In 2016, America elected a reality TV star as president. Three years later it appears that Ukraine is going to elect as its president a comedian—who previously played his nation’s president on TV. The prospect of Volodymyr Zelensky, an untested forty-one-year-old, taking over a government seemingly in perpetual crisis, including locked in a slightly hot war with Russia, horrifies the usual policymakers in both Kiev and Washington.
However, the performance of these traditional governing elites failed to impress the people in both nations. The disillusionment is particularly strong in Ukraine, which gained its independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union was dissolving. Ukraine had been part of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, but more than 92 percent of its people voted to be free.
I interviewed Ivan Bakanov, Zelensky’s chief of staff and party head, as he made the rounds in Washington. Bakanov noted when Ukraine left the Soviet Union, “the state was based on the existing system of the Soviet Union.” The politicians then “knew how to function in that system.” Now “our major task is to break this system,” especially the endemic corruption which understandably undermines people’s faith in the state.
The first two Ukrainian chief executives were Leonid Kravchuk, a communist party leader, and Leonid Kuchma, who was a factory boss before entering politics. The next president, Viktor Yushchenko, a supposed reformer favored by the West, was politically inept and won just 5.4 percent in his reelection bid. His successor, Viktor Yanukovych, set new standards in ostentatious corruption and was overthrown amid massive street protests in Kiev in 2014.
Petro Poroshenko, the “Chocolate King” who owned a confectionary company and television station, was next elected. He tied his presidency to the conflict with Russia and ran for reelection on the slogan “Army, Language, Faith.” However, his reform record is mixed and he failed to meet public expectations in confronting corruption. Today nine out of ten Ukrainians view their government as corrupt. Moreover, he failed to sell his businesses, as promised, and his credibility suffered from Panama Papers revelations concerning his business practices. In the first round of the presidential ballot on March 31, 2019, he came in second, with just 15.9 percent. Perennial candidate and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was third with 13.4 percent.
In the lead with 30.2 percent was Zelensky. If the polls are correct, he will win nearly three-quarters of the vote in the run-off on April 21. That would be an astounding result for someone whose candidacy, Bakanov observed, was originally greeted with laughter. Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the Center for Applied Political Studies, said: “The victory of Zelensky is a protest against the old elites and the request for radical political change, a radical update.”
Radical it is. A comedian and actor, Zelensky has been involved in entertainment for more than two decades. Most notably, he starred in a television show entitled Servant of the People as a teacher who ends up as president; he and his colleagues at the TV production firm Kvartal 95, of which he is director, created a political party of the same name. Last December he announced his candidacy.
Some have wondered if he is a front for the oligarch to whom he is tied through television, but both deny any political connection. Others worry about Zelensky’s business ties in Russia. However, they apparently have been mostly severed and, besides, commercial connections between the two nations are common. Ironically, he appeared in a film now banned in Ukraine as part of the general prohibition on Russian cultural works.
With little hope of victory, Poroshenko has gone negative, arguing that Putin “dreams of a soft, submissive, gentle, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically uncertain president.” Yet Zelensky’s issue positions appear unexceptional. He backed the 2014 “Maidan” revolution, supports the Ukrainian military against ethnic Russian separatists, and wants Ukrainian membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
He said that he wants to “change the mood and timbre of the political establishment, as much as possible” and “bring professional, decent people to power.” He made fighting corruption and promoting economic development major priorities, as well as ending the conflict with Russia. He opposed restricting the use of the Russian language, which apparently led to the accusation that he would prevent the use of Ukrainian, which Bakanov termed “absurd.”
Bakanov visited Washington in preparation for what appears to be a Zelensky presidency. With extraordinary understatement, he noted that “the road ahead is not a simple one.” Ukraine has “enormous problems.” He stated that the top priority was corruption and that the second was the war with Russia.
Regarding corruption, they are preparing political reform legislation to bring before the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s legislature. “This campaign comes back to the major issue of corruption,” Bakanov emphasized. “We are trying to be more effective in a short period of time.” Many “bureaucrats are untouchable with their privileges,” he complained, which must change. The proposed measures, entitled On People’s Power, will “empower the people,” he said. Those bills would address presidential impeachment, legal immunity of judges and legislators, election reform, and more.
Moreover, the new government will be looking abroad for support in battling corruption. Said Bakanov, “we will rely on potential support of the international community.” Exchange of information will be important, as well as “coordination of joint actions” and “support of law enforcement in Ukraine and internationally.”
But how will Zelensky change Ukrainian law and practice? The new administration will look to use the National Security and Defense Council to implement some changes. That body can reach domestic policy, though only in a security context. Zelensky will also have to work with the Rada to implement his policies, which might pose his biggest challenge. Bakanov acknowledged that the body had blocked past reforms. Poroshenko’s party currently has the largest bloc, but still holds less than a third of the badly divided body. Servant of the People currently has no seats, though elections later this year likely will change that.
Bakanov said that Zelensky would seek to work with the existing parties, looking for legislators who share the new president’s perspective. Bakanov disdains the traditional dealing for personal advantage in the Rada. He emphasized that “If they will share our values, our vision, we will look for alliances. We will have no problem uniting ranks with anyone who shares our values and vision.” If the price of cooperation is sacrificing the latter, then there will be no deal. He argued that the biggest problem among different factions is “they do not trust each other” which has made it hard for different parties to forge electoral alliances.
Passing reform legislation will not be easy, but Bakanov is confident of popular support: “The people supported our candidate.” He expected this to help win over Rada members since they would have to “explain why they are against legislation for the people.” Indeed, he wondered if the Rada “would have enough arguments if it went against the people.” He cited the party’s name, Servant of the People, insisting that “Our society has changed dramatically.” Ukrainians “shouldn’t be afraid to change their rulers.” While an overwhelming popular victory for Zelensky might not be enough to guarantee a legislative victory, but it certainly would help.
Perhaps an even tougher challenge for the new president will be dealing with Russia. Acknowledging the obvious, Bakanov said it “is not a simple issue” and “we cannot resolve this conflict by ourselves.” Indeed, he argued that there were three wars—Russia versus Ukraine, Europe, and America. He had no sympathy with Moscow’s claims, defending Ukraine’s control of Crimea by noting that Russia could not today use a vote in Alaska to reacquire that territory.
Still, what to do? Bakanov suggested a fourfold approach. First, a focus on economic development to promote unity. He pointed to the example of German reunification, in which residents of the east could see the material benefits of joining those in the west. “They wanted to unify,” he emphasized. Next is to promote diplomacy: “there is no alternative.” Sanctions should be seen as part of the diplomatic process, “the result of past negotiations.”
Bakanov’s third point is to fight the informational battle. “Russia utilized fear of the people” to promote separatism. Ethnic Russians “were afraid the Ukrainian government would take away their opportunity to speak their own language, to practice their own religion.” Unfortunately, “our political leaders were blowing those flames for short-term gains.” Bakanov insisted that Moscow’s message must be combatted: “Ukraine is a multinational country. We should not penalize people for using minority languages.”
Fourth, Bakanov said, “we should not be afraid to be strong. If so, no one can desire to annex our territory.” That means a more effective, professional military. A Zelensky government also would favor membership in both the EU and NATO, though it would subject these decisions to a popular vote.
This would “not be a populist appeal,” Bakanov emphasized. After all, a referendum in 1991 triggered Ukraine’s independence. “When other countries said that was a mistake, we said, sorry, we held a referendum and it is our people’s will.” In his view, “a country joins NATO, not just the military,” and he believes entry would be “an investment in our people.”