Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy has learned how to appeal to the whole country — but now this former comedian has to learn how to rule it.
Ukraine's Central Election Commission has made it official: the young comedian and TV actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy has defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko by a triple margin: 73.2% to 24.4%, with more than 99% of the votes counted. Not only was this a landslide victory, but it was achieved all over the country, in both the Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking west.
The outgoing president managed to beat his rival only in the staunchly nationalist Lviv region in western Ukraine.
The irony is that the last time such unity was seen in Ukraine was five years ago when Poroshenko won the presidency with 54.7% of the vote, defeating his rivals throughout the country, including in the eastern regions.
The election promises used back in 2014 by Poroshenko bear a striking similarity to those that Zelenskiy is now offering to voters: reforms, fighting corruption, and end to the war against Russian-backed forces in the eastern Donbas region, deeper European integration and fortifying Ukrainian independence — principally from Russia.
Zelenskiy was vociferous in his criticism of Poroshenko's failure to fulfill these promises long before he decided to run for president, albeit in an ostensibly fictitious format. The TV series Servant of the People, in which Zelenskiy plays a schoolteacher-turned-president named Vasyl Holoborodko, won over audiences with its faithful and talented depiction of two countries: the ideal Ukraine, where all are equal before the law, and a depressingly familiar Ukraine of poverty, nepotism and corrupt officials.
When the actor decided to enter politics, he simply transferred his TV persona to the stage of a real election campaign, mercilessly savaging his opponent for all he'd failed to do.
This strategy was at its most effective when Zelenskiy faced off against Poroshenko on April 19 in a televised live debate at Kyiv's Olympic Stadium – a compelling piece of political theater that was the challenger's own idea.
When the actor decided to enter politics, he simply transferred his TV persona to the stage of a real election campaign.
Zelenskiy did not allow himself to be drawn into complicated or serious discussions about the military, the economy or foreign policy. Instead, he peppered Poroshenko with accusations of corruption and involvement in illegal enrichment schemes set up by individuals in his inner circle, adding that the president had failed to deliver on the promise he'd made five years ago to restore peace to the Donbas in two weeks.
Poroshenko's camp not only accused the actor of incompetence but depicted Zelenskiy as a showman whose strings were being pulled not only by the fugitive billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskyi – whose TV network screens Zelenskiy's show – but also by the Kremlin.
Zelenskiy when he was playing president on TV — Photo: Kvartal 95
In the end, Ukrainians decided not to give Poroshenko a second chance. "Volodymyr Zelenskiy won in many places: he won widespread support all over Ukraine. It was a uniting factor. This is pro-Ukrainian cosmopolitanism," political strategist Serhiy Hayday told Kommersant.
Hayday dismisses those who label Zelenskiy as a stooge under Kolomoyskyi's control: "Imagine a person who has raised a million dollars, formed a big team – and suddenly becomes somebody's puppet. The fact that he is a political nobody and has no competence in politics does not mean that he will do everything that Kolomoyskyi says."
Zelenskiy, who before the elections described himself as a "cat in a bag," has given no further indications since voting day of what the country should expect from his presidency. This may become clearer after his inauguration slated for next month. But it is clear that everything is about to change: 73% of Ukrainians are expecting him to transpose the ideal Ukraine from the series Servant of the People into real life.
Everything depends on the people he surrounds himself with.
The task facing Zelenskiy is to end Ukraine's dualism, says Serhiy Hayday, who sees the country as a state unlike any other. "There are two realities: the public state and the shadow state, the deep state. Seventy-eight percent of all the money is in the second, yet, according to statistics, Ukraine is Europe's poorest country," says Hayday.
Serhiy Taruta, a deputy in Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, and a prominent Ukrainian businessman, says Zelenskiy has a solid chance of success. "Everything depends on the people he surrounds himself with. He has no know-how, no idea about the state, about what makes an effective administrative structure — nothing. And he needs people for all of this."
Support in the Verkhovna Rada is crucial for Zelenskiy. His team has already announced that it is ready to put forward a package of laws aimed at changing the political status quo, including a new law allowing for the impeachment of a president, which currently is not possible.
On both the economic and foreign policy fronts, relations with Russia will be key to Ukraine's future. On the eve of the second round of the presidential elections, Moscow introduced new sanctions against Kyiv that will certainly do nothing to help the economic situation in Ukraine. Moscow has banned the export of oil to Ukraine, as well as the import of pipes, paper, and other goods. Coal, diesel, petrol and liquefied hydrocarbon gases will only be allowed to be supplied from Russia with the permission of Russia's Ministry of Economic Development. This appears to be the first serious challenge for the new Ukrainian leader.
"For Ukraine this is painful," Serhiy Taruta told Kommersant. "I think this is really an invitation to dialogue, to send a signal: guys, you can tear each other's hair out, but there are real threats. This is a real threat. It could have a painful impact. But there's no economic expediency for Russia in this, it's about business, the market."
All of this, says Taruta, needs to be discussed. "The new president is going to have to start dealing with real problems: he has dubbed himself a man of the people, he has said he's no politician, but he's been a politician for a long time already."