In a major milestone in Ukraine’s chequered political history, comedian turned politician Volodymyr Zelenskiy has won a landslide victory in the country’s presidential elections. Winning more than 73 per cent of votes, Zelenskiy, a native Russian speaker of Jewish lineage will become the youngest Ukrainian President.
Zelenskiy’s elevation epitomises the proverbial life imitating art. Zelenskiy had played the role of a crusader President in a popular television series, now has shifted gears, to govern his country as its President. A political greenhorn, Zelenskiy had declared his candidature only four months before the polls and set up a political party even more belatedly.
The electoral result in Ukraine broadly reflects the growing global trend of politically inexperienced candidates emerging victorious by riding a wave of populism and anti-establishment sentiment. Pitted against the incumbent Petro Poroshenko who had anchored his strategy on whipping up patriotism through the slogan ‘Church, Army and Language’, Zelenskiy instead tapped the festering disillusionment over the 2014 ‘Maidan’ Revolution. Endemic corruption, crawling economic growth and the ongoing confrontation with Russia continue to dominate the Ukrainian national consciousness.
Reflecting elements of continuity and change, Zelenskiy’s electoral manifesto had laid emphasis not only on prioritising domestic reforms but also adopting a more balanced foreign policy. It involves continuing the country’s ongoing westward orientation while at the same time stopping the war in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and finding a modus vivendi with Russia.
For Ukraine in transition, how Zelenskiy’s presidency unfolds in the future will determine the success of this political break from the past.
It would be pertinent to note that Zelenskiy lacks institutional base. In a parliamentary democracy like Ukraine, this has the potential to undermine his flagship agendas. While the President has singular powers to navigate the country’s defence and foreign policies yet key domestic reforms can be stalled by political opposition which presently is in majority in the Rada (Ukranian Parliament). Similarly, Zelenskiy’s close connections with media and banking oligarchs having raised the spectre of the country’s political model once again reverting to the entrenched blurring of lines between politics and business. The International Monetary Fund’s unpopular reforms along with Russian sanctions have cut off Ukraine’s economic lifelines; these are likely to complicate the incoming President’s attempts at transforming his country’s economy. Ukraine also remains divided along an East versus West axis. Striking a balance amidst these competing regional geo-strategic interests will require deft skills.
Nevertheless, for a candidate that received pan-Ukraine support, including in the Russian speaking eastern regions, Zelenskiy’s political capital is anchored in the absence of political baggage. A clean slate offers an opportunity to reboot the country’s domestic and foreign policy agendas. The parliamentary elections in October will further determine his scope for meaningful manoeuvring of the Ukrainian political chessboard.
Meanwhile, strained ties with Russia continue to be a challenge. While Zelenskiy had adopted a more conciliatory position towards the ethnic Russian voters, yet his overall foreign policy blueprint would impinge upon Moscow’s broader strategic calculus. This includes the call for return of Crimea and seeking greater convergence with the West. The Minsk Agreement, which Russia has called for to be implemented, remains skewed in favour of the separatists and will be a political hot potato for Zelenskiy. The Kremlin spokesperson’s cautious statement that it was “too early to talk about President Putin congratulating Mr. Zelenskiy or about the possibility of working together” highlights the wide gulf in their strategic outlook towards each other at present. Perhaps Zelenskiy’s election could be an opportunity to dial down the confrontation through confidence building measures such as long-term ceasefire and exchange of prisoners.
As a friendly country, India would like both Kyiv and Moscow to resolve their differences and march on the path of peace and development, which is essential for Ukraine.
As he makes the transition from reel to real life, the Ukranian President-elect Zelenskiy has an opportunity to develop Ukraine’s huge potentials.
Script: Rajorshi Roy, Research Analyst, IDSA