Contrary to the opinion of one or two loud-mouthed Russian conspiracy theorists — the kind that sees FSB spooks and lackeys hiding in closets and in newsrooms throughout the Western world — newly elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy is not a tool of the Kremlin.
While no amount of evidence is enough, of course, the Kremlin said Monday that it would not congratulate Zelenksiy on his landslide win over of incumbent Petro Poroshenko this weekend. I know, this must be a dirty Russian trick. Vladimir Putin doesn’t want to make it obvious that Zelenskiy, a total newcomer with no political experience other than playing a school teacher-turned-president on a hit TV show, was Russia’s choice.
Then again, Zelenskiy was also the choice of some 13.5 million Ukrainians who voted for him, making it nearly 75% of the electorate choosing an actor who plays a president on TV over Poroshenko, a real one who has locked horns with Putin for the last four years.
Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov called Zelenskiy “the obvious choice“, adding that it was premature for Putin to call and congratulate the new president. Peskov also complained that the roughly three million Ukrainians living in Russia were not allowed to vote. It is unclear if he meant those living in Crimea, a peninsula annexed by the Russians in 2014. Even if Peskov’s three million Ukrainians voted for Poroshenko in the second round he would have had half the votes of Zelenskiy.
Zelenskiy also had two times the votes of his challengers in the first last month, which included Yulia Tymoshenko, a constant fixture in Ukrainian politics; a veritable Evita Peron.
For anyone who sees Poroshenko as another Hillary Clinton, wronged by a Russian disinformation campaign, then they should take it up with the losing candidate rather than in social media call-outs. Poroshenko said that the elections were free and fair and he respected the will of the people. He lost because of himself, not because of Putin.
Similar to elections held around the world, the anti-establishment politician is still the new big thing. Whether it’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Donald Trump in the U.S., Zelenskiy now has the task of building a coalition around a political party that was named after his TV show, Servant of the People.
It could be as chaotic a presidency as Ukraine has ever seen, with the political class forced to choose between the electorate’s call to clean up national politics or taking care of themselves, as usual, hobnobbing with the wealthy oligarchs, and with European diplomats over a glass of champagne, providing lip service to big business deals and the necessary economic reforms that will make it all possible.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Zelenskiy for his win. “I heartily congratulate you on your election as the President of Ukraine,” she said in a statement. “I am concerned about the stabilization of Ukraine and the peaceful resolution of the conflict to the same extent as the implementation of the basic reforms of the organs of justice, the decentralization of power, the fight against corruption. The German government will continue to actively support Ukraine in the future, especially in its right to sovereignty and territorial integrity. I would be glad to receive you in Berlin soon. ”
“Congratulations to Ukraine and to the Ukrainians whose candidate won the election today. Fair elections are a rare thing in the territory of the former USSR. May Ukraine prosper,” he wrote.
Poroshenko lost not because Zelenskiy was better. Although hard to measure, it is perceived by some in Ukraine’s parliament that a vote for Zelenskiy was simply an anti-Poroshenko vote, rather than a truly pro-Zelenskiy one.
Ukraine’s oligarch-dominated economy improved in 2018, partly because of greater inflows of remittances from Ukrainians living in Poland and Russia. Last year, the IMF and the European Bank the Reconstruction and Development found they had less leverage to press for further reforms in an election year. They have been lending money to the government with the stipulation that Ukraine embraces Western-style democracy and capitalism, developing its capital markets, privatizing state-owned enterprises, and improving the rule of law.
In a bitter sense, Poroshenko’s loss adheres to one principal hoped for by the likes of Merkel: there seems to be no real concern that the election was rigged in anyone’s favour.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said over the weekend that Ukraine can reset relations with Russia if it wishes. The two sides have been at each other’s throats since 2013 when then-president Viktor Yanukovych cancelled trade talks with the European Union in exchange for subsidized natural gas from Russia. Ukrainians felt their government was not working in their best interests and another political uprising began, known as the Euromaidan. Those protests culminated in the February 2014 ouster of Yanukovych in favour of a pro-U.S. technocrat named Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Russia annexed Crimea a month later and sanctions began shortly after.