This spring will be remembered by Ukrainians for a long time for its two rounds of presidential elections. To briefly retell this story; in the first round, oddly enough, the main struggle was for second place between experienced politicians: the outgoing president, Petro Poroshenko, and the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. 

Opinion polls made it clear that winner was going to be the television comedian Vladimir Zelensky, whose platform did not have either a pre-election program or any specific political views. Other opinion polls also argued that if Poroshenko got into the second round, he would definitely win. 

Politologists commented that the citizens of Ukraine would exhibit a more serious attitude to voting in the second round of the presidential election, and that, of course, the current president, who had managed to do a lot for the country during the last five years, would win. Five years of Presidency has not been without achievements - he managed to revive the army, won legitimacy for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church and introduced reforms in the police, the public health service and education.

Yulia Tymoshenko, Petro Poroshenko
Yulia Tymoshenko, Batkivshchyna Party leader and ex-prime minister of Ukraine and outgoing President Petro Poroshenko. Photo courtesy: Ukrafoto

However, voters flatly rejected the candidacy of Poroshenko, probably believing him to be corrupt and also responsible for radical increase in household gas prices which is a major issue in a cold country like Ukraine. Zelensky, a man without an iota of political experience or experience in government; a man who for many years crafted a satirical show parodying Ukrainian politics and politicians on one of the most popular TV channels in the country, owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, a personal enemy of Poroshenko, won 75 per cent of the vote, leaving Poroshenko a little more than 24 per cent.

Virtually the entire cultural and scientific elite ended up in that 24 per cent and society in the days after the second round split into an “elite minority” and a “lumpen majority.” The winner himself, who, as it turned out, was unable to speak without a script, disappeared immediately after the announcement of the results. Instead, various experts from the team of the President Elect have appeared to comment on his behalf. Over the past three weeks, some “experts” have disappeared from the team, and been replaced by others. Zelensky himself is silent. According to rumors, he has begun studying Ukrainian, with which he has obvious problems since he is Russian-speaker in daily life.

The strangeness of this situation with the “invisible” winner of the presidential election also lies in the fact that many of those who voted for him seem to be happy about his absence in public space. Probably, because on the few occasions when he appeared in public and on the news during the presidential race, he came across as boorish, arrogant and rather tongue -tied.

It is still difficult to judge the political views of the new president. Nevertheless, mostly from the mouths of his “experts” than from him personally, journalists have managed to learn something of his views on the most important problems of Ukraine. “Russia is an aggressor, Putin is an enemy, Donbass and the Crimea are occupied territories” was his response regarding the war in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea. That answer reassured some Ukrainians who were sure that Zelensky would run to Putin begging for unconditional peace. This fear was provoked by Zelensky himself, who, before the election victory declared that he was ready to go down on his knees before Putin in order to stop the war.

The election campaign of Zelensky was built around slogans like “The end of the era of poverty”, “spring will come”, and “we will imprison {corrupt officials}.” A lot of other populist promises were made. Zelensky team member Dmytro Razumkov told in a television interview that the president will not be able to regulate gas prices or arrest corrupt officials and politicians! 

Dmytro Razumkov
Political consultant and speaker for Volodymyr Zelensky’s “Ze! Team” Dmytro Razumkov. Photo courtesy: Reuters

It is worth noting that, among Zelensky’s promises, which have not yet been reneged on by his “experts,” is the promise to cancel state funding of cultural projects and films, as well as a promise to take into account the interests and rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Probably because of the last promise, Zelensky received many votes from the regions with a large share of the Russian-speaking population. It must have been because of this that one of the first to congratulate him on his victory was the former President, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after the Euromaidan.

Andrei Kurkov
​Euromaidan Revolution or Revolution of Dignity; Kiev, February 2014, with the author in the foreground. Photo courtesy: Andrei Kurkov

However, Zelensky’s statement that Russia is an aggressor, and Putin is an enemy, cooled the hopes of pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine and clearly did not please the Kremlin. Putin refused to congratulate Zelensky on his election victory. Moreover, he recently signed a decree simplifying the  process by which Ukrainian citizens in the occupied Donbas can receive Russian passports. According to political analysts, this is another step towards escalating the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Once Russian passports have been distributed to residents of Donbass, Putin can openly send troops there to protect “citizens of the Russian Federation.’

Obviously, President Zelensky will not have an easy start. The number of problems which have accumulated in Ukraine requires considerable political experience and courage from the Head of State. So far, the new president doesn’t have the former and has not demonstrated the latter.

{A translated version was published in the edit page of Mahrubhumi daily dated April 27, 2019}

(Writer can be contacted at kurkovkiev2011@gmail.com)