June 4, 2019

The Triumph of Zelenskiy

It is of course far too early to tell whether the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as president will be good for Ukraine. If Poroshenko had won, we would have expected a continuation of the piecemeal reforms that we have seen over the last five years. Zelenskiy, however, is entirely new to the Ukrainian political scene. Thus, we cannot be sure neither about his plans nor about his abilities to get them implemented.

However, even the mere election of Zelenskiy says three important things about Ukraine. First, the elections were conducted in a largely free and fair manner. This is yet another confirmation of democratic consolidation in Ukraine. Second, Zelenskiy won elections in regions stretching from the very west to the very east of the country. This was also the case when Poroshenko won in 2014, and suggests a degree of national consolidation that was not there in the 1990s and 2000s.

Third, Zelenskiy is the first Ukrainian president who did not live through his formative years in the Soviet Union. This also seems true for many of those he now is bringing with him into offices in Kiev. Throughout the post-Soviet period, many have argued that a real break with corruption, inefficiency and injustice can only come after a generational shift in the political elite.  The Zelenskiy presidency is a very real test of this hypothesis.

If Zelenskiy’s mind, as his first actions in office may indicate, is set for reforms, he will meet resistance. The oligarchs will try to maintain their privileges and positions of monopoly, many parts of the bureaucracy have strong incentives to maintain practices of inefficiency and corruption, and the presidency shares power with the parliament and the government. In the first two cases, Zelenskiy needs to get control, in the third he needs either to get control or to find a working relationship.

While Zelenskiy still has to demonstrate both his motivation and ability to make domestic improvements, there is nevertheless a real possibility for progress. This is far less likely in the conflict in Donbas and in the general relations with Russia. Zelenskiy was probably not good news for the Kremlin. His age and post-Soviet background means he is a less predictable opponent than his predecessor was, his Russian-language Eastern Ukrainian background makes the “Ukrainian nationalist fascist junta” narrative utterly unbelievable, and his youth makes Putin look old.  Furthermore, nothing has really changed in terms of what is at stake in Donbas. The Kremlin still wants to use the conflict to control Ukrainian foreign policy. Zelenskiy, on the other hand, did probably not run for office in order become a satrap of Moscow. Moreover, even if he did, Ukrainian society would probably not let him.

Thus, the potential for Zelenskiy to make a difference clearly seems better on the domestic scene than in the relations with the big neighbour to the north.

Tor Bukkvoll, Senior Research Fellow at Norwegian Defence Research Esteblishment

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