The ambivalence of the Zelensky presidency

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council and 
Mr Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine at EU-Ukraine Summit 2019 
 © Photo by Council of 
 the European Union

By Andreas Umland | Kiev

Many political experts both in and outside Ukraine have reacted negatively or very negatively to the meteoric political rise of Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. Indeed, Zelensky’s presidency could prove problematic in various ways. His 2019-2024 term as Ukraine’s head of state may prove to be an even more ambivalent enterprise than those of the other two top contenders in this year’s presidential elections, the opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and the former president Petro Poroshenko, would have been. Still, for all the apt scepticism, there is also – as in the case of certain positive aspects of Tymoshenko’s and Poroshenko’s unsuccessful bids for president – a bright side to Zelensky’s victory. One can identify at least three major risky or negative, but also three relatively encouraging dimensions of his rule.

No substantive exposure to foreign affairs

The first and foremost problem with Zelensky is that he is a politically and diplomatically inexperienced president. He has not held any governmental or any other public sector office before. In contrast, his two main competitors in the elections that brought him to power, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, had each held parliamentary seats, party leaderships as well as high executive posts over many years. They are also well-connected internationally, for instance, via the European People’s Party, while Zelensky seems to have had no substantive exposure to foreign affairs.

In peaceful times and under stable conditions, Zelensky’s assumption of power would perhaps be an experiment worth trying.

However, as Ukraine’s current geopolitical situation is extremely complicated, the Zelensky presidency is a diplomatically chancy development. His and his assistants’ naïve statements on Ukraine’s international relations, such as their calls for a referendum on peace in the Donbas, and Zelensky’s initially announced recruitment of an explicitly non-political team, indicate that there will be a transition period before a Zelensky administration becomes more or less functional. Unfortunately Ukraine and the various foreign challenges it faces have little time for such an interregnum.

Second, it remains unclear how truly novel a Zelensky presidency will eventually be, in terms of its approach to the old semi-criminal patronage networks – the main cancer of Ukrainian domestic politics. To be sure, Zelensky justifiably emphasises his clean hands and his non-involvement in the shadowy schemes of Ukraine’s post-Soviet oligarchic rule. He is rich, but he made his money on everybody’s watch as a popular television star and the producer of successful entertainment programmes.

Yet there is much suspicion in Kyiv about his links to Ihor Kolomoysky, a notorious oligarch and the owner of the influential TV channel 1+1, which has aired and still airs most of Zelensky’s television shows. A major reason for Zelensky’s popularity is his brilliantly played role as the non-corruptible and oligarchy-slaying Ukrainian president Vasyl Holoborodko in the popular TV sitcom Servant of the People. However, few Ukrainian experts believe that the real president Zelensky will be as effective as the fictional president Holoborodko in curbing the impact of private business interests on Ukraine’s governmental affairs.

Third, the political-satirical aspects of Zelensky’s comedy work and of his major TV show Vechernyi kvartal (Evening block) have acquired a strange aftertaste following his entry into Ukraine’s presidential race and political landscape. His 95-yy kvartal (95th Block) team has numerous times made fun of the various presidential candidates, including Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. In several sketches, Zelensky has personally portrayed Poroshenko as well as the Radical Party leader Oleh Liashko, another recent presidential candidate.

While Zelensky’s and his team’s political satire was and is often extremely sharp, topical and funny, it is now beginning to look a little odd.

The well-written and acted video parodies, still widely watched on TV, YouTube and other outlets, have recently gained another layer of meaning as support for Zelensky’s presidential bid and rule. In winter 2018 and spring 2019, they became parts of presidential candidate Zelensky’s unconventional negative electoral campaign ridiculing his political opponents.

The bright side

Yet there are also some arguably bright aspects of Zelensky’s entry into politics. His participation in the campaign has stirred up the Ukrainian political debate and awakened public interest in the different visions of Ukraine’s future.

Until he announced his candidacy on 31 December 2018, it had looked as if the 2019 contest would largely be between the incumbent Poroshenko, his Solidarity party as well as his allies on the one side, and the veteran challenger Tymoshenko, her Fatherland party and her allies on the other.

Both of these politicians have been active in Ukrainian politics for over twenty years. Although Poroshenko and Tymoshenko have become irreconcilable enemies over the last fifteen years, many Ukrainians perceive them as being of a similar generation, type and quality.

There are also other alternative Ukrainian third forces, on the right and left as well as in the political centre. But Zelensky arrival has the especially high potential to break the old templates of party competition, political technology and oligarchic bickering.

To be sure, many analysts in Kyiv suspect that Zelensky is merely a novel instrument of manipulation in the hands of behind-the-scenes patrons, especially the unpopular Kolomoisky.

Yet, even if Zelensky has certain unspoken obligations towards one or more oligarchs, it will still be not easy for him to repay his possible debts.

Given his self-styled image as a no-nonsense corruption fighter and a new type of politician, it would be especially damaging for Zelensky if he came to be perceived as just another medium for the infiltration of private interests into governmental affairs.

This constraint may be even more important for his possible future parliamentary party than for Zelensky himself. To be sure, Zelensky and his entourage will be as much a target of seductive corruption schemes as other political parties and individual deputies.

Yet, the followers of Zelensky-Holoborodko will – given his public image as a new and clean politician – be especially vulnerable to any disclosures of bribe-taking, kickbacks, nepotism etc. Chances are that Zelensky’s party will thus become a relatively alien element in Ukraine’s corruption-ridden parliament. Anything which can shake up the old post-Soviet structures of political advancement, procedure and decision-making is arguably good for Ukraine’s legislatures and executives at the national, regional and local levels.

Another positive aspect of Zelensky’s rise are his roots in south-eastern Ukraine and his special appeal to Russophone Ukrainians.

Zelensky is less demonstratively and outspokenly pro-Western than Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, yet he presents himself as a Ukrainian patriot, has taken a clear position in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, knows some English, and seems to be intuitively liberal, if not libertarian. Yet for many nationalistically inclined Ukrainian journalists and experts, he is still insufficiently trustworthy.

Nevertheless, even these commentators might agree that a Zelensky party is preferable as a representation of Russophone Eastern and Southern Ukraine within the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) and the regional as well as local parliaments, than the various successor organisations of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions with their continuing ties to Moscow.

If Zelensky creates a real party that becomes popular, electable and successful in eastern and southern Ukraine, he might be able to make a substantial contribution to Ukrainian nation-building.

A final positive aspect of Zelensky’s political rise, which has largely been ignored (especially abroad), is his partly Jewish background. To be sure, many Ukrainians know of or/and easily recognise Zelensky’s Jewish roots. But – remarkably – this fact is not (or at least has not yet become) a topic of wider public debate, much as the current prime minister Volodymyr Hroysman’s Jewish origins are only rarely mentioned in Ukraine.

Such private biographical aspects of various politicians are – as they should be – largely non-issues in Ukrainian politics and media.

Yet the ethnically non-Ukrainian roots of Hroysman, Zelensky and other Ukrainian politicians have considerable weight within the skewed international informational sphere and political messaging regarding post-Euromaidan Ukraine.

Lingering Soviet-era propaganda memes, post-Soviet Russian defamation campaigns, radically left-wing anti-American alarmism, and dilettante post-modern commentaries on Ukrainian politics in the West continue to reproduce an unbalanced image of Ukraine as infected with ethno-nationalism to an allegedly extraordinary degree.

To be sure, Ukraine has various problems related to its radical right-wing parties, internationally offensive memory policies, violent ultra-nationalist war veterans, as well as popular chauvinism directed, above all, against Roma, non-white immigrants and sexual minorities.

But there is nothing special about Ukraine’s various issues with ethno-nationalism – a phenomenon which nowadays is widely spread across Europe and the world as a whole. In fact, the relatively weak electoral performance and low
parliamentary representation of the Ukrainian far right during the last quarter of a century makes post-Soviet Ukraine somewhat unusual if seen in a comparative perspective.

The party-political and electoral marginality of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism has recently become even more surprising in view of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Moscow’s bloody war in Eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine’s deep economic downturn in 2014.

The rise of Zelensky is yet another source of cognitive dissonance within the continuing international reproduction of the stereotype about Ukraine as a hotbed of xenophobia. Whereas this geopolitical aspect of Zelensky’s rise may look irrelevant or bizarre to many Ukrainians, it will be a real factor in Ukraine’s foreign image.

In sum, while Zelensky may – in the light of his and his assistants’ political inexperience – not (yet) be a fully adequate president for Ukraine, his engagement in Ukrainian party politics, parliamentary affairs, public discourse, foreign relations, and possibly a governmental coalition may not be that bad.

ANDREAS UMLAND is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Principal Researcher with the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, as well as General Editor of the ibidem-Verlag book series Soviet and Post Soviet Politics and Society and Ukrainian Voices distributed by Columbia University Press.

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