Zelensky the Victor: Hopes and Reality

Petro Poroshenko, who fought to the end to remain Ukraine’s president, did not even wait for the official data of the Ukrainian Central Election Commission, declaring his defeat on the basis of exit-polls. The gap was too significant: more than 70% of voters supported Vladimir Zelensky, and the current head of state did not receive even a quarter of the votes. So, 30 days after the official announcement of the results, power in Ukraine is slated to pass into the hands of a popular comedian. But will it be real?

Vladimir Zelensky plays the leading role in the popular TV series “Servant of the People”, which is about an honest president and his team; it was shot by Studio Kvartal 95. The show not only turned out to serve as the largest-ever election campaign TV commercial, but, unfortunately, in many respects it also became prophetic. At the beginning of the film, fictional president Vasily Goloborodko bargains with the prime minister for seats in the government. In parliamentary-presidential Ukraine, the same fate awaits the actor who played that role. Without having its own faction in the Verkhovna Rada and without controlling any deputies, Zelensky cannot form a government which he can completely control. The next elections to the main legislative body of Ukraine will be held in October, and Zelensky will only have the opportunity to obtain full power in the country if he’s able to create his own parliamentary bloc and pursue a Rada victory. Will he be able to do this, and could the Zelensky Bloc challenge the ruling Poroshenko Bloc? Zelensky has already stated that the next important task is to win the elections to the Rada, but so far he has no political power of his own. In addition, in order to win the parliamentary race, he needs to demonstrate his effectiveness as the new leader of the country to voters. This may prove to be problematic, given that the comic isn’t even able to form a new government.

On the whole, let us think about what percentage of voters sincerely believe that they actually chose Vasily Goloborodko, the incorruptible and humble hero Zelensky portrays in Servant of the People, and how quickly these voters will be disappointed to see that the president does not refuse motorcades, guards, and pompous residences? However, Zelensky is sure to offer a “gift” to the audience/voters in the form of a public rejection of a new residence or some of the privileges of office; he has good political consultants for this.

Election in Ukraine: Don’t Expect Warming in Relations with Russia
Mikhail Pogrebinsky
From the presidential election in Ukraine, one should not expect a significant warming in Russian-Ukrainian relations, writes Valdai Club expert Mikhail Pogrebinsky, Director of the Kiev Centre for Political Studies and Conflictology.

So, the elections to the Rada will revolve around the policies Zelensky implements during the first stage of his tenure in office, if he wants to control the country. What does he need for this? First, he must portray himself as a fighter for justice – that is, by all means, initiating proceedings against some of the most corrupt officials, and punishing those responsible for total theft in the armed forces (even the media in the West write about this, which indicates significant dissatisfaction regarding Ukraine among its European and American partners). Such a war against corruption would allow Zelensky to weaken the Poroshenko clan on behalf of his party, as well as other rivals in the Rada elections, and to earn loyalty points from his American partners, who are concerned about the excessive greed of Poroshenko’s team in the appropriation of military and civilian aid. Unfortunately, since he lacks the necessary amount of power, Zelensky will have to negotiate with a number of security officials in the fight against corruption, such as Avakov, or try to initiate an investigation that will be blocked by the Rada and unfriendly ministers, i.e. his activity will be effectively limited to simple rhetoric.

At the same time, Zelensky should address the Donbass issue before the parliamentary elections. Just now? Earlier, in public speeches, he refused to recognize its special status. A military solution to the problem is unlikely, and Zelensky simply does not have the ability to present options that will suit the electorate on both sides of the Dnieper river. Here Vladimir Zelensky is a real hostage of Russia, with which he wants to negotiate decisively. Realistically, however, Zelensky urgently needs to arrange for the freeing of Ukrainian POWs in Donbass before the Rada elections, as well as, most importantly, the group of sailors captured during their adventurous attempt to pass through the Kerch straight. Returning them to their homeland amid loud fanfare will show that Zelensky can negotiate with Moscow and at the same time does not abandon his compatriots. Will the Kremlin give him such an opportunity? Moreover, what concessions would he have to make in return?

These minor successes will allow Zelensky to strengthen his position before the elections. Yes, his partners from Washington would be impressed by a decisive politician who, in the best traditions of Hollywood, can “pull out his guys”, but the problems stemming from the Donbass issue and the “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) will not be resolved. The only reasonable step for the Ukrainians to take, which would allow Ukraine to reduce costs associated with the armed forces and avoid losses, is to achieve a final cease-fire and, in fact, turn the DPR and the LPR into republics resembling Transnistria. There is no way, formally, that the territory can remain within Ukraine and that it will be returned sometime in the future. Residents there live with two passports, Russian and Ukrainian ones. But ending a war that cannot be won will only lead to a tremendous drop in Zelensky’s rating in the eyes of nationalist voters, and most importantly, will not please either Ukraine’s Western partners or friendly oligarchs who want to earn from “supporting” the ATO, denying the Poroshenko clan the revenue from this profitable business. Zelensky will have to negotiate with oligarchs, at least in order to obtain funds for the Rada elections.

At the same time, it’s silly to call Vladimir Zelensky a “puppet” of any of the oligarchs. The media personality, who has a solid education in law as well as entrepreneurial abilities, is a young politician who is quite capable of becoming the face of a “new Ukraine” in the West. Of course, he strongly depends on Kolomoisky’s support, but this relationship is more of a partnership. By maintaining his popularity until the elections to the Rada (which, as we see, depend heavily on the position of Moscow), Zelensky will be able to pursue a relatively independent policy. Having made unpopular decisions to reduce tensions in the so-called ATO zone, and popular ones about total sweeping purges of corrupt officials and deputies, he will be able to somewhat reduce budget expenses, and the level of corruption. However, how long will it continue, given that the President-elect does not have a competent team, and remains beholden to political orders from Washington to continue the confrontation with Russia? Moreover, given the political realities of Ukraine, there are no guarantees that Zelensky’s entourage will not launch its own schemes of personal enrichment in record time, which Poroshenko’s people have already worked out. In any case, Ukraine will get the third season of a TV series that’s beloved among local viewers...

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.