“To all post-Soviet countries: look at us. Anything is possible!” outsider and comic Volodymyr Zelenskiy told cheering crowds after he won a crushing victory over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in the April 21 presidential election run off, taking every single region in the country except Lviv.
The race electrified Ukrainians who are tied of falling standards of living and decisively took control from the western backed Poroshenko and handed it to an unknown comedian who has said little about what he will actually do. Zelenskiy won with the highest number of votes ever and by the widest margin ever. This election will change the way elections are run throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), although it probably won’t change the way they are won.
Now the hard part starts. Zelenskiy has swept a deeply unpopular oligarch from the presidency not because he has something special to offer voters but because they were deeply disappointed with Poroshenko’s failure to deliver on the promises implicit in the Euromaidan uprising in 2014. Poroshenko, a minister in the regime of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, was still a member of the old guard despite his pro-western rhetoric, and ran an old style administration that ignored the fight against corruption and failed to reform the Ukrainian economy.
Going into the election Poroshenko had to persuade an electorate to vote for him in what is now officially the poorest country in Europe, where only 9% of the people trust the government and over 70% of the population think Ukraine is headed in the wrong direction.
A vote for Zelenskiy was not a vote for the comic but a vote against Poroshenko. Expectations are now high and given his inexperience in politics and the enormity of the challenge facing him the possibility of disappointment is large.
But no one cares for now. Even if Zelenskiy does nothing more, the result scores a number of victories. The debate between Zelenskiy and Poroshenko was little more than a mudslinging contest, but Russian viewers were asking “why don't we have debates?” The fact of Zelenskiy, a total outsider from politics, is also a revelation as it underscores that anyone can run for president – and win. A first in Eastern Europe where all the political elites come out of the political system.
In total, nearly 20mn voters took part in a country of 43mn people, a higher-than-expected turnout at 63%. International observers have described the elections as the cleanest in Ukraine’s history, with only minor violations recorded.
According to the exit poll, the results (to be confirmed in the coming days) had Zelenskiy winning a crushing victory of 73% to Poroshenko’s 25%.
That would give Zelensky the biggest win in Ukrainian history, ahead of the previous high of 62% won by Leonid Kravchuk in 1991, and by the largest margin ever, versus the previous high of 42% that was won by Poroshenko in 2014. It also makes Zelenskiy the only Jewish president (albeit non-practising) in the world other than the president of Israel.
Another of Zelenskiy’s victories is he can claim to have reunited the country and ended the divisive politics of previous Ukrainian elections that Poroshenko relied on in his “Army, Faith and Language” campaign. The only region Poroshenko won was Lviv in the far west, a long-term hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism that is Poroshenko’s base.
Zelenskiy has been criticised by Ukrainian nationalists for his mediocre command of Ukrainian as he hails from a Russian-speaking district in the west. But the fact that he broke into Russian on occasion during the April 19 debate with Poroshenko ended up as a boon, as it emphasised to the other Ukrainians in the west, for whom Russian is their first language, that Zelenskiy is a president for all Ukrainians, irrespective of which language they speak at home.
Ukrainians have shown they are more interested in unifying the country than deriding some citizens simply because they speak the “aggressor’s” language. The irony of Russia’s attack on Ukraine is that it has created a strong sense of national identity that was weak before 2014. Even those in the east of the country that were sympathetic towards Moscow in 2013 before the military operations began have been convinced that while they want better relations with Moscow they also see themselves as Ukrainians first and foremost.
Now the elections are over the first two big issues on Zelenskiy’s agenda are bringing peace and ending the endemic corruption.
Zelenskiy won every region in Ukraine except the city of Lviv in the west, a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism.
Asked what he would do first, Zelenskiy told journalists that his first priority is to “reboot the peace talks” and secure the release of all prisoners of war.
That means talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but notably Putin did not call Zelenskiy to congratulate him. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was “too early” to comment and that Putin would wait until there were “concrete actions” by the new president before engaging with him.
“We respect the Ukrainian elections, more so that the verdict was very clear,” he said. “But the legitimacy of these elections is still under question given that 3.5mn people were unable to vote,” Peskov said in a dig at Kyiv, referring to the three million plus Ukrainians living in Russia who were barred from the vote for “security reasons”. Had the Russia-based Ukrainians been included in the ballot Poroshenko almost certainly would not have made it to the second round – although Zelenskiy almost certainly would have still won.
French President Emmanuel Macron did call and was the first to congratulate Zelenskiy on election night.
Before Zelenskiy can reboot the peace process he needs to meet with his European partners and the Normandy format probably needs to be revised.
France has already emerged as a key partner for the new Ukraine. Zelenskiy travelled to Paris just days before the elections to meet with Macron. Following his call with Macron, Zelenskiy tweeted back at France with a text in French.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent a telegram and didn't talk to Zelenskiy until April 22. Poroshenko was invited to Berlin shortly before the elections. Zelenskiy was not.
Former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov called for a fresh beginning with a commentary published in the local media that called for dialogue and an end to the conflict with Ukraine.
Although Ivanov was careful to avoid saying anything about the nature or substance of the dispute, he reiterated that the only solution was through the implementation of the Minsk II accord and called for renewed talks.
Ivanov suggested that the Normandy format should be expanded to include the US and EU, and wants to expand the discussions as well to take in general European security concerns. This has been a long-term foreign policy goal of the Kremlin. A new pan-European security accord was first suggested by then president Dmitry Medvedev to Merkel in Berlin in his first foreign visit as president in 2008, but was rejected out of hand.
Ivanov has returned to many of the themes in the Medvedev proposal (see the Kremlin’s proposed outline of the agreement here) and wants to, among other things, establish a high-level Contact Group (with presidents' special representatives or deputy foreign ministers) to monitor developments and elaborate joint solutions. However, Putin's reluctance to even congratulate Zelensky suggests that relations will not warm quickly.
Zelenskiy's lack of experience will make this challenge one of the hardest to manage, but he is already talking about a ceasefire in Donbas and there are many willing to help him in this discussion. Amongst the options is reviving a plan proposed by German President and former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: a step-and-reward system whereby concrete lesser goals are laid out and sanctions on Russia are gradually withdrawn as each step is achieved.
Zelenskiy has said little about Poroshenko’s aspirations to make Ukraine a member of both Nato and the EU, but as Ukraine has been invited to join neither body these are largely non-issues for the meantime. However Zelenskiy has said Ukraine's European course has already been set.
The failure to do anything significant about corruption was Poroshenko’s biggest failure. Indeed, Poroshenko actively lobbied against the anti-corruption measures imposed on Kyiv by its donors – specifically he vigorously worked against setting up the anti-corruption court (ACC), which was finally forced on him by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as part of a new and downgraded stand-by agreement (SBA) in December (and has yet to go online).
Zelenskiy has already taken his first step in remaking the law enforcement regime by announcing he will sack Poroshenko’s Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko. Lutsenko has been a controversial figure and an appointment Poroshenko forced through over the strong objections of liberals and donors as it gave Poroshenko direct control over law enforcement as a lever of power.
"Lutsenko is an old team. We will appoint new people. And this applies not only to Lutsenko," Zelenskiy said to reporters on election night.
Under Lutsenko there have been virtually no arrests of officials on corruption charges and even fewer prosecutions. Cases of murdered journalists like Pavel Sheremet who was blown up with a car bomb and civil rights activists like Kateryna Handziuk, who was killed in an acid attack, have gone unsolved. Even the highest profile senior official to be detained, Roman Nasirov whose arrest was billed as the “first big fish” to be netted in the nascent anti-corruption drive, was later released. Not only was he not prosecuted, he stood as one of the candidates in the presidential elections that just finished. His indictment on corruption charges was supposed to be a litmus test for the anti-graft campaign – a test that Poroshenko’s regime convincingly failed.
Roman Nasirov, the former government financial controller and Poroshenko associate, was arrested on corruption charges, but never prosecuted.
One of Zelenskiy's first big decisions will be if he should disband the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), Ukraine’s equivalent to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Instead of investigating crimes the SBU spent a lot of time fighting the other law enforcement agencies and enriching itself. Endemic corruption that goes right to the top of the service has been exposed by local media Hromadske and others, including involvement in a recent defence sector scandal that also implicated Poroshenko personally. But Poroshenko’s administration failed to react to the overwhelming evidence, as the SBU is another lever of power.
In general the whole judicial system needs overhauling. Donors have pushed for a new system that is independent of the government to fight corruption.
The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) has already been set up. NABU is the investigative part of a triumvirate that also includes the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO), which carries out prosecutions in parallel to the General Prosecutor’s Office, but is also entirely independent from the government’s control. What is missing is an independent court to hear the cases investigated by NABU and prosecuted by SAPO – the anti-corruption court (ACC) that Poroshenko has been so energetically resisting.
Return to reform
The list of other reforms is long as over the last 30 years Ukraine has failed to make many of the changes that most of the other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have at least started.
The exceptions are the banking sector clean up which has started, and both the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) and the Ministry of Finance have been praised by donors for making real progress.
Indeed, observers have been encouraged by the high profile given to former finance minister Oleksandr Danylyuk in Zelenskiy’s new team. Danylyuk was one of the prime movers behind the nationalisation of PrivatBank in 2016 – a bank owned by Zelenskiy’s oligarch backer Ihor Kolomoisky. Danylyuk showed himself to be a liberal reformer and competent pair of hands and his inclusion will be well met by the investment community at least.
The final team will be presented soon, according to the president-elect, but he has also made it clear that he doesn't intend to interfere with the leadership of the NBU, which will also encourage investors, especially as Ukraine has a heavy borrowing schedule ahead of it over the next five years.
Zelenskiy has said the widely hated domestic gas tariff hikes forced on Poroshenko as part of the IMF package are “not in the presidents competence” which is to say Zelenskiy is suggesting he won’t undo any of the reforms already imposed at the IMF’s insistence.
He has also said that he will serve only one term and if this is true he could continue the reform program unfettered by the need to try and get re-elected.
One of the biggest reforms on the agenda that Poroshenko managed to shelve until after the elections is laws to set up a land market.
Ukraine’s parliament was supposed to pass a crucial land law by the end of May 2017 that would have started the process of allowing the buying and selling of land. The reform could earn Ukraine an extra $1.5bn to $2bn of badly needed revenues in just the first year, and billions of dollars of investment would be unlocked after that. Ukraine is a global agro-superpower and already one of the biggest exporters of grain in the world. A liberal law to create a land market was proposed by Aivaras Abromavicius, Ukraine’s Lithuania-born former minister of economy and trade, who quit in early 2016. Abromavicius was initially part of the Zelenskiy team but seems to have withdrawn as he was not to be seen at the election day celebrations.
Ukraine is an agricultural superpower, but the government has resisted creating a land market
No power base in the Rada
Zelenskiy’s election as president was an exciting conclusion to a hard fought fight, but the politics is not over. Zelenskiy will only be inaugurated in June, but his main weakness is that he has no representation in parliament and Poroshenko’s eponymous block is the largest fraction in the Verkhovna Rada.
There is a general election for seats in the nation’s parliament slated for October and if the vote were held this Sunday then Zelenskiy's recently-created party, The People’s Servant, would gain a dominant first-place victory with 25.9% of votes, followed by 15.7% for the Opposition Platform For Life party led by Russian-oriented Yuriy Boyko, 13.9% for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, and 12.1% for the Fatherland party led by Yulia Tymoshenko, according to Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS).
But five months is a geological age in politics. Tymoshenko, who came third in the presidential race, has already proposed changing the constitution to strip the president of most of his power and turn Ukraine from a republic into a parliamentary democracy. Her erstwhile rival Poroshenko would probably support this move now.
Dissolving parliament and calling snap elections is an obvious answer but it is not clear if the president has the power to do this; briefly, Zelensky has to be made president by April 27 to be able to dissolve the Rada, but the date for his inauguration, chosen by the Rada deputies, has been set for June 3. Without a power base in the Rada, Zelenskiy will not be able to appoint his own people to many of the key cabinet positions, because as president he only has the power to appoint the defence and foreign ministers as well as the general prosecutor and a few other posts. He can also propose laws but he has no way to force them through. Zelenskiy could easily find himself a lame duck in a showdown with the Rada.
Whatever happens it certainly going to be an interesting and eventful six months until the elections, and if Zelenskiy can establish a parliamentary power base then he may even surprise his detractors and make some real changes.
His one big advantage in this, and ironically something he shares with Putin, is the massive vote in support of his candidature as president. He has an undeniable mandate from the people to make a change and he will have control over the law enforcement agencies while everyone in the government is exposed to corruption charges. Zelenskiy could choose to play rough if he wanted to. But given his huge victory the current structure of the Rada is very likely to break up as the MPs scramble to keep their jobs in the new environment. Zelenskiy is the wind of change and really anything could happen now. Like he told the rest of the CIS: “Look at us. Anything is possible!”