On Sunday, April 21, Ukrainians elected comedian Volodymyr Zelensky to be the country’s new president with a huge majority.
The choice between incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and political newcomer Zelensky was presented as a simplistic dichotomy of “old” against “new”, where old was “bad” and new was the hope for “good”.
This narrative however did not rest on facts and failed to recognise the reality that the “new” in fact represents a growing pro-Russian and anti-reformist sentiment in Ukraine.
A heavy dose of reality might soon wake up those deceived by false narratives coming from vested political interests, an oligarchic media, and Russian propaganda.
A sober look at simple facts suggests that Zelensky’s presidency will invite many compromised political figures of the past back into Ukrainian politics, open the doors for what many Ukrainians describe as “oligarchic revanche”, and create a “window of opportunity” for Russia goals in Ukraine.
The virtual candidate
The 2014 presidential elections took place shortly after Russia went to war against Ukraine. Moscow’s goals went as far as to carve out half of Ukraine’s territory and install a Russian puppet in Kyiv. Voters were largely driven by the fear.
Poroshenko – an educated multi-billionaire with a strong background in public office, and with the experience and resources to withstand pressure of pro-Russian oligarchs and political forces – was the rational choice.
There was no place for rational thinking in the 2019 elections. The electoral campaign took place against the backdrop of an acidly toxic media environment.
Ukraine’s reformist government was relentlessly slammed for the “slow” pace of reforms and for constantly “failing” to meet impossible expectations. Irresponsible criticism of Ukraine’s reforms erased their positive social effect, replacing it with anger and disappointment. Ukrainians trusted their oligarch-controlled television stations more than their own experiences.
Contrived social reality created an opportunity for populists to exploit. Two of the three main presidential candidates – Volodymyr Zelensky and Yulia Tymoshenko – ran on demonstrably populist agendas.
The biggest interference came from Russian propaganda narratives, validated and echoed by biased political actors within Ukraine and abroad.
While the West supported reforms, Russia fuelled discontent to discredit them. Moscow targeted Poroshenko with a multidimensional character assassination campaign.
One of the most effective tactics was the amplification of the “problem of corruption” to undermine support for Ukraine’s government. The success of that tactic is clear when one compares criticism of Poroshenko against criticism of pro-Russian runaway ex-president Yanukovych.
During his presidency, Yanukovych’s now legendary corruption went largely unchallenged in the West. But despite pursuing ambitious institutional changes drastically curtailing opportunities for corruption, the post-Maidan government was the target of laser-focused corruption criticism. As Ukraine’s government implemented unprecedented measures of extreme transparency, such as comprehensive asset declarations, and created new independent anti-corruption institutions, it was misrepresented as one of the most corrupt on the planet.
Russia’s massive electoral interference is largely unacknowledged, despite palpable consequences.
Social polls reflect growing “war fatigue” and pro-Russian sentiments. Zelensky’s campaign greatly benefited from this, and exploited Kremlin propaganda narratives to successfully attack Poroshenko and tap into different social groups. Some of the most damaging narratives Zelensky’s campaign echoed included: “divisive nationalist government in Kyiv”, “corrupt Poroshenko regime”, “Kyiv is waging war on Donbas”, “Ukraine abandoned residents of Donbas”, and “anyone but Poroshenko”.
After five years of this distorted reality, Ukrainians voted with their emotions rather than minds and made a choice that is dangerous during a time of war. They elected Poroshenko’s opposite – an extremely incompetent candidate without a team of credible professionals with proven track records, or a true political party.
Making the court jester the king
Zelensky’s electoral campaign was best described as “virtual”. He demonstrably avoided real life interactions with voters and media.
His campaign rode on the success of his TV show Servant of the People, which heavily promoted the narrative of “everything is wrong in Ukraine”, and was likely conceived as a vehicle of influencing public opinion for the political goals pursued by Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, believed to be the biggest backer of Zelensky’s campaign.
Zelensky plays a common man who becomes president by chance, resolving the most complicated issues with the simplest of methods. In Zelensky’s campaign, the line between the fictional character and real person was deliberately blurred not to undermine his populist message.
Zelensky’s main campaign strategy was to hide the real person behind the virtual candidate. His public appearances were severely restricted to avoid exposing the fact that he is unready for office.
This strategy also helped Zelensky avoid all inconvenient accusations of impropriety. And there were many such allegations: oligarch connections, campaign financing by the members of the Yanukovych regime and Russian intelligence, tax evasion through offshore companies, undeclared foreign assets, army draft dodging, and even collusion with Russia.
Despite the dark shadow of accusations, Ukrainian media largely failed to properly cover and investigate the real Zelensky. A study showed that after the first round of elections 77.8 per cent of negative commentary in all Ukrainian media (largely oligarch-owned) was about Poroshenko. Only 22.3 per cent was about Zelensky, raising questions about media censorship favouring his campaign.
By steering clear of making explicit statements about policy, Zelensky’s team managed to wrap his agenda in a shroud of ambiguity that appealed to diverse, and often incompatible, electoral groups.
Even Zelensky’s team of advisors was cautiously revealed just two days before elections to save him from damaging criticism. His team is clearly a bad “facade” for the powerful actors behind him. It is a mixed bag of people from his personal entourage, officials from the Yanukovych government, and several inexperienced outsiders, some with questionable competencies. Zelensky’s team illustrates how hollow the narrative of “new faces” was.
Considering his profound lack of competencies Zelensky will be dependent on the people who made him king. We should be cautious of him becoming a talking head for the vested interests that will be lurking in the background of his administration. The incoming information about Zelensky’s entourage is raising new doubts about his independence and ability to fight corruption and oligarchic influence.
Supporters describe Zelensky as a “hope for reform”, but his first public appearances demonstrated the opposite. The myth of a “reformist” candidate melted away as he attacked widely lauded health care reforms.
A fact-based reality check, backed by social research, tells us Zelensky’s voters are not unified by any specific values, but by perceptions.
His campaign harvested the dissatisfaction sentiment. But contrary to popular myth, the disapproval of Ukraine’s government does not fall neatly under one overarching umbrella of “dissatisfaction with the pace and lack of reforms” and the “failure to fight corruption”. There are many different reasons for discontent, including opposition to pro-Western reforms shared by a high percentage of his voters. For example, only 22 per cent of Zelensky supporters want Ukraine to continue cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, the institution that has continuously backed post-Maidan reforms.
Zelensky’s political programme was a shortlist of slogans peppered with humour that was designed to make people hopeful. Promising hope to everyone, he captured a wide electoral base with often opposing political positions. For example, as many as 35 per cent of Zelensky supporters want Ukraine to become a non-aligned country, while 56 per cent support integration with the EU and NATO. (85 per cent of Poroshenko voters support EU and NATO integration, with only 12 percent preferring non-aligned status.)
Zelensky will inevitably fail to meet the expectations of the various groups that voted for him. But we can expect showmanship and populist initiatives until Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in the fall to distract from the backroom politics of his entourage consolidating power. Zelensky will be on his best behaviour until then in order to bring a big party into parliament.
Zelensky’s backers are ruthless and will pursue various tactics to put together a ruling coalition. If they succeed, they will probably attempt political revenge against Poroshenko and his allies. It they fail, we could see efforts to curtail presidential powers, with the political power centre shifted entirely to the parliament. Both scenarios would likely cause much turbulence.
The oligarchs are the power group which lost the most influence through reforms promoting transparency and accountability.
Poroshenko’s electoral loss is similar in many ways to Viktor Yushchenko’s defeat in Ukraine’s 2010 elections, and Mikhail Saakashvilli’s party defeat in Georgia’s 2012 and 2013 elections. These figures of historic importance for their countries fell victim to the oligarchic revanche.
Russia is a clear beneficiary in all cases. Moscow enjoyed revenge on its main enemies in the region. In the past, both countries adopted a more Russia-friendly course as a result. This is the main concern about Zelensky’s presidency.
Moscow has already started sending strong signals about its expectations of Zelensky. Russia’s primary objective is to impose its interpretation of the Minsk accords on Ukraine in order to escape responsibility for its aggression, and to gain powerful tools for direct interference within Ukraine’s domestic political decision making. Zelensky’s statement about “rebooting” the Minsk agreement is thus extremely worrying, as this cannot happen without making concessions to Russia.
Fight for reality
In just five years, while fighting Russia militarily and defending its very existence, Ukraine has undergone major transformations. But the truth about reforms was lost to manipulations. A responsible public debate of rational arguments was displaced by political technologies exploiting populist emotional sentiments.
Ukrainians chose to escape the reality of a country struggling to defend itself against Russian aggression while conducting painful transformations. They were lured by magical thinking and promises of simple overnight fixes.
No one should be surprised if Zelensky drives Ukraine off its reformist pro-Western course. The writing is on the wall. Without returning to reality and facing its true challenges, Ukraine is doomed to return to its vicious circle of “revolution – progress – revanche”.
Ukraine’s example is also another lesson about the profound impact Russian propaganda has on social reality in other countries. We can expect more celebrity anti-establishment political projects popping out around the world and offering voters cartoonish worlds where a superhero of the people can immediately deliver whatever citizens imagine they want. It will quickly be discovered that creating virtual political superheroes is much easier than fighting real life villains.
This article was co-written by Roman Sohn and is based on the detailed report about the presidential electoral campaign in Ukraine that can be found here. The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.