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What to Expect from Ukraine’s Next President

Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a policy debate with his rival Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at National Sports Complex Olimpiyskiy stadium in Kiev, Ukraine. April 19, 2019. (Shutterstock)

On April 21, Ukrainians elected a new president. He is Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor, comedian and political satirist, who won by a compelling margin of nearly three to one (73 percent of all votes cast and majorities in every region of the country but one). When his five year term begins next month, Zelenskiy will lead Europe's largest state by territory, a country divided by war with neighboring Russia and weary of corruption, but also wary of both external and internal "change" that could make an already difficult situation even worse. 

Who is Zelenskiy and why did Ukrainians choose him?

Zelenskiy is an entertainer, a political satirist rather than a politician in any traditional sense. At 41, he is certainly young. He came of age well after the dissolution of Soviet Union and Ukraine's independence in 1991, and has therefore experienced firsthand the high hopes of the early independence years, but also the political chaos, economic collapse, and the rise of the oligarchs—people like incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and Zelenskiy’s own business partner, Igor Kolomoisky.

In his television appearances, Zelenskiy has been merciless in shredding the country’s corrupt, oligarch-controlled political class. The younger generation of Ukrainians is especially familiar with his comic show “Block 95,” which blended slapstick comedy and variety show acts with cutting political satire. Underscoring Ukraine's traditions of free speech and pluralism, Zelenskiy's show lampooned the absurdity of Ukrainian political events and figures from the pro-Western, reformist Orange Revolution (2004-5) to the grossly corrupt Yanukovich years (2010-14). Indeed it was on television, live on New Year's Eve last year, that he announced his presidential bid.

Zelenskiy’s other signature television project ‘Servant of the People,’ in which he plays an upright and honest schoolteacher turned president, is now also the name and the manifesto of his political party. His landslide victory, defeating the incumbent by a 3-1 margin and winning majorities in all but one region of the country, was more than anything a resounding rejection of the status quo by voters who are justifiably outraged. These voters may well see Zelenskiy’s television character as far preferable to the present political reality. As Zelenskiy himself said to Poroshenko in the pre-election debate, ‘I am not your opponent, I am your sentence.’

Zelenskiy’s own honesty was tested in the recent campaign: he has acknowledged his business partnership with Kolomoisky (who owns the TV channel on which Zelenskiy appears), as well his own commercial interests in Russia. When asked pointedly about Kolomoisky, Zelenskiy said that if the oligarch breaks the law in Ukraine under his presidency, he will go to jail. He also claims to have wound down his business in Russia, and rightly pointed out that president Poroshenko has had extensive business dealings in Russia during his tenure. Despite intense attacks by opponents, Zelenskiy has not suffered any loss of popularity nor shed the image of a candidate of hope shaped to a large degree by his TV personality, ‘President’ Holoborodko.

How will Zelenskiy’s election impact the conflict in eastern Ukraine?

According to a recent study, Ukrainians expect the new president to deal with the seemingly endless war with Russia in addition to economic hardship and corruption. Many are frustrated and angry that after five years of war and sacrifice, they are no better off. Zelenskiy addressed this frustration with a twofold message of hope.

First, he has offered an inclusive political alternative to the nationalist policies and rhetoric of the current president. A native Russian speaker himself, Zelenskiy was seen by his electorate as preferable to president Poroshenko and his nationalist campaign slogan, “army, language, faith.” In his last years in office especially, Poroshenko has pushed hard to promote the dominance of the Ukrainian language over Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism (which is widespread in the center, east and south of the country), and touted his successful bid for the Orthodox Church’s independence from the Moscow Patriarchate.  Meanwhile he has prosecuted a grinding and bloody war of attrition against Russian backed forces in Donbas, which has cost thousands of civilian and military lives but delivered no measurable progress on the ground.

Second, Zelenskiy has promised to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the conflict. While Poroshenko and other critics warn that the comedian would be no match for his wily Russian adversary, Ukrainians appear weary of endless conflict and hopeful that a new president can at least bring peace and a chance to rebuild, if not restoration of territories seized by Russian forces in 2014. With his overwhelming victory over Poroshenko, Zelenskiy at least comes to any negotiation – whether with Russia or with local Donbas separatists – with a powerful mandate that can strengthen his hand.

Can Zelenskiy fulfill his promises to the Ukrainian people?

Any president can deliver on promises only to the extent he is able to cooperate with the parliament (Verkhovna Rada), which enjoys considerable power under Ukraine's constitution. Zelenskiy’s compelling victory sets the stage for the next phase of political competition in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections (to be held in October 2019). According to a recent poll, his party has the highest level of support among all Ukrainians (26 percent). However, the party lacks any real infrastructure: it has neither members nor regional organizations, which are critical for mobilizing voters. Even if Zelenskiy's party wins a quarter of seats in the Rada In October, he will still need allies from other factions to build a stable coalition and confirm his appointment of allies to the Cabinet of Ministers – especially to the powerful post of Prime Minister.

Without the political party infrastructure enjoyed by his vanquished presidential rivals, Zelenskiy faces the risk of not being able to deliver what is expected from him. Voters’ disappointment with the slow pace of fulfilling the promises could already count against the new president by the fall, lowering his parliamentary result from the current 26% to far less and making the formation of a favorable coalition even more important.  What Zelenskiy may then be ready to sacrifice to the political and oligarchic old guard to secure such a coalition and actually implement the remainder of his agenda has yet to be seen.

How does Russia see Zelenskiy?

For the Kremlin, which has not yet formally congratulated Zelenskiy on his victory, the “anyone but Poroshenko” enthusiasm appears to be shared with Ukrainian voters. On the one hand, this might reflect a cynical calculation that Ukraine under a new, inexperienced president who is determined to trash the political status quo will be a weaker adversary and thus more easily pressured and manipulated. On the other hand, Russia has shown little appetite for ‘owning’ the costly conflict it unleashed in eastern Ukraine and may be ready to settle the dispute on terms that permit outsiders, especially wealthy western countries, to step in and help reconstruct the Ukrainian economy.

Zelenskiy’s focus on pursuing peace and fighting corruption would potentially facilitate these goals in the short term. In the longer term, though, Zelenskiy says he is fully committed to Ukraine’s western orientation, including pursuing EU and NATO membership. These can hardly be to the Kremlin’s liking, but Moscow may be willing to keep its powder dry and offer Zelenskiy some concessions just to help consolidate his defeat of Poroshenko and the national conservative constituency he represents. After all, Russia can always attack Zelenskiy with real or fake "kompromat" in the future, and can at any time escalate violence by its proxy forces in Donbas to discredit the new president as a peacemaker and demoralize his core constituents.

What does Zelenskiy’s victory mean for the West?

In terms of implications for the United States and the European Union, Ukraine's election may become a critical turning point. With the Mueller investigation concluded, Ukraine remains the biggest sticking point for President Trump’s long-standing goal of repairing US-Russia ties. Trump was among the first to congratulate Zelenskiy on his victory and may seek to highlight in the comedian’s victory a version of his own message that only a political outsider can contain the “deep state” and deliver real change for the benefit of the majority of ordinary people.

In any case, if Zelenskiy is successful in tamping down the Donbas conflict and restoring some degree of normalcy to Ukraine’s economic and political ties with Russia, then the impetus for further escalation of US sanctions on Russia will be reduced, and there will be less tension between Washington and European capitals like Berlin and Rome, which now strongly oppose piling on new sanctions. Such steps could likewise clear the air for a Trump-Putin summit in the near future and permit progress on a long-frozen list of US-Russia priorities, from getting nuclear arms control back on track to deescalating risks around regional conflicts in Latin America, the Middle East, the Black Sea and the Baltic, which would be broadly welcomed by Europeans as well.

In sum, President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy is for the moment more a symbol and a beneficiary of Ukrainians’ rejection of the past than a figurehead for any concrete political movement or policy program. He won the election first and foremost because he is not a politician, and not a creature of the old system. But to be an effective president, he will have to master national politics and wrestle the old system into submission. Whether he can do that will depend on which domestic forces rally to his banner in the months leading up to the fall parliamentary elections, as well as on the attitudes of Washington, Moscow and European capitals. Amid Ukraine’s ongoing severe economic difficulties and the costly war in the east, Zelenskiy can certainly use all the help he can get.

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more