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Sizing Up Ukraine’s ‘Young Donald Trump’

Current Time: 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election Coverage
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Current Time: 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election Coverage

They’ve got it down that he’s anti-establishment. And that Ukraine’s voters wanted a change from the status quo. But when it comes to defining 41-year-old Ukrainian President-Elect Volodymr Zelenskiy on policy matters, most local experts interviewed by Current Time come up with a blank.

“Zelenskiy’s biggest problem is that we know nothing about him. It’s a fundamental problem,” commented Ivan Yakovina, a columnist for Kyiv’s weekly Novoye Vremya.

With 39 candidates in the running and no systemic election-law violations reported, Ukraine’s March 31, 2019 presidential elections, posting a voter turnout of over 62 percent, proved a milestone. Zelenskiy’s more than threefold win over Acting President Petro Poroshenko (73.22% to 24.45%) in the April 21 runoff has been taken as an overwhelming mandate for change.

Raising a glass of wine in celebration, Poroshenko critic Mikheil Saakashvili, a former regional governor in Ukraine and president of Georgia, called the win “an historic breakthrough” that is “a message for all post-Soviet states that absolutely everything is possible.”

But what that “everything” will include is open to speculation.

Zelenskiy’s lack of experience in office and pledges to upend Ukraine’s status quo prompt political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Kyiv’s Penta Center of Applied Political Research, to see the former TV comedian as a “Ukrainian-style, young [Donald] Trump.”

His TV stardom, heavy use of social-media messaging, and blunt talk – in a May 10 Facebook video, Zelenskiy called on outgoing President Poroshenko to hand over his key, pay off his mini-bar bill, and move on – add to those comparisons.

Both men also seem to have a liking for controversial reforms, noted Fesenko; in Zelenskiy’s case, setting up a financial investigations agency and overhauling the judicial and security systems.

If Zelenskiy and Trump ever meet, predicted Yakovnina, “they’ll find a common language because, in general, they’re … both from outside the establishment …”

But, as with Trump in 2016, concerns also exist about what Zelenskiy’s lack of experience in government will mean for one of the most complex challenges facing Ukraine – its five-year-long armed face-off with pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Robust voter support alone does not mean that Zelenskiy can lead a country at war with Russia, underlined Ukrainian political analyst Olesya Yakhno. Zelenskiy’s inexperience in foreign policy could put Ukraine at a disadvantage toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, she fears.

Russian national media’s “formulas of support for Zelenskiy” during the campaign occurred because the Kremlin understands that Zelenskiy’s ignorance of government and international negotiations make for “a very convenient platform” for undermining Ukraine’s presidency, she claimed.

In their coverage of the Ukrainian vote, Russia’s pro-government national TV channels initially took a more positive tone toward Zelenskiy than Poroshenko. An April 18-23 poll by Moscow’s Levada Center showed that 31% of 1,625 respondents thought that the actor, a political unknown, could benefit Russia. By contrast, Poroshenko appealed to a mere 2%.

But these TV channels changed their coverage once President-Elect Zelenskiy responded to Putin’s April 24 order to fast-track Russian citizenship for residents of Ukraine’s Donbas conflict zones, reported Current Time’s Footage Vs. Footage.

In a Facebook post, he offered Ukrainian citizenship to all those “who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes; above all, to Russians, who almost suffer more than anyone today.”

Since then, Russia’s national TV channels have been busy depicting Zelenskiy as an incompetent joker, with NTV debuting a series of Zelenskiy-hosted magic shows (made in 2011 for state-run Rossia-1).

One observer, though, thinks that the individual characteristics of Ukraine’s new president will mean little for the outcome of its differences with Russia.

“A politician’s subjective qualities mean less than the objective reality in which he will have to act,” commented Vladimir Pastukhov, an honorary senior research associate at University College London’s School of Slavonic And East European Studies, before the April 21 runoff. Ukraine’s next president “will act within the same corridor of opportunities” as did Poroshenko, he predicted.

But voters will closely watch how Zelenskiy handles Russia, experts emphasized.

Aside from Ukraine’s “difficult” economic problems, Poroshenko’s inability to compel Russia to honor the 2014-2015 Minsk ceasefire agreements in eastern Ukraine was among the factors that prompted voters to spur him at the polls, noted sociologist Svitlana Khutkaya of the International Sociological Institute of Kyiv.

Some think, though, that the first defining test for Ukraine’s new president could come from politics. Parliamentary elections are slotted to be held this autumn, but with the fate of Poroshenko’s majority coalition in question, Zelenskiy could have the opportunity to call for an early vote.

Political analyst Oleg Saakyan cautioned him against the move, however.

“If he creates his faction in parliament right now, he will have less time for immunity [from public criticism of the government],” he commented. If he waits, “he can attribute any of his losses to parliament, which opposes him.”

As with other issues, Zelenskiy has told reporters that he will wait “until I have full authority” before deciding the question.

What conditions could come with that authority concerns some.

Saakashvili, whose own pledges to combat corruption secured his landslide victory in Georgia’s 2004 presidential vote, emphasized the need for Zelenskiy to move quickly on any anti-corruption campaign.

Zelenskiy, he advised, should use law enforcement and “very decisive actions” to target Ukraine’s politically connected “mafia;” a broad category in which he also places businessman-turned-politician Poroshenko, who revoked Saakashvili’s Ukrainian passport in 2017.

“If they’re not imprisoned now, if this moment is missed, if they let them become legal players in Ukrainian politics, they will definitely try to get revenge,” he continued.

“Their tentacles are everywhere …” he added, without specifying names.

Analyst Mykola Davidyuk questions whether the president-elect can escape pressure from oligarch Ilhor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s richest men, whose 1+1 TV station broadcast Zelenskiy’s hit Servant Of The People series, in which he played a man-of-the-people president.

Kolomoisky backed the actor’s election and wants to regain control over Privatbank, a major lender he co-owned that was nationalized in 2016.

Zelenskiy has said he will not hesitate to prosecute Kolomoisky for any wrongdoing, but Davidyuk remains skeptical.

“He can dream that he will be independent, like in his serial, but in life that happens much more rarely,” he said of the president-elect.

-- Edited by Elizabeth Owen

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