The President vs. The Comedian

Poroshenko Promises Change, But Will That Be Enough to Beat Ukraine’s Political Wildcard?

On April 21 Ukraine will hold the second round of presidential elections. The voters will have to decide between giving their current president a second chance, or entrusting their favorite TV president with the real job, off-screen. 

The first round of the elections was held on March 31, with 39 presidential hopefuls on the ballot. A comedian actor, Volodymyr Zelenskiy received 30.24 percent of the votes, while the current president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, received 15.95 percent of the votes. Former prime minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko, who ended up in third place with 13.40 percent of the votes, claimed the results were “falsified”, but did not challenge the results in the end. 

The weeks leading up to the runoff vote have been described at times as “political theater” played out between Zelenskiy and Poroshenko. After all, Mr. Zelenskiy is no stranger to acting – the 41-year-old comedian gained popularity through his satirical TV show “Servant of the People.” In the sitcom, he plays an average Ukrainian citizen, a high school history teacher, who lives with his parents. Zelenskiy’s character becomes president after a video recording of him, ranting about the corrupt political system in Ukraine, goes viral online. The charismatic celebrity has garnered nation-wide support by appealing to young voters, masterfully using social media (he has 3.5 million followers on Instagram), and calling out the Ukrainian political establishment for corruption and injustice. 


Atlantic Council’s Melinda Haring has argued that the first round of elections was “a referendum on Poroshenko, who was elected on an anti-graft platform following the 2013–14 Euromaidan protests that resulted in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.” Indeed, the Ukrainian voters have been frustrated by the lack of progress since Poroshenko took office amid the freshly broken out civil war in Donbas back in 2015. While Poroshenko has proven to be a strong war-time president – ensuring Western support for the embattled nation, keeping Ukraine at the top of regional and global security agendas, and attaining visa-free travel regime with the EU - his domestic policies have left much to be desired. Under his presidency, Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe – a title previously held by Moldova for many years. A wealthy oligarch himself, Poroshenko has been unwilling to fully commit to uprooting the systemic corruption in Ukraine, and has not managed to end the deeply entrenched oligarchic influences in the country – a pressing issue for the Ukrainian voters. Moreover, the war in Ukraine’s east still rages five years on, and Crimea is still under Russian de facto control. 

Thus, a candidate like Zelenskiy offers hope for a fresh start to the people of Ukraine, who tirelessly demand economic prosperity and Western integration from their leaders. They have already overthrown two governments since 2005 through peaceful protests (Orange revolution and Euromaidan), and aren’t afraid to vote out an ineffective president. As Christopher Miller, a Kiev-based RFERL correspondent recently put it, “Zelenskiy's savvy path of essentially providing a divided country with a blank political canvas, allowing voters to paint their own picture of what he is and what he could be as head of state. For those who see the past five years as a series of blunders and missed opportunities, that represents a reverse image of incumbent Petro Poroshenko.” 

Zelenskiy has been able to tap into the Ukrainian society’s frustrations, and eloquently articulate the failures of the political establishment. However, his lack of experience has most Ukraine-watchers alarmed. According to Miller “there is much uncertainty about the front-runner” and while he is heavy on charisma, his plan is “light on specifics.” Although Zelenskiy has shared some of his plans, they’ve been criticized as appearing more like a wishlist than a specific set of policies. According to BMB Ukraine’s Fabrice Deprez, “it’s still quite curious that the ‘demands’ made by Zelenskiy’s team to Petro Poroshenko last week were actually much more detailed and specific than this plan.” There is also a rising concern that Zelenskiy might be influenced by Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch living in self-imposed exile (reportedly in Israel). Kolomoisky owns the TV channel where Zelenskiy’s show airs and is said to be providing the presidential candidate’s security and transportation. Kolomoisky faces numerous investigations in Ukraine into his business dealings, and his questionable reputation could pose a challenge to Zelenskiy’s chances of winning the election, but Zelenskiy insists that he is independent and cannot be influenced by any special interests.


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko participates in Christmas Liturgy at St. Sophia's Cathedral on January 07, 2019 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Getty)


After losing the first round of elections to Zelenskiy by a margin of nearly 50 percent, Poroshenko said he had learned his lesson: "I heard both those who voted for me and those who did not vote for me. And this was probably one of the hardest lessons in my life. This is a very strong incentive for me to analyze all five years, including all the mistakes that have been made. And for the next five years, I have learned this lesson very well.” Indeed, the Poroshenko camp has shown no sign of giving up after the initial defeat. He has met all of Zelenskiy’s demands so far, and even plans to debate him on April 19 at the Kiev sports stadium – the country’s largest sports venue, a location chosen by Zelenskiy. The latter also demanded a public drug test, to which Poroshenko also complied.  

However, the most serious step Poroshenko has taken so far, in order to show that he takes the voters’ demands seriously, is the one regarding anti-corruption. On April 6 he met with civil society representatives for a two-hour dialogue, admitting that he made a mistake of not closely engaging with them before, and offering to address their demands. According to Daria Kaleniuk, the director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv, “Poroshenko [now] supports the necessity of relaunching the National Agency for Corruption Prevention and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. In the near future, we will send him a draft law with our vision of such a relaunch on behalf of the coalition of civic organizations.” After the meeting, Kaleniuk said that she respects Poroshenko’s admission of his mistakes and shared a list of key justice and anti-corruption issues and corresponding actionable items supported by Poroshenko as a result of the meeting.  “How beneficial such dialogue would have been for the president, for civic activists, and for Ukraine, in general, had it taken place sooner” - added Kaleniuk. She concluded that - “at the same time, I highly respect the president for admitting his mistakes. This is a powerful step. Mistakes can be fixed by real actions. Some may happen in the coming days.”


Poroshenko’s promise to finally implement anti-corruption and justice reforms could be genuine. Moreover, Zelenskiy might be given a fair chance to compete in the second round of elections. However, what is currently unfolding in Ukraine is ominously reminiscent of its close neighbor - Georgia’s presidential election from this past fall. The ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party-endorsed (yet formally independent) presidential candidate, Salome Zurabishvili, lost the first round of elections to an opposition candidate. The event is widely seen as the voters’ effort to hold the ruling party accountable for its many failures. The ruling party chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili, issued messages of shock and dismay, apologizing to the people of Georgia, claiming he had learned a lesson, and promising to do better. A flurry of fantastic political promises followed during the weeks leading up to the runoff vote. Among some of the boldest moves to appease the voters was GD’s pledge to forgive almost $570 million in unpaid bank loans for over 600,000 Georgians (approximately a quarter of the population). The opposition candidate, Grigol Vashadze, led in the pre-election polls by a wide margin, but the combined effects of this unrealistic promise, vote-buying, and a flurry of election irregularities, ultimately secured a surprising win for Ivanishvili’s candidate. The momentous debt-forgiveness pledge was never discussed again, and GD resumed its business as usual, remaining in charge of both – the parliament and the presidency. 

There are some variations regarding the key actors in these two cases. The opposition candidate in Georgia, albeit popular, was not a political wildcard like Zelenskiy. He was a boring career diplomat turned politician, but nevertheless, most observers anticipated that he would win the runoff vote. Unlike Petro Poroshenko, Bidzina Ivanishvili - the billionaire oligarch in Georgia - runs the show unofficially form the shadows, and only holds one formal political position; he is the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party. He remains out of the public eye – not formally accountable to Georgians, and only steps into the limelight at his own convenience. Yet many of the broad brushstrokes tend to be similar between the two countries: color revolutions, wars with Russia and subsequent Russian occupation of disputed territories, and long-term oligarchic rule. Ukraine and Georgia have even shared politicians - Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili later became the governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. At one point Saakashvili was stripped of his Georgian citizenship and fled the country, later he was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship and was forced to move to the Netherlands. Moreover, Ukraine’s other neighbor – Moldova, another post-Communist country often grouped with Georgia and Ukraine as a “hybrid regime”, is experiencing similar developments. Moldova’s February parliamentary election resulted in favor of Moldova’s own billionaire oligarch-in-charge thanks to massive political and electoral manipulation.  

The regional trends in favor of stable, sustained oligarchic forms of governance don’t offer much hope for progress in Ukraine. On the other hand, past experience shows that Ukraine is capable of charting its own path irrespective of the similarities with its struggling neighbors. Georgia’s and Moldova’s recent experiences with elections gone wrong should simply serve as a cautionary tale for the Ukrainian voters: it’s not easy to unsettle an oligarch ruler through democratic means, and we are yet to see one capable of change. 


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