by Miceál O’Hurley
Ukraine Special Contributor
Ukrainian election affirms Ukrainian democratic values
Even before the Russian-led invasion of Crimea in 2014, a pervasive narrative was promulgated that Ukraine was a fascist-leaning, right-wing, ethnic-minority demeaning nation. To a greater or lesser extent this erroneous theme, disseminated by the St. Petersburg based, benignly named Internet Research Agency (the brainchild of Putin-ally, über-oligarch, Wagner mastermind and U.S. sanctioned, Yevgeny Prigozhin) took hold in the world media. This message, designed to undermine the democratically elected Ukrainian government led by President Petro Poroshenko, began just prior to and has continued since the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine and it has come to dominate international conventional wisdom about Ukraine and the character of her people.
If the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians (73%) voted to elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor, who is Jewish, and speaks Russian (not the native Ukrainian tongue) and the election’s loser, President Poroshenko readily admitted defeat, telephoned President-elect Zelenskiy and promised to ease Zelinskiy’s transition into office, proves anything it is that the Russian propaganda narrative was wholly false. Ukraine, it turns out, has completed the transition from a post-Soviet satellite to a fully independent, free, deeply rooted democracy capable of holding free elections, despite the presence of armed Russian invaders within her borders attempting to annex her sovereign territory. That these transformative and remarkable events have taken place in an orderly manner without violence or revolution speaks volumes. It seems that Ukraine’s democratic development is so evolved that Russia’s hopes of undermining her at the ballot box through well resourced and persistently pervasive interference has failed, utterly.
The choice between the past and the future
The Presidential election pitted a conventional, institutional politician, Poroshenko against an upstart, political outsider, comedian Zelenskiy and a lesser cast of characters offering little that was new. The contrast between these two candidates making the final round was stark. Poroshenko, a post-Soviet capitalist manufacturer of chocolates, who supported the Revolution of Dignity that ousted disgraced pro-Kremlin President Yanukovych, represented the past. For his part, Zelenskiy, who played a slapstick character of a teacher who unwittingly became the Ukrainian President on a television comedy show, turned being cast as President to actually being elected President of Ukraine – a reality through the expressed will of the people on April 21. Zelinskiy’s campaign was as unconventional and youthfully vibrant as Poroshenko’s was traditional and uninspiring.
Despite having promised to support the aims and objectives espoused at Maidan Square, Poroshenko failed to shake the chains of the past built on traditional partisan party practices and associations with his fellow oligarchs. A product of the communism in his youth as much as the robber-baron capitalist explosion that followed independence in 1991, Poroshenko could not break the chains forged during his time in parliament and service in cabinet in previous administrations. In the end, despite what history will no doubt record as incredible political successes in resurrecting the Ukrainian military after ‘little green men’ invaded Crimea and securing the borders against further territorial losses, building a resource-rich international coalition of support, moving Ukraine closer to joining both the European Union and NATO through Constitutional changes, and the coups de grace of engineering the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from the bonds of the Patriarchate of Moscow (each one an incredible political achievement in its own merit), Poroshenko failed in only one simple but critically important area – reform.
Reform is Ukraine’s only path to avert the mediocrity of a failed state
If Ukraine needs one thing – it is reform – and it needs it everywhere. Despite significant reforms from Minister for Health Ulyana Suprun, which received wide-spread, world-wide praise if even begrudging domestic praise, everything from judicial reform to rampant fraud, waste and abuse continue to abound in almost every aspect of Ukrainian life. Even ending the unlimited immunity members of parliament exploit to make themselves incredibly wealthy despite relatively modest salaries as legislators seemed beyond his desire to deliver or address (given the stunning political achievements recounted above, Poroshenko clearly had the ability, though not the will to tackle reform). Eventually, the spirit that gave voice to the Maidan could not be contained and the election of Zelenskiy was as much a protest against Poroshenko’s failure to address reform as it was an expression of confidence in Zelenskiy’s ability to lead.
This dynamic of the changing of the guard is not unique to Ukraine but is playing out in democracies across the globe. Where nations are experiencing a crisis of confidence, voters are increasingly turning to populist nationalists, an emerging body of young politicians who offer slick campaigns as a substitute for experience and defined policy pronouncements. In many ways, this was the impression Zelenskiy promoted during his campaign. What is markedly different, however, is that in almost all of these democracies recent campaigns have been waged in which one part of the electorate or another is vilified for the implicit purpose of rousing the nationalistic spirit that solidifies an anxious voting public grown tired of the failures of traditional politics to deliver on quality of life issues. To his credit, Zelenskiy departed from this pattern and instead of creating scapegoats among segments of society, he instead pitted the Ukrainian people against the waves of disappointment they have endured since the Revolution of Dignity took root in Maidan Square.
An outsider rising to power but diverging from the international rise of populist nationalism
Issues such as racial identification, immigration or foreign economic presence are often used in troubled nations as wedge issues to rally the majority of people to believe their woes are the faults of others and the liberal politics of the past thrived on such exploitation. Historically, deeply rooted democracies facing turmoil have turned to candidates embracing a robust populist nationalism in the desperate hope of finding relief. The Great Depression of the 1930s gave fertile ground to the rise of tyrants, demagogues and dictators in formerly model democracies. Once again, the movement towards that trend can again be witnessed today in the election of the likes of Balsanaro in Brazil, Modi in India. From Netanyahu’s Israel to Erdogan’s Turkey, a militant populist nationalism is on the rise. There may be no better examples of this trend of looking for strong leaders promising quick solutions by vilifying minorities and liberal politics than Poland’s Kczynski or America’s master of populist nationalism, Donald Trump.
Philosopher Isaac Berliner probably defined this trend best in 1972, writing, “Populist Nationalism expresses the inflamed desire of the insufficiently regarded to count for something among the cultures of the world.” So it is not surprising that the Ukrainian people, having suffered the economic crisis and currency devaluation following the ouster and conviction in abstentia of Yanokovich, and having nurtured hopes for reform after the Revolution of Dignity only to see any chance for substantial reforms die-on-the-vine under Poroshenko, fall into despair. Add to these ‘inflamed desires’ the Ukrainian people’s quest to see the ever-present oligarch class that seemingly runs amok in Ukraine brought to justice and it becomes clear that Ukrainians overwhelmingly resolved that to be counted among the cultures of the world, as expressed by their stated desire to join the EU and NATO, it was necessary, if even perilous to elect a political unknown like Zelenskiy as being far preferable to the competent but failed politics of the past.
Zelenskiy remains an unknown to the world and even to the millions who voted for him
Is Zelenskiy then a populist nationalist? Is he a reformer? What are his economic views? Or, for that matter, what are his exact views on resolving the conflict with Russia or reforming the judiciary? Will he pursue détente with the Kremlin or continue to recover Crimea? Will he continue to treat with the IMF or vilify them for Ukraine’s economic woes? All of this remains in question as he campaigned virtually, using slick social media messaging and exuberant television commercials, almost never appearing publicly to answer questions by voters or journalists. Despite his election, he remains an enigma. As for the promises he made in his nebulous political manifesto lacking details and being an independent candidate unburdened by party-platforms? These promises can best be summed-up in his only discernable pledge, “I will never let you down.”
Unlike his critics and opponent’s assertions, these observations are not to imply that Zelenskiy is un-intelligent or even naïve. To the contrary, these observations might well prove how masterful he has proven to have been in all the annals of political electioneering. By running a relatively inexpensive virtual campaign, relying on the skills he honed as a wildly successful television actor and comic, employing videos with production values which would make Hollywood blush, Zelenskiy may have proven, for better or worse, that style over substance has finally reached Ukrainian politics. And here may be the rose among the thorns, the embrace of advanced democracy by the Ukrainian electorate, in abandoning the ‘leader-centric’ Soviet model of executive authority and imagining a new kind of Presidency, Ukraine might begin to look to its parliament as well as its President to provide for the political good of the nation and in so doing Ukraine may more fully embrace the diffused-power principles of successful and enduring democracies.
Uncertainty at a critical juncture
What does this all bode for Ukraine? Certainly, uncertainty abounds. Rumours pervade that on those few occasions when Zelenskiy has engaged with professional journalists or met with foreign dignitaries and diplomats he has proven himself to be at least lack-luster and at worst, disastrous. Such views seemingly dominate the current view of many intellectuals and establishment politicians. There is therefore significant concern that while he has played the Ukrainian President for comic effect on television, it may have tragic consequences when he plays the role for real on the world stage.
Ukraine’s President is imbued with uniquely significant powers in both foreign policy and military affairs (two issues at the fore of Ukraine’s daily life following the Russian invasion and annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory). Zelenskiy has no choice but to tread on perilous ground and, in the absence of a clearly articulated manifesto or announced agenda, each new step he takes, and in each action taken, Zelenskiy risks them being taken as a guide-star for future policy decisions. Nowhere will this be more important than with Ukraine’s international partners in the West, many of whom have committed to significant non-lethal and lethal aid packages to sustain Ukraine while she seemingly stands on the front-line of defending the entire West from naked Russian aggression. Additionally, the noted drop-off of inward investment from international investors in Ukraine over the past few months is indicative of how markets respond negatively to a vacuum. In the absence of a discernable manifesto, Zelenskiy’s mandate to govern is not rooted in policies but simply in his personality and as he has by choice remained an enigma, a vacuum of confidence in him thrives by outside forces upon whom me must rely given Ukraine’s current challenges. It is therefore incumbent upon Zelenskiy to immediately and effectively communicate his goals and objectives with a sense of certainty in words, actions and deeds, such as in the quality, character and knowledge of those people he appoints to advise and serve his administration and ultimately, the Ukrainian people.
Domestically, one pressing question that remains unanswered is how can, or will Zelenskiy be able to build coalitions within Verkhovna Rada. The Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, is constitutionally required and charged with the responsibility for delivering any and all legislative measures to reform government, the judiciary and the economy. Ukrainian Presidential Executive powers are almost non-existent to confront reform. Unlike in the United States where a dubious but relatively recently asserted, expansive unified executive theory of powers is constitutionally grounded, Zelenskiy can take little if any unilateral action needed to enact reforms. He is also hampered by being an independent candidate without any party colleagues with whom to collaborate in the Rada. With the uncertain outcome of legislative elections only a few months away and rampant uncertainties about Zelenskiy’s policy objectives as President, any failure to form a collaborative coalition capable of delivering real reform through robust legislation may result in political stagnation or conflict. In such an atmosphere, the very voters who overwhelmingly entrusted their franchise to Zelenskiy to enact reform and give hope to their desires to be recognised and valued among the cultures of the world may be alienated and grow agitated. As Shakespeare noted in King Henry the Fourth, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. A person who has great responsibilities, such as a king, is constantly worried and therefore doesn’t sleep soundly.” Ukrainian democracy, therefore, must count on Zelenskiy’s youth to counter the sleepless nights that lie ahead for its President-elect.
In the final analysis, we are reminded of a quote Bobby Kennedy was fond of stating, “While the present shouts, the future whispers.” Now that the din of the campaign season is over the whispers of the future’s reliance on immediate reforms being enacted, for the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereign borders and to speedily engineer a more prosperous economy are the issues that immediately confront Zelenskiy. It seems that for better or worse, Ukraine’s continued aspirations for a better quality of life and inclusion in both the EU and NATO are inextricably bound-up with Zelenskiy’s ability to deliver on his only discernable promise, “I will never let you down.”