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Comic Relief?
The newly-elected Ukrainian president's future prospects
By Wen Qing  ·  2019-05-10  ·   Source: NO. 20 MAY 16, 2019

Volodymyr Zelensky (center) celebrates with supporters at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine, after results showed he won the presidential election on April 21 (XINHUA)

On April 21, 41-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko to sweep Ukraine's presidential run-off election.

Zelensky, a political freshman who played a schoolteacher-turned-president on a popular TV show titled Servant of the People, won 73 percent of the vote, almost triple the 24 percent for Poroshenko.

According to observers, Zelensky's landslide victory reflects the discontent and disappointment most Ukrainians feel toward Poroshenko, whose administration failed to stop corruption, improve the sluggish economy or end the civil conflict in eastern Ukraine that has been going on for five years.

The road ahead will not be easy for Zelensky, however. Elections to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine's parliament) are due at the end of October, and whether his party, the Servant of the People, can secure enough seats will directly define his future administration. If Zelensky fails to curb rampant corruption or boost Ukraine's weighed-down economy, his celebrated political star will slowly fade.

Bringing hope

"People gave Poroshenko five years, yet he failed to provide satisfactory results as the tasks to uproot corruption and revitalize the economy went unfulfilled," Zhang Hong, a researcher on Ukrainian studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Beijing Review. Ukraine ranked 120 of 180 countries and territories with a score of 32 on the 1 to 100 corruption perceptions index for 2018 published by Transparency International, an international NGO which promotes civil society anti-corruption measures.

Corruption has been a historically tricky issue to resolve in Ukraine, Zhang said. "Due to its political tradition, many officials have a very blurred understanding of the rule of law and transparent governance, since they rely heavily on a personal network of contacts to do business," said Zhang.

Moreover, oligarchs' monopoly over critical sectors and their close links to the government have also nurtured corruption, he continued. Ukraine's economy was captured by oligarchs who seized and controlled the country's wealth during the large-scale privatization of major industrial assets in the 1990s. According to different estimates, they control about 70 percent of Ukraine's economy. "To be elected, political figures need the support of the oligarchs. Once they were in power, they had to repay favors, which gradually became a political network serving the oligarchs. By controlling the media and influencing the government and the legislative process, oligarchs are seeking to expand their benefits and consolidate their monopolies," Zhang added.

According to a report titled EU Help to Ukraine released by the European Court of Auditors in 2016, Ukraine was perceived as the most corrupt country in Europe. "Personal benefit influences policy, while oligarchic clans continue to control Ukraine's economy, politics and media," the report said.

Along with corruption, the sluggish economy and a high unemployment rate continue to haunt the once thriving country. Ukraine's GDP growth rate averaged 0.06 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to Trading Economics, a data provider.

For ordinary Ukrainians, their wages have been stuck at a monthly average of about $350. Unable to survive, millions of people have voted with their feet and left the country to work abroad. In a nation of 44 million people, about 5 million now work abroad, according to an estimate by the All-Ukrainian Association of Companies on International Employment. As this trend continues, Ukraine will face a shortage of experienced professionals and workers, experts say.

Reality might bite

In Zelensky's TV series Servant of the People, Vasyl Petrovich Holoborodko, the history teacher he plays, disrupts Ukraine's oligarchic rule by restoring honesty to politics. Zelensky's campaign team capitalized on the sitcom's popularity with billboards that read, "The President is the Servant of the People."

Other than addressing corruption and the civil conflict, however, Zelensky has been vague about his plans, something that cannot be as easily scripted as his show. Zelensky's foreign policy is unlikely to change Ukraine's position to seek EU membership. Compared to his predecessor's incendiary remarks and actions against Russia, he has softened the rhetoric but has not fundamentally changed Ukraine's view of Crimea or the conflict in Donbas in east Ukraine.

The biggest challenge awaiting him is an unfriendly legislature, Zhang said. As a parliamentary-presidential republic, the president's power is limited to foreign policy, national defense and law enforcement. The government is formed by a parliamentary majority and does not depend on the president, exercising full independence and implementing social and economic policies. Ukraine's Supreme Rada is dominated by Poroshenko's Our Party.

Despite the landslide victory, Zelensky's Servant of the People party is currently polling at about 25 percent for October's parliamentary vote. "Zelensky and his party enjoy popularity in the capital, but in other regions, their influence may be limited," Zhang said.

According to him, Zelensky's party, which lacks real and professional politicians, may be able to win 30 to 40 percent in the final election but will have difficulty getting any more.

Thus, in order to cobble together a parliamentary majority, Servant of the People will need to make many concessions. According to Stephanie Petrella, a research associate with the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), by having to cut deals with existing oligarchic groups and political networks, Zelensky's ability to dismantle the system will be substantially curtailed.

Another obstacle will be the issue of how to deal with the oligarchs. "Unable to change the reality of the oligarchs' control over the economy, Zelensky may have to cooperate with some of them to implement his reforms," Zhang said.

It has been reported that Zelensky and Ihor Kolomoisky, a titan of Ukraine's finance, aviation, energy and media industries, have longstanding ties since the oligarch owned the 1+1 TV channel which broadcast Servant of the People.

In her recent article published on the website of the FPRI, Petrella claimed that though this connection does not mean that Zelensky will sacrifice his presidency to aid Kolomoisky's interests, neither is Zelensky the squeaky-clean character he played on TV.

When an outsider's lack of political capital pushes him up against the wall, he may need to turn to friends in high places for a helping hand, Petrella said.

Anti-establishment tide

Many political newcomers have won elections in several Western countries in the past years. In 2016, Donald Trump, a billionaire and reality TV personality with zero political experience, was elected U.S. president. Giuseppe Conte, an intellectual with no political experience, was voted Italy's prime minister in 2018. In March, Zuzana Caputova, a 45-year-old lawyer and activist with no political experience, was elected Slovakia's first female president.

Newcomers advocating populism seem to be more welcomed than traditional politicians. "Such countries all face a similar problem: the polarization between the rich and the poor, which has not been handled well by traditional political parties," Zhang told Beijing Review.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, many Western countries have been mired in economic stagnation. Moreover, economic liberalization has focused too much on efficiency while neglecting fairness to some extent, which has led to giant enterprises and the financial circles grabbing all the growth benefits and cutting out middle class people. "The widening division between the upper class and the middle class is the social soil for populism and political newcomers," Zhang said.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to wenqing@bjreview.com

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