A servant of which people?

A comedy actor will be the next president of Ukraine, but he will have trouble following through on his anti-corruption promises, reports David Dalton

In Ukraine’s presidential election in April, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a politically inexperienced comic actor, easily beat the country’s incumbent leader with 73% of the vote. In the first round Zelenskiy had taken over 30% of the vote in a crowded field. His nearest rival, Petro Poroshenko, a veteran of the Ukrainian political scene, won just below 16% of the national vote.

Third placed Yuliya Tymoshenko, receiving 13.4% of support in the first round, complained about manipulation of the vote, although most credible observers reckoned the mechanics of the election itself were broadly free and fair. In the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions not held by Russian-backed separatists, the “eastern” vote was split between Yuriy Boyko (with 11.6% of the national vote) and Oleksandr Vilkul (4.2%), both of the Opposition Bloc, the successor to the ruling party under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, Poroshenko’s ill-fated predecessor. Had Boyko and Vilkul combined forces, one of them might have been facing Zelenskiy in Poroshenko’s place. As in 2014, the far-right performed poorly, with its “unified” candidate, Ruslan Koshulynskyi, trailing in ninth place, with just 1.65% backing.

Zelenskiy and his campaign

Zelenskiy stars in hit satirical TV series Servant of the People, playing Vasyl Holoborodko, a straight-talking history teacher who is unexpectedly launched into the presidency after a video of him castigating official corruption goes viral. In the real election, Zelenskiy’s poll ratings took off in January this year following his appearance on a prime-time sketch show on New Year’s Eve on the 1 + 1 TV channel, which is owned by Ihor Kolomoiskiy, one of Ukraine’s leading oligarchs. Zelenskiy’s popularity rests therefore not just on being seen as a “fresh face” or an honest political outsider along the lines of the TV character he plays, but also on his considerable media exposure. Alongside his use of unorthodox campaign methods, including live performances with his comedy troupe and an extensive social media presence, these factors helped to boost the comedian’s appeal among young voters and to bring on board some well-known Maidan activists.

The central tenet of Zelenskiy’s campaign was the need to tackle pervasive, high-level corruption in public and economic life. However, during the campaign he did not show in detail how he intends to go about it and otherwise his political programme is sketchy. So far, then, he is something of an ideological blank screen onto which different social groups are able to project their hopes and values. This helps to explain the unusually high and even spread of the actor’s support across regional, ethnic and linguistic divisions.

Poroshenko’s record: the past 5 years

Poroshenko ran on a patriotic, ‘nation-building’ platform under the slogan “Army! Language! Faith!”, presenting himself as a reliable war-time leader. This failed to secure him remotely the level of backing he required, even among soldiers on the front line.

The result confirmed the overwhelming disappointment with Poroshenko’s record in office. At first glance, this is at odds with the range of significant policy and institutional reforms undertaken since the Maidan protests of 2013-14. The Maidan was a popular revolt against the Yanukovych government, which was considered especially corrupt. It was triggered in late 2013 when Yanukovych, under economic and political pressure from Russia, refused to sign the long-promised EU association agreement, disappointing expectations.

Foremost among Poroshenko’s achievements is the survival of Ukraine as a sovereign state, with wholesale reform of the army and the defeat, despite large territorial loss, of Russia’s expansionist “New Russia” project in south-eastern Ukraine. Over the same period, however, a series of high-profile corruption scandals beset the political elite, including Poroshenko personally. Most recently, the story broke that the son of a close associate of the president had been involved in smuggling spare parts from Russia which he then sold to the Ukrainian military at inflated prices.

Besides the president’s failure to eradicate the most blatant kinds of high-level corruption, the persistence of low living standards is likely to have undermined Poroshenko’s support. Amid war, recession and financial destabilisation, real wages fell by a quarter in 2014-15 and only surpassed 2013 levels last year. Real disposable income is likely to have fallen more steeply still as the government cut social transfers while raising domestic gas prices eightfold under the auspices of the country’s IMF macroeconomic stabilisation programme. Ukraine now vies with Moldova for bottom place among European countries in terms of income per head of population.

Source: Statistical Service of Ukraine
What next?

German chancellor Angela Merkel invited Poroshenko to Berlin in mid-April, indicating a broad preference among Western politicians for the status quo. He tried to portray Zelenskiy as a hypocrite, railing against the corrupt practices of the oligarchy—the informal institution behind the scenes of Ukrainian politics, which unites the very rich with successful political leaders and the state elite—while being in the pocket of one of its leading figures (that is, Kolomoiskiy).

Zelenskiy continued to focus on the issues where Poroshenko was most vulnerable, and which remain most resonant to Ukrainian voters—corruption and living standards. He now needs to offer some concrete details of his policy platform—not least to reassure more national- and security-minded citizens that he will be no pushover in the conflict with Russia, and especially in any future negotiations with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Aside from the conflict with Russia, the other big question mark hanging over the prospect of a Zelenskiy presidency must be that he appears to lack the qualities, expertise and resources necessary to successfully tackle the entrenched informal power structures that remain at the heart of Ukraine’s political system.

David Dalton

David Dalton is a Phd candidate at UCL London School of East European and Slavonic Studies studying political economy of modern Ukraine.