The campaign of Volodymyr Zelensky, a forty-one-year-old actor who, on Sunday, was elected Ukraine’s next President, in a landslide, was light on specifics. He vowed to put an end to corruption and the trade of political favors for illicit wealth, and also to bring peace to the Donbass, the region in eastern Ukraine where Russian cash and military muscle prop up two self-proclaimed separatist republics. He didn’t articulate exactly how he would do any of that, or why he would succeed in accomplishing things that myriad Ukrainian politicians—including the country’s incumbent President, Petro Poroshenko—have themselves promised and failed to deliver.
Zelensky’s candidacy grew out of his role on “Servant of the People,” a popular Ukrainian television series, now in its third season, in which he plays an everyman hero who becomes President. In electing Zelensky, Ukraine has made a postmodern gamble: Can the man who pretends to rule the country on television do a decent job of it in real life? (That Zelensky appears to be close to Igor Kolomoisky, a notorious oligarch who owns the network that airs “Servant of the People,” suggests that the answer will not be simple.) For all the ambiguity around Zelensky and his vagueness as a candidate—which turned out to be more of an asset than a liability in the election—he uttered a line during a debate with Poroshenko that was an acute and essentially correct summation of the race and of his own unexpected popularity: “I am the result of your mistakes,” he told the President.
Zelensky, who defeated Poroshenko with seventy-three per cent of the vote, was indeed a product of the frustration and disappointment that have descended on the Ukrainian public in the years since 2014, when the Maidan Revolution unseated the country’s previous President, Viktor Yanukovych. The politically fatal miscalculation of Poroshenko, who was elected President half a year after Maidan, was to think that this victory, and the unifying effect of the grinding war in the Donbass, gave him the license to subsume the country’s opaque and oligarchic politics instead of eradicating it. The country had lived through a revolution, but it became clear with time that Poroshenko was doing little that was revolutionary; at best, he was a crisis manager who carried out some reform initiatives but delayed or undermined even more.
During the past several months, as Zelensky’s campaign gathered momentum, I found myself thinking back to the spring and summer of 2016, when I spent time in Ukraine reporting a story for this magazine, “After the Revolutions,” on the paths of two investigative journalists, Sergii Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayyem, who decided to become parliamentarians. They spent the early part of their careers reporting on the corruption and cynicism of Ukraine’s political class but, in the wake of Maidan, saw a fleeting moment for outsiders to enter politics and act as a check on the powerful. (Nayyem, in particular, was inspired by a summer course he attended at Stanford University, led by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama. “Getting the dictator out is the easy part. The really difficult part is exercising power in a way that is legitimate and self-sustaining,” Fukuyama told them. In Ukraine, he was certain, “unless you make that transition, the Maidan Revolution is going to fail.”)
Just a few months after they entered politics, Leshchenko and Nayyem had soured on Poroshenko and lost faith in his will, or at least in his ability to make good on his post-revolutionary mandate. Poroshenko had reverted to the usual closed-door trading of favors and the use of the prosecutor’s office as a political cudgel, and he strived to stymie the work of the supposedly independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau. He did oversee a decentralization plan that gave more authority to the regions, for example, and carried out an overhaul of the state procurement system, but such reforms often seemed piecemeal and not of the scale or depth the public expected. “Poroshenko played a small game,” Nayyem told me, in 2016. “It’s not worthy of the kind of leader we wanted to see after Maidan.”
But, for all the unrealized expectations, the two journalists turned parliamentarians acknowledged an undeniable shift in the public consciousness: after Maidan, the ruling class had been desacralized as the population became aware of its own potency and voice. “People believe now that they can change their rulers, remove a President from his post,” Leshchenko told me at the time. This is one legacy of Maidan that Poroshenko could not undermine, and which paved the way for the emergence of Zelensky. You don’t like one bum, so you throw him out, and, when the next guy turns out to be a bum, you throw him out, too. In the near term, this dynamic provided an opportunity for Zelensky; in the long term, it should be a warning. For now, though, Zelensky remains a blank avatar. What will his Presidency hold, and will it prove any different from Poroshenko’s?
I called Leshchenko the day after the election. During the past several months, he had advised the Zelensky campaign on anti-corruption strategies and communications with Western diplomats. He was, naturally, pleased by the outcome. “Zelensky’s election is a continuation of Maidan, in a new form,” Leshchenko told me. “When those goals were not achieved, people became dissatisfied all over again, only this time it took on a democratic form.” The emergence of this dynamic in Ukraine was important to Leshchenko, perhaps even more than the particulars of Zelensky himself. “It’s good it happened in this way, through elections, and not with violence in the streets and people getting killed. It’s a civilized example of how change can happen.” (Zelensky struck a similar note in his victory speech: “Look at us—everything is possible,” he said, addressing other countries in the post-Soviet space.)
Leshchenko called Zelensky a “candidate of the future,” who overcame Ukraine’s entrenched political structures with a fluid and creative blend of messaging strategies. The former comedian’s social-media campaign was slick and accessible. At the same time, what allowed Zelensky’s everything-to-everyone persona to hold together was his avoidance of the kind of tough journalistic questioning that would have forced him into the kind of clearly defined positions that are bound to excite some and upset others.
Still, however undefined a political leader Zelensky remains, his victory is a clear sign that the Ukrainian electorate was searching for a positive message after years of war, recrimination, and disappointment. Poroshenko bet on the pull of nationalist solidarity, playing up his role as commander-in-chief and citing the ongoing danger of Russian aggression in the Donbass. His campaign slogan was “Army, language, faith.”
There is no small irony in the fact that Ukrainian voters have thrown out one oligarch—Poroshenko has interests in everything from chocolate to media, and an estimated personal wealth of hundreds of millions of dollars—and replaced him with a supposed outsider who has ties to Kolomoisky, one of the country’s most venal and self-interested business figures. One of Zelensky’s top campaign advisers was Kolomoisky’s personal lawyer. During Poroshenko’s time in office, Kolomoisky’s fortunes waned, and he has lived in Geneva and Tel Aviv in recent years. Zelensky’s election may turn his luck. A Kiev court has already moved to reconsider the nationalization of PrivatBank, once a key holding in Kolomoisky’s empire.
I asked Leshchenko, the former journalist, if he was concerned that he had backed a candidate no less entangled with the country’s oligarchic structures than his predecessor. “Of course, it’s a dilemma,” he told me. “Do we live dreaming and waiting for someone who might never appear? Or act in accordance with existing reality and try to bend it in our favor?” In today’s Ukraine, he told me, only a person with the backing of a media outlet stands a chance of winning a Presidential election. (Poroshenko himself controls the television station Channel 5.) In the coming months, Leshchenko told me, he will look for whether Zelensky dismisses Yury Lutsenko, the prosecutor general, who is embroiled in multiple corruption and nepotism scandals, and also whether Zelensky appoints new, young faces to key ministerial posts or relies on the familiar class of longtime political insiders.
Nayyem, however, was more skeptical of Zelensky. On Sunday night, Nayyem posted some advice to the President-elect on his Facebook page. (His account was where the initial post that kicked off the Maidan protests appeared, in November, 2013.) “Remember what happened with Petro Poroshenko,” Nayyem wrote. Don’t try to negotiate with the oligarchs, he said; instead, appeal directly to the seventy-two per cent of the population that voted for you. What’s more, he went on, tell “everyone who offers their support, resources, and media in exchange for special rights and their own piece of the country, to get lost.” Nayyem concluded with a few words of appreciation for Poroshenko, a figure he has spent years criticizing. The former journalist praised the outgoing President for quickly conceding defeat in the race and offered a Poroshenko postmortem: “From this day forward, we are no longer hostage to his mistakes. We can only fix them. But we will build on his achievements. For them we should be thankful.” A Zelensky Presidency will hold many surprises, and likely no small amount of confusion and disappointment, but, for today, it seems that Ukraine is enjoying the satisfaction of at least one hard-fought victory: voters had their say, and the incumbent made way for his challenger. And, as Zelensky must surely know, not for the last time.
Joshua Yaffa is a New Yorker contributor based in Moscow.
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