Zelenskiy's Landslide in Ukraine: What Does It Mean?

On April 21, political novice Volodymyr Zelenskiy, best known for starring in a political television drama scored a dramatic victory over incumbent Petro Poroshenko to become the next president of Ukraine. Four experts on Ukraine gave their verdict to the Carnegie Endowment.

OLGA BURLYUK, CENTRE FOR EU STUDIES, GHENT UNIVERSITY

We could call the past few months in Ukraine’s political life a case of reality turning into farce or of farce becoming reality. In any case it is now a fact that Volodymyr Zelenskiy will be the new president of Ukraine.

While, foreign observers are caught between amusement and amazement, Ukrainian society and its expert community are divided between those who consider Zelenskiy to be the savior (his campaign slogan “Ze!” standing for “the”) and those who consider him just a hologram (“Ze!” standing for “zero”). 

Ukraine has seen a new kind of political game in this election, with the leading candidate hiding from the press and rationing information on his policy positions and team picks, all-out disinformation from both camps, and presidential debates becoming a carnival in Kyiv’s Olympic stadium. Form has subsumed content. Even the best-informed experts are unsure of Zelenskiy’s position on the four fundamentals: Ukraine’s state sovereignty, national identity, economic viability, and social cohesion.

The next few days and weeks will be telling and eventful. One may fear that the pessimist voices are proven right, one may pray that they are proven wrong. Either way, it will be up to Ukraine’s civil society to stick together, contain the authorities and work tirelessly for incremental change, “not thanks to, but despite” those in power, as a Ukrainian saying goes.

 

BALAZS JARABIK, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE

Volodymyr Zelenskiy's overwhelming victory over the incumbent president Poroshenko is a counter-revolution in Ukraine. This counter-revolution does not oppose the ideals of the Maidan movement of 2013-14, but rather the capture, abuse and betrayal of these ideals by a quintessential representative of the old oligarchic system, Petro Poroshenko. According to public opinion polls, the vast majority of Ukrainians wants radical change and peace in Donbas, which is why they voted against the current government and for Zelenskiy.

Zelenskiy has proven himself to be a master of disruption. Having won fame as the creator of a TV reality show, he has now managed to build a national virtual reality show in which every Ukrainian played a role. Based on the election results he received a strong mandate to change the policy direction. He will try to freeze the war in Donbas, ease language restrictions (but keep promoting the Ukrainian language), stand behind Ukraine’s Western integration and try to build a statemore attentive to service delivery and less preoccupied by ideology.

Zelenskiy's window of opportunity is small though. His first test will be his ties to the notorious oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, whose PrivatBank was nationalized after the oligarch allegedly emptied it. The new president needs a functioning ruling coalition in the parliament to make policy, which means his and others` primary focus will be the parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for October. The battle for the future of Ukraine will resume on the first the day after the election.

 

DENYS KIRYUKHIN, RESEARCH SCHOLAR AT THE SKOVORODA’S INSTITUTE OF PHILOSOPHY, THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF UKRAINE

Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s victory in the presidential election has demonstrated the high level of anti-elitist attitudes in Ukrainian society. The result was caused primarily by a sharp drop in the standard of living in recent years and disappointment that the fundamental changes in the system of government did not occur after the second Maidan revolution of 2014. The voters were offered two options. They could choose the representative of the elite or vote for Zelenskiy. Voting for Zelenskiy would, in a way, be an attempt to scrub the entire current political elite from the political field of the country. So, Zelenskiy’s victory is largely a result of a continuing mood of protest that brought people out on to the streets in 2004 and 2013-2014.

The election of a presidential candidate who has no political experience, an intelligible program of action or a well-coordinated team both carries risks for Ukraine and opens up new opportunities. The risk is that, as has repeatedly happened in recent Ukrainian history, a change of power will just turn out to be a castling move inside the elite. 

One more detail is worth mentioning: the interest being shown to Zelenskiy in countries such as Russia or Belarus demonstrates that his victory can be a potential trigger for political change in these countries.

 

KONSTANTIN SKORKIN, INDEPENDENT ANALYST

Zelenskiy’s victory is a sign of a breakdown of Ukrainians’ trust in the entire old elite. They have heard a pro-European rhetoric that contrasts with an everyday reality of corruption. Zelenskiy has received votes from all across Ukraine. This is a big asset which gives him carte blanche to carry out reforms and purge the state apparatus. 

A great deal will now depend on what team he forms. If he manages to bring professionals on board that will compensate for his lack of personal experience.

In any case President Zelenskiy has a difficult year ahead of him. The public will expect quick results from him, in the autumn he faces in which his opponents will try to take revenge. The West is skeptical towards him thus far and Moscow is sizing him up and working out how it can out-maneuver a political novice. His supporters are a varied bunch, with some of his electors believing that Ukraine needs to make peace with Russia, while others believe it needs to continue to pursue Euro-integration. He will have to reconcile these two different vectors.

Zelenskiy will also have to stand up to pressure from oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoyskiy first of all, who will see Poroshenko’s departure as a signal for them to restore their power in the country. All the accusations that dogged Zelenskiy during the election that he was dependent on the oligarchs will work against him if he shows the slightest inconsistency. He will also have to withstand an onslaught from the corrupt state apparatus who will try to discredit him and remove him from office if he really begins radical reforms.