic Stadium debate, Zelensky did not ask Poroshenko any questions of his own; he read out countless questions posed by the people instead. He avoided public appearances so as not to disturb the impression Ukrainians had of him: the successful comedian who lampoons the old political class with sharp satire, and the character he plays on the TV show Servant of the People, Holoborodko, a modest, likable school teacher who becomes President of Ukraine by accident. As such, Zelensky personified hopes for a fresh face and for an alternative to the corrupt old elites until the very end.

On the other hand, and equally importantly, Zelensky was swept into office by the protest vote. Poroshenko would have lost to just about any other challenger too. Even though he initiated more reforms than any of his predecessors, and even though Ukraine has made visible progress during his tenure, public opinion of Poroshenko is marked by disappointment.

The Revolution of Dignity has failed to live up to the expectations it created; many would say it has been betrayed. The progress made in fight against political corruption was really only achieved due to pressure from civil society and from Ukraine's international partners. The country would be in a better shape today had Poroshenko been more serious about tackling this problem. However, most disappointment probably stems from people's living conditions, which have failed to improve since the Maidan events. Household incomes have yet to recover from the slump in 2013.

Public opinion does not concern itself with how much of this is actually the outgoing president's fault. Poroshenko was unable to communicate his accomplishments, and this is what he is now being shown the door for.

Election results aside, it is important to note that Ukrainian voters have effected a change of government through democratic means, a decision recognized both by the loser and by the general public. Poroshenko has congratulated Zelensky on his victory, has offered to assist Zelensky during the transition, and has announced his intention to be the leader of an effective opposition. This represents an affirmation of democratic practice that people in other post-Soviet states can only dream about.

What can Ukrainians and Ukraine's international partners expect from the new president? Doesn't his unpredictability leave room for hope?

In theory, of course, there remains the possibility that the change of hands of the country's highest office will lead to a positive new dynamic. Zelensky has announced, for example, that he will continue to pursue his vigorous Internet dialog with the electorate during his tenure, thus keeping his ear closer to the people than his predecessor did. The few policy positions he committed to in an hour-long interview a week before the run-off indicate a pro-European course and an encouraging liberal disposition. But even in a best-case scenario, disappointment is inevitable.

First of all, Zelensky is backed by people with diametrically opposed visions and expectations. He cannot possibly satisfy all of them at the same time.

Second, surveys indicate that the public's most urgent demands involve problems outside of the president's remit of competence, for instance residential utility costs.

Third, there is evidence that Zelensky's ties to Kolomoyskyi go far beyond mere business relations. Zelensky's ability to fulfil his promise of political renewal will depend on the degree to which he can extricate himself from the oligarch.

Fourth, Zelensky will have – presumably until October – to work with a parliament with no factions that support him. A number of representatives could defect to his side even before the October election, but even so there is no guarantee that Zelensky will get his legislative agenda passed. It is therefore dubious whether the striking success for his candidacy will translate into an equally striking success for his party, Servant of the People, which mostly only exists on paper at this point.

None of this is reason for alarm, however. In all likelihood, if Zelensky fails he will simply be voted out of office come the next presidential elections.

Calamity could result, however, should Zelensky's lack of experience cause Ukraine's security situation to deteriorate even further, or sensible reforms to be rolled back. There is no doubt the Russian side will seize any opportunity to destabilize. Much will depend on whether the new president chooses his advisers well and whether he is willing to absorb an immense amount of knowledge in the shortest possible time.

Ukraine's European Partners are called upon to continue to accompany and support the country. Regardless of the person of the president, Ukraine is on the right track, and it matters to Europe whether Ukraine succeeds.