Written exclusively for the New Cold War website by Stepan Antonov, this essay explores the possibilities for change in Ukraine since the election of Volodymyr Zelensky in April and his victory over the incumbent President Poroshenko.
By Stepan Antonov, July 3, 2019
For some Ukrainian citizens and observers, Volodymyr Zelensky’s resounding victory in April against the incumbent President Poroshenko could have meant that Ukraine would be heading for a change. Poroshenko was elected following the demise of Vyktor Yanukovich, who fled the country in disgrace after the “Revolution of Dignity” in 2014.
Under Poroshenko’s presidency, the core of Ukrainian policy became the severing of all ties with Russia—Ukraine’s largest neighbour—in a pivotal turn towards the European Union and integration into transatlantic institutions.
Poroshenko’s heavy defeat in the elections, in which his opponent got 73% of the popular vote in the second round, may have led some to conclude that the Ukrainian electorate was fed up with the incessant anti-Russian war rhetoric that had become the main feature of Ukrainian public discourse over the previous five years. During the last weeks leading up to the final vote, Poroshenko’s campaign managers, aware that their candidate was trailing behind by a very wide margin, tried to portray Zelensky as Putin’s candidate, hoping to capitalize on the patriotic electorate. The move, however, did not produce the hoped-for results.
It is true that compared with Poroshenko’s patriotic rhetoric, Zelensky sounded like a more moderate candidate, one whose priority would be to put an end to the conflict in the Donbass. Peace in the country was one of the most pressing priorities for many Ukrainians. Furthermore, Zelensky, a former comedian who used to act almost exclusively in Russian, conducted much of his campaign in Russian, a language that many Ukrainians, particularly in the South and in the East of the country, regard as their native tongue and part of their identity. Unlike Poroshenko, who in public speaks almost exclusively in Ukrainian (although he is said to speak Russian privately), Zelensky appeared to stand for a more moderate and fluid version of Ukrainianness, far from the monoglot Ukrainian identity that was represented in the most active elements of the civil society and public discourse. The victory of the “Revolution of Dignity” signified a rupture in relations with Russia, not only in the economy but also in the field of culture and historical identity. However, clearly, not everyone was ready to dismiss many years of common history and identity to embrace exclusively the contemporary values of Europe and the West.
Zelensky had signalled he was ready for peace talks with Russia and promised he would hold a referendum on Ukraine’s potential EU and NATO membership. Under Poroshenko, the Constitution of Ukraine was amended to legally bind the future course of Ukraine towards the EU and with NATO as the strategic objective. Following the letter of the law, this would make it unconstitutional for Ukrainian leaders to steer away from the NATO course.
Zelensky also came under fire when, during the debate with Mr Poroshenko, he referred to the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, Ukraine’s rebel regions in the East, as “insurgents”. It has been a long-established official policy of the Ukrainian authorities and common practise in the media to refer to the “pro-Russian” rebel regions in the Donbass as “terrorists” or “Russian occupiers.” Any reference to a civil war has effectively been banned from public discourse with the conflict been framed exclusively through the prism of “Russian aggression.” Humanising the people of the Donbass is a sin that was not forgiven even to the former hero of the Ukraine, Nadezhda Savchenko, the Ukrainian female pilot who took part in the Donbass war and was arrested and imprisoned in Russia, where she was accused of having participated in the murder of two Russian journalists. After having been pardoned by Russia and returned to Ukraine, she took a critical stance towards the government and said that it was necessary to talk to the people in the Donbass, because they were also human beings. Suddenly, the one-time hero of Ukraine, whose name Ukrainian activists had chanted in protests all over the world as a living symbol of resistance against Russian tyranny, was accused of having betrayed her motherland and having been turned into a Russian spy. In March 2018, Savchenko was accused of preparing an attack with a mortar and grenades against the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. Imprisoned, she was finally released in April, only one week before second round of the election.
Poroshenko scored an easy point in the debate, during which he stood on stage with several anti-terrorist operation veterans displaying a large Ukrainian flag, when he corrected Zelensky, saying: “We don’t have insurgents in the Donbass. We have a Russian aggression and the Russian army”. Even so, standing on the same side as the heroes of the motherland was not enough for him to win the election.
Nevertheless, since his inauguration on May 20 the new President has changed his tone. In his investiture speech, Zelensky received a standing ovation when he declared that: “Our most important task is to reach a ceasefire in the Donbass”. Zelensky doubled down when he added he was ready for everything, as long as peace was attained. “I am ready to lose ratings, I am ready to lose this post,” Zelensky said. For many Ukrainian professional experts and members of the intelligentsia, who had largely backed Poroshenko, Zelensky’s peace-at-all-costs stance amounted to nothing less than capitulation towards the bête noire,Putin.
Even so, Zelensky’s rhetoric seems to have changed significantly just a few days into his new job. On June 5, during his first official trip abroad as the head of state, the new President visited the European capital, Brussels, where he met with Donald Tusk, the President of the Council of Europe, Juncker, the head of the European Commission and Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, which has its European headquarter in Belgium. Essentially, speaking of Russian aggression and attacking Russian imperialism and authoritarianism, Zelensky repeated word for word a speech previously given by the former President Poroshenko. In fact, the speech was so similar that Zelensky was accused of having plagiarized it, and “pleased” his predecessor.
“NATO is primarily about security, security of the country, we will do everything”, Zelensky said in a joint press conference with Stoltenberg. “NATO enlargement has been a great success, it has helped spread democracy, the rule of law, peace and stability across Europe”, the Secretary General added.
Zelensky is a political outsider with no political experience, apart from appearing in a TV series, where he played a history professor who became President of Ukraine, to “drain the swamp”. He may lack the self-assured consciousness of vision of more hardened political characters, who have spent longer in the political arena. He has shown a tendency to flip-flop and has delivered many declarations of good intentions without necessarily being clear on the specifics. This does not make him different from other senior politicians, though: a certain inclination to tell people what they want to hear is part of the necessary set of skills of all modern lawmakers, not just populists. For example, when Zelensky said he was ready for peace talks with Russia and ready for everything, he added, “without territorial losses”.
The president of Ukraine has vast powers, but he is not governing alone. Without doubt, Zelensky will already be under pressure from specific advocacy groups within Ukraine. Indeed, only a few days after his inauguration, a group a civil society organizations launched a heartfelt appeal to the new President. “We remain politically neutral but are deeply concerned about the first executive decisions taken by the newly-elected President. Unfortunately, they demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the threats and challenges facing our country”, the statement said. “As civil society activists, we present a list of red lines not to be crossed. Should the President cross these red lines, such actions will inevitably lead to political instability in our country and the deterioration of international relations”. In a country like Ukraine, where power has changed as a result of mass demonstrations at least twice since independence 28 years ago, the threat of “political instability” is not to be underestimated. Among the demands of the activists were crucial issues such as, the prohibition of “separate negotiations,” without the participation of Ukraine’s Western partners, with the Russian Federation, members of the “occupation authorities” and their “armed groups and gangs”. Ukraine’s established course towards Europe and NATO was not to be questioned either: “delaying, sabotaging, or rejecting the strategic course for EU and NATO membership” would be tantamount to betrayal and was among one of the first items in a long list of demands. The list of signatories included many well-known names, for example: “Ukraine Crisis Media Center”, an organization founded by George Soros, “ Euromaidan Press” and “StopFake”, a project of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kiev that receives grants from the US State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy.
In his inauguration speech, Zelensky quoted – without actually naming him – another famous actor turned president: “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem”. Zelensky may have been an outsider and his willingness to break up with the old ways of the Ukrainian establishment may have granted him the landslide victory that none of the Western experts would have considered even remotely likely (Ukraine had firmly embarked on a Western course, so nothing could possibly be wrong). However, the new President will have to work within the established frame of Ukrainian nominally independent institutions, pressure groups and NGOs that are tied to and heavily reliant on European and Transatlantic established structures. Peace in Ukraine may be a noble goal and a priority for the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens, but the will of the people often ends where the larger goals and priorities of supranational structures come into play.
Within this framework, Zelensky’s space for manoeuvring may be very limited. Petro Poroshenko had of course a very different profile. In 2014, when he campaigned for election, after the Maidan, he presented himself as the “candidate of peace,” promising to end the rebellion in the East “within hours.” Indeed, compared with the rhetoric of other candidates at the time, Julia Tymoshenko for example, he sounded like a moderate. Later in his presidency Poroshenko fully embraced the party of war, where compromise automatically equals appeasement.
East and West author Stepan Antonov
About the author
Stepan Antonov has a Master’s Degree in American Studies from Berlin Free University and has been working as a freelance writer and journalist for more than 10 years. He also has a website: East & West: Standing firm in a time of troubles.
His first book is Battle for Ukraine: Ukraine between Russia and the West.
The book is the result of three years of reporting about and from Ukraine and tells the story of what led to the Ukrainian crisis and the events leading up to Poroshenko’s demise and the election of the new President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Five years have passed since the Euromaidan revolution dramatically altered the face of Ukraine. After President Yanukovich left the country, things that would have been unthinkable until only a few weeks previously, actually happened, with Ukraine losing part of its territory to Russia and the East of the country engulfed in a five-year war.
The conflict in the Donbass is still going on. Most importantly, a solution does not appear to be in sight. What began as a regional rebellion in one of the most populous regions of Ukraine has been turned in the perception of many Ukrainians and a large part of Western audiences into an all-out Russo-Ukrainian war.
Battle for Ukraine: Ukraine between Russia and the West, the book is published in paperback on May 8, 2019 is available from Amazon. Click here for more details.