Almost two weeks having passed since a run-off election vaulted TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky to Ukraine’s presidency, it’s perhaps time to get beyond the tropes about “elites vs. populists” and “reality TV stars become successful politicians” and drill down deeper into the meaning of this turn of events, which has serious implications for Ukraine’s democratic transition and world politics.
The first thing to be said is that Ukraine’s 2019 presidential-election cycle demonstrated that the country has made serious progress in institutionalizing the basic forms of democratic self-governance since the 2013–14 Maidan “Revolution of Dignity” displaced a Kremlin stooge, Viktor Yanukovych, as president. International observers as well as internal monitors testified that the first-round presidential election and the April 21 run-off were quite clean and that there were none of the monkeyshines (and worse) that typically characterize elections in what was once the Soviet Union. On the night of April 21, President-elect Zelensky underscored this point, telling the rest of the former Soviet “republics” to “Look at us.” That admonition did not go down well in the Kremlin, one imagines. And it has to be hoped that Zelensky understands that, in posing that challenge to others, he is also setting a standard of probity for his own presidential administration.
The next thing to be said is that, while President Petro Poroshenko got walloped on April 21, the openness and clarity of the electoral process is much to the credit of the outgoing Ukraine head of state, who can look back on several other important accomplishments since he came to power in the wake of the Maidan revolution. Governing authority in Ukraine is now decentralized, with local governments having far more say in local affairs that in the previous, monolithic, post-Soviet Ukrainian state. Thanks to Poroshenko’s initiatives, Ukrainians now travel freely throughout Europe, and Ukraine trades feely with several major economic actors on the world political stage. Some progress, albeit certainly not enough, has been made in ridding the country of the corruption that was endemic under Communism and in the pre-Maidan period. The Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture have been reaffirmed in their integrity, not as minor-league knock-offs of the Russian “big brother.” And however clumsily, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has asserted its independence from the hegemony of the (largely Kremlin-controlled) Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow — an independence recognized by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the “first among equals” in the complex world of Orthodox leadership.
Thanks to Poroshenko’s leadership, Ukraine now has a free press, a real army, a real economy with 2.5 percent GDP growth, and, in international financial circles, real credit with which to grow that economy more. Government procurement is less corrupt, and health care has improved considerably. Yes, the Russians still occupy Crimea, and Putin still supports a lethal war in the Donbas region of southern and eastern Ukraine. But under Poroshenko, and thanks to his skill in gaining at least a minimum of Western support for his invaded and embattled country, what once looked like a Russian walkover in the Donbas has been prevented. Securing these accomplishments, especially in resisting any new Russian probes and resisting any further Russian aggressions, must be among Zelensky’s highest priorities, even as the election of this ethnically Jewish president puts the lie to Putinesque propaganda (sometimes swallowed by ignorant Western commentators) that post-Maidan Ukraine was “Banderite” — i.e., anti-Semitic — in character.
So if Poroshenko did all of that, why did he lose by something on the order of 73 to 25 percent? If we assume that not all the answers to that questions lie in the seductive powers of television comedies and social media, Zelensky’s dramatic success sheds light on certain realities of post-Maidan Ukraine that must be addressed if the country’s democratic transition is to be secured, Putin’s continuing destabilization efforts rebuffed, and an attractive model for other post-Soviet countries reinforced.
Paradoxically, Zelensky’s campaign benefited from both a post-Soviet hangover in Ukraine and the expectations created by the Revolution of Dignity.
Pre-election polls indicated that many Ukrainians still do not understand the concept of a “separation of powers” and that they still think in terms of the all-powerful Big Boss of Soviet times, who is responsible for everything that happens in the country, whether good or ill. In Ukraine’s current system, the president has considerable authority over foreign policy and national security, but far less throw-weight in economic and social policy. So, while Ukraine is incontestably better off economically than pre-Maidan, the fact that oligarchs still control too much of the economy, whose growth has left more than a few people behind, was blamed on Poroshenko rather than the parliament, the Rada. The truth is that both are to blame for not making the oligarchs play by the rules, and another stern test of Zelensky’s presidency will be whether he can create a parliamentary majority in favor of rigorous anti-corruption enforcement by independent courts, of privatization that doesn’t further enrich the oligarchs, of a deep reform of state-owned enterprises, and of land reform. Those policy reforms will almost certainly require reforms in parliament itself, including an end to its practice of allowing proxy voting in both committees and the full Rada.
Polls also indicate some basic confusions, common to post-Soviet states, about how 21st-century democracies with real market-centered economies work. Pre-election polls indicated that large numbers of Ukrainians thought it more important that the next president lower gas and utility prices than grow the economy (and thus their incomes). The same polls indicated a public passion for anti-corruption measures and a demand that civil servants be paid less: as if good government could be achieved without adequately compensating public officials so that they’d be less susceptible to bribes and corruption.
At the same time, the Maidan revolution created expectations of rapid, dramatic improvement that simply could not be met, however much progress was in fact made. Volodymyr Zelensky cleverly capitalized on this. By running a virtually content-free campaign, the candidate, a charming if essentially empty vessel, became the repository of people’s unrequited wishes for a conflict-free future of instant prosperity. Into that vessel were also poured the legitimate frustrations of many Ukrainians with Poroshenko’s failures, including his failure to follow through on the expectation that the justice system would be thoroughly reformed. Those responsible for the murders that took place on the Maidan in 2014 have not been prosecuted, leaving genuine reformers to wonder, “Where is justice?”
Strengthening democratic institutions at the national, regional, and local levels in Ukraine will require intensified efforts at civic education, for which Ukrainian civil society (which has become quite vibrant since it burst onto the international stage during the Maidan revolution) will rightly take primary responsibility. At the same time, however, Zelensky must cajole and convince the parliament to continue the reform of public education, with a renewed emphasis on basic civics. The hangover of Homo sovieticus continues throughout Ukrainian society, and that hangover is a drag on the formation of a strong civil culture capable of sustaining democratic institutions. Still, election turnout was strong, even in war-torn areas of the country, and the effect that Kremlin agitprop had on the outcome was limited. Those facts suggest that a corner has been turned and that no one is looking to Moscow to devise a better Ukrainian future, even in areas where Russian remains a linguistic force. All of this suggests that continued, indeed intensified, Western support for Ukraine’s development as a democratic culture is essential.
So, too, will be intensified Western support for Ukrainian security. The war-weariness of many Ukrainians, and the impact the war has had both on the Ukrainian economy and in driving at least 1 million Ukrainians abroad or into internal exile was certainly another factor in Zelensky’s electoral success: Poroshenko couldn’t end the war; let’s see if this guy can do it. Vladimir Putin was not slow off the mark in testing Zelensky. Three days after the election, the Russian czar announced that that he would simplify procedures for obtaining Russian passports by Ukrainian citizens in the occupied Donbas region and suggested that the same protocols might apply to all Ukrainians who sought them.
Zelensky, for his part, shot back with his usual wit, but with a welcome display of what the British used to call “phlegm” as well: “First of all, I would advise the Russian authorities against attempting to seduce Ukrainian citizens with Russian passports. Of course there may be people who are still under the influence of propaganda or hope to earn more money to escape criminal responsibility.” But who, Zelensky continued, does Putin think he’s fooling? “What sets Ukraine apart is that here we have free speech, media, and Internet. And that is why we know what a Russian passport really means — the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest, the right to have no free or fair elections, the right to forget that inalienable human rights and freedoms even exist. So [I] don’t think that many Ukrainians would like to become the ‘new oil’ that [the] Russia government is trying to turn its people into.” And then the punch: “We will provide Ukrainian citizenship to representatives of all nations who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes. First of all, that is Russians, who likely suffer more than everyone else.”
Impressive as that riposte was, sooner or later President Zelensky will have to deal with Putin more concretely, and that suggests two things. First, he should enlist the aid of Petro Poroshenko, who displayed impressive negotiating and diplomatic skills during his presidency, as a prominent international representative of Ukraine. And second, he should press Europe, the United States, Canada, and other democratic states to intensify the pressure on Russia to cease supporting the low-grade, ongoing war in the Donbas that has already cost more than 10,000 Ukrainian lives. That pressure can come in several forms, both economic and military. It’s clear, however, that Putin will not be quit of Ukraine and of meddling in its affairs until the price becomes too high, both for him and for his kleptocrat-supporters. Celebrating Ukraine’s clean presidential elections by further turning the screws on Russian kleptocrats would be a fine sign of democratic solidarity.
Ukraine has traveled a long way since the Maidan revolution of 2013–14. It still has a long, hard path to tread. But as a thriving, independent Ukraine will, like nothing else, guarantee the frustration of Putin’s designs to re-create something resembling the old Soviet space, it’s in everyone’s interest, except that of the ex-KGB revanchists, to support Ukraine in its democratic transition.
George Weigel is the distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.