What to expect from Ukraine’s new president.
On Sunday 21 April, Ukrainian voters elected the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as their president. Despite – or perhaps because of – a lack of concrete policies and no political experience, besides previously playing the president on a popular TV show, Zelensky defeated the incumbent Petro Poroshenko by a resounding 50 percentage points.
Riding the global protest-voting trend, Ukrainians voted not so much for the neophyte Zelensky as against the whole political elite and Poroshenko, an establishment figure whose tenure did not live up to expectations since the 2014 revolution. The last five years were marked by continuing widespread corruption and lack of success in resolving the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine. While Zelensky’s policies remain vague, we expect certain trends to emerge in the first year of his term.
No Political Vendettas
Ukraine has had the highest presidential turnover of all post-Soviet countries. In 30 years, only Leonid Kuchma (1994-2005) managed to win re-election. Since the Orange Revolution of 2004, changes of government have been accompanied by the persecution of former leaders and their allies. However, Zelensky is likely to buck this trend and avoid political vendettas, at least initially.
Although he is close to Igor Kolomoisky, a billionaire enemy of Poroshenko, Zelensky himself has no real opponents among the Ukrainian political elite. To preserve the image of an impartial figure far removed from elite political squabbles, he is unlikely to pursue a divisive prosecution of the outgoing president. At most, Zelensky may attempt to boost his reformist credentials by going after Poroshenko’s former allies, such as managers involved in the recent procurement and contraband scandals at Ukraine’s defence conglomerate Ukroboronprom. Expect a spike in corruption investigations, but not a full-blown witch-hunt against the previous administration.
An Emboldened Oligarch Class
Perhaps the only thing that everyone knows about Zelensky is that his patron is Kolomoisky, who owns the TV channel that broadcasts Zelensky’s studio’s shows and reportedly financed his campaign. However, less well known is the fact that Zelensky was backed by a large swathe of Ukraine’s richest businesspeople who allied against Poroshenko, a rival billionaire they accused of using presidency to advance his interests.
Kolomoisky will certainly be the biggest beneficiary of Zelensky’s victory. Since December 2016, Kolomoisky has been trying to reverse the forced nationalisation by the Poroshenko government of his major asset, the mammoth commercial lender PrivatBank. Mere weeks after Zelensky won the first round of the elections, a Kiev court ruled the nationalisation to be unlawful. Other tycoons will have wasted no time in lobbying the president-elect.
Yet in a land of fragmented and feuding elites, the oligarch alliance around Zelensky is no more than tactical, and therefore temporary. Many of them are fierce rivals. The risk is that while Poroshenko had the influence, money and experience to stand his ground, Zelensky will struggle to contain Ukraine’s powerful business clans once the honeymoon ends. Polls suggest his newly-formed political party, Servant of the People, will win no more than a quarter of the votes in October’s parliamentary elections – not enough to form a government or ensure stability. Expect the return of bitter struggles over Ukraine’s business and political landscape as his term picks up steam.
Relations with Moscow will remain hostage to the Donbas conflict
While Zelensky may have avoided the nakedly anti-Russian rhetoric of Poroshenko and expressed a readiness to negotiate over the war in the Donbas, he is by no means a pro-Russian candidate. Zelensky has rejected any territorial concessions regarding Crimea, annexed by Russia in March 2014, and has ruled out granting the Donbas special constitutional status. Despite a new broom in Kiev, Ukraine and Russia will remain firmly on opposite sides of the barricades.
Likewise, Moscow has so far shown little appetite for bridge-building. Hours after Zelensky’s victory was confirmed, President Vladimir Putin approved a law to fast-track Russian passports for Donbas residents. A similar power play was used to tighten Russia’s grip over Georgia’s breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, giving Russia a pretext to invade under the guise of defending its citizens.
A comeback for Yanukovych cronies?
Poroshenko’s government launched numerous corruption investigations against the exiled president Viktor Yanukovych (2010-2014) and his allies, who fled to Russia after the 2014 revolution. With Poroshenko gone, and amidst the post-election flux, Ukraine will start to feel safer for Yanukovych and his close associates. Some of them may take advantage of Zelensky’s inexperience, their private ties to his oligarch backers and the general confusion created by a change in government to undermine the investigations against them or lobby for more lenient treatment. Shortly after Zelensky’s victory, Yanukovych himself announced that he will be working to overturn the treason sentence against him and return to Ukraine. His inner circle is likely to follow suit.
For all the laudable democratic achievement of April’s free and fair elections, Ukraine remains corrupt, unstable and institutionally weak. Zelensky campaigned on a broad anti-corruption platform, but whether he will succeed in improving governance remains in doubt: it is up to Zelensky and his team to break the circle and confound these low expectations.