Will Ukraine’s new president be able to carve out a new path?

Volodymyr Zelensky, who has no political experience, has been elected president of Ukraine by a huge margin. His lack of legacy is seen as a positive aspect when it comes to improving relations with Russia, which nosedived under his predecessor

April 23, 2019 by Abdul Rahman
Volodymyr Zelensky got nearly 72% of the vote. Vladimir Shtanko / Anadolu Agency

Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, has emerged victorious in the April 21 runoff elections and is set to become the sixth president of Ukraine in June. On Sunday, when the results were declared, Zelensky got more than 72% of votes. His rival, the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, could only get 25% of votes and has conceded his defeat. Zelensky has no prior experience in active politics. Before running for the presidential elections, he was the star of a famous TV comedy show, ‘Servant of the People’.

The main reason for this humiliating electoral defeat is people’s dissatisfaction with Poroshenko’s five-year rule. His term has been marred by the allegations of corruption and mismanagement of the economy. Poroshenko tried his best to bring his country closer to the EU, the US and NATO. But a lot of these moves were seen as prolonging the civil war in the country that began in 2014. Throughout his campaign, Poroshenko attempted to invoke hyper-nationalism and anti-Russian emotions. A few months ago, Ukraine had sought to provoke a conflict in the Sea of Azov which was defused by Russia. However, all these attempts failed to divert people’s attention from his failures and. People voted against Poroshenko in almost all the regions of Ukraine.

Though he has not provided much details, Volodymyr Zelensky has promised to end corruption and the dominance of oligarchs in Ukrainian politics. However, he himself has been accused of utilizing the support of one such oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyski. Zelensky has formed a party which is named after his TV show, Servant of the People, which is likely to contest the parliamentary elections.

Zelensky has indicated he wants to continue good ties with the European Union. However, he has also promised to reopen dialogue with Russia and Russian-backed rebels in the eastern part of the country. He has also said that he would like to see the end of the civil war and restore the territorial integrity of the country. Provinces of Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk – have been under the control of rebel forces since 2014. Another province, Crimea, also saw a rebellion, followed by a referendum under Russian auspices, which led to the people voting to join Russia.

The present conflict in Ukraine started after Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was seen as pro-Russia, was forced to sign an association deal with the European Union. Yanukovych’s reluctance to sign the agreement led to the ‘Euromaidan uprising,’ which forced him out of power, and saw unscheduled elections, which were won by Poroshenko.  The overthrow of Yanukovych sparked protests in parts of Ukraine dominated by Russian speakers, who were angry at the Ukrainian establishment for politically isolating them. Russia backed those rebels which led to a virtual division of the country. Poroshenko’s pro-EU and pro-US stance made relations with Russia even worse.

The election of Zelensky is seen as a sign that the people of Ukraine want to de-escalate tensions with Russia and end the civil war in the country. However, given the stakes and parties involved, it will be very difficult for any president in Ukraine to move ahead with the peace talks with Russia and the rebel groups. This is not helped by the fact that the US, EU and NATO see Ukraine as central to their plan to keep Russia under check in the region. NATO’s expansionism has continued unabated despite promises by the US in the early 90s that it would not move further east. Thus, Russia sees Ukraine as a vital buffer separating it from the EU. The large Russian speaking population in Ukraine, it being the transit route to Russian gas supplies to the EU, and its significance for the easy access to the Black Sea are some of the other major Russian concerns.

The Moscow Times reported that Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev had welcomed the election of Zelensky with the hope that there are “chances of improving” relations in him being elected. Zelensky’s lack of a legacy is seen as a positive thing. Unlike Poroshenko, he is seen as more rooted in the domestic and regional issues and has not been as hostile to Russia.

Though he has won the presidential elections, Zelensky will not be able to do much until he has full support from the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. Elections for the Rada are scheduled in the next few months. If his party or parties with similar views are able to get a majority, then Zelensky will be freer to implement his agenda.

Meanwhile, this presidential election is unique in the history of the post-Soviet eastern Europe as the results have not been questioned by the opposition and there is a high possibility of a peaceful political transition. Absence of allegations of a foreign country’s intervention in favor of one candidate or the other is seen as welcome change in the political history of the region. This gives the election of Zelensky an unprecedented legitimacy. Whether this will help end the civil war and bring regional stability remains to be seen.