Ever since Volodymyr Zelensky’s upset victory in April, Ukrainians have been wondering whether their newly elected president will take new approaches to resolve the conflict with Russia. His thumping victory over Petro Poroshenko, who tried to dismiss all of his opponents as puppets of Russian president Vladimir Putin, uncovered a strong, untapped desire to end the Russophobia that has been so prominent the last five years. During that time, the Poroshenko and other senior government officials routinely referred to Ukrainians who wanted better relations with Russia as a “fifth column.”
During the campaign Zelensky outflanked Poroshenko by promising to do anything to achieve peace, including direct negotiations with Putin. Since winning the election, however, Zelensky has backtracked from this pledge and reassured the West that he has no intention of negotiating with Putin without Western intermediaries present. In sum, he continues to try to be everything to everyone by telling each person whatever it is they want to hear.
Poroshenko paved this same path while campaigning for the presidency in 2014. He promised to end the conflict “within hours” but later abandoned his pledge and declared the conflict to be an “antiterrorist operation.” Two years later, he oversaw a joint forces operation to liberate Ukraine from enemy occupation.
As Poroshenko’s rhetoric became more nationalistic, his room for political maneuver shrank. Eventually he was forced to abandon any attempt to implement the Minsk II Accords, which he himself had once touted. Ultimately, he lost his bid for re-election, and the stalemated parliament became the least trusted institution in Ukraine.
Now, the parliament is up for re-election on July 21. The parliament plays an important role because it constrains the president in nearly all executive decisions, including the appointment of key government officials. By arguing that he cannot pursue the policies he wants because of the opposition of the current parliament, Zelensky’s makeshift party “Servant of the People” has gained unprecedented support. It is now so far ahead in the polls that, for the first time in Ukrainian history, it might even be able to rule alone.
And still, no one has any idea what the president’s party actually stands for. Its haphazardly assembled leaders have voiced contradictory views on just about every major issue. The only hint at any ideology was an off-the-cuff remark by his parliamentary representative that the party espouses “libertarianism,” a concept that is even less clear in Ukraine than it is in the West. Last week, however, a significant incident took place that suggests what might be in store for a Ukraine that is dominated by “Team Z.”
On July 7 the Russian television channel Russia-24 and the Ukrainian television channel “NewsOne” announced that they would hold a two-hour live studio discussion called “We Need to Talk” on July 12. NewsOne explained its initiative as a response to the fact that “today in Ukraine roughly 70 percent of people expect direct political discussions with Russia.” It also recalled that during the late 1980s space bridges between Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner had “laid the beginnings for contacts between peoples who, thanks to their politicians, found themselves in a Cold War.” Within 24 hours, however, the show was cancelled. Organizers cited “direct physical threats to journalists and their families,” as the reason they had been forced to abandon their attempt to “organize a space for the discussion of nonpolitical questions through the efforts of ordinary people who had never questioned the territorial integrity of Ukraine, without politicians and odious propagandists.”
The mere idea of engaging in a dialogue with Russians was attacked by nearly every political party. The prime minister said it “played into the hands of the enemy.” The speaker of parliament demanded that the Ukrainian Security services respond immediately to this “brutal violation of Ukrainian law.” The National Council for Television and Radio said it would meet in extraordinary session to consider revoking NewsOne’s broadcasting license. The prosecutor general stated that there was ample legal reason for doing so, and for his part initiated a criminal investigation of NewsOnes owners for support of terrorism and treason. With a bit of Orwellian flair, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine issued a statement that, while affirming the rights of Ukrainian journalists, declared its “outrage” at the idea of any interaction with “a Russian propaganda channel.”
Such a reaction was more or less expected from the Old Guard that had just been thrashed electorally, but how did the new president respond? He recorded a video and posted it on the Internet, calling the attempt at dialogue “cheap and risky PR-hype on the eve of the elections.” Instead of a televised discussion among average people, Zelensky challenged Putin to sit down with him and four other world leaders—Trump, May, Macron and Merkel—to talk about “who Crimea belongs to and who is ‘not there’ in Donbass.”
This was the first time that Zelensky took a stand, not just on hypothetical negotiations with the Russian government, but on the desire to engage in a dialogue with the Russians. It seems that the problem that most concerns him is not the threat of violence against alternative media in Ukraine, but the existence of alternative media.
Many now fear that what happened with NewsOne is a portent of what will happen should the government actually try to end the impasse in Eastern Ukraine through dialogue. Such a dialogue with the Ukrainian rebels is actually required by point four of the Minsk II Accords, though Zelensky seems to be unaware of this. This is precisely why Ukrainian nationalists reject them. After all, if these territories rejoin Ukraine, then the number of people who favor better relations with Russia would increase dramatically; this is something that the nationalists fear even more than military conflict.
But there is a way out of this impasse, one that a political maverick like Volodymyr Zelensky ought to find quite congenial. He should use citizen diplomacy to get around the recalcitrant political system. The new president should look beyond the present day Ukrainian political establishment and employ this tactic.
Thus, on the eve of the first round of the presidential elections, two of its leaders, Viktor Medvedchuk and Yuri Boiko, flew to Moscow to meet with Russia’s prime minister. They returned with a tentative agreement to reduce the price of Russian gas for Ukraine by 25 percent, and to lift Russian sanctions on Ukrainian goods transiting Russia. Medvedchuk, who as Ukraine’s chief hostage negotiator obtained the release of more than 480 captive Ukrainian soldiers, was later dismissed by Zelensky. Much to the latter’s chagrin, however, Medvedchuk, as a private citizen was able to obtain the release of four more captive Ukrainians.
This latest attempt by NewsOne to establish a public dialogue fits this pattern. It was more than a dialogue with Russia; it was an effort to begin a dialogue among Ukrainians about what sort of relationship with Russia might benefit Ukraine. As Vasily Golovanov, general producer and anchor at NewsOne, put it, “If politicians are unable to establish a dialogue with the citizens of Ukraine, then journalists must do so.”
On this issue, the new president and the new parliament need the help of Ukrainian society as a whole. Poroshenko tried to rely exclusively on radical nationalism and failed. Five years of Russophobia and sanctions have not succeeded in altering Russia’s policy. They have, however, totally alienated the populations of Eastern and Southern Ukraine—on both sides of the demarcation line.
Zelensky’s election win has highlighted Ukrainian society’s pent-up demand for normalcy with Russia. For now, being an unknown quantity, he can still tap into this demand and win the upcoming parliamentary elections. But the opposition’s efforts to reach out to Russia have yielded such tangible electoral benefits that they will eventually challenge Zelensky directly, if he does not co-opt them as his own.
It is unclear if Zelensky understands that the true source of his popular support is the desire for normalcy with Russia. It is unclear if he can avoid the trap of nationalism that has alienated at least half the country. Continuing along that path will lead to endless civil conflict. Dialogue requires an entirely different mindset, one that Ukrainians may be ready to embrace even if their political leaders are not.
Nicolai N. Petro is Silvia-Chandley Professor of Peace and Nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine from 2013–14, and is the editor of Ukraine in Crisis (Routledge, 2017). He writes from Odessa, Ukraine.