Ukraine has no time for clowning

, by Andrew Witthoeft

Ukraine has no time for clowning
Vladimir Zelenskiy in 2018. Photo: Kvartal 95 / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the run-up to the presidential elections in March, the storyline of a popular Ukrainian comedy – in which an ordinary Joe unexpectedly becomes president – is seemingly becoming reality. Running for president, comedian and star of the show “Servant of the People” Volodymyr Zelenskiy is currently polling strongly against his rivals, including incumbent Petro Poroshenko and long-term opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. While his candidacy and growing popularity may look like a comedy scenario, it is a drama with potentially serious consequences for the country.

Lacking political credentials, Zelenskiy spent the last two decades of his life performing impressions of politicians, which no doubt is the cause for some of his appeal among a populace frustrated with the political system. Indeed, the popularity of Zelenskiy’s campaign has come as a shock to the establishment. Whether fuelled by the gloss of celebrity or simply by a desire to see someone in power allegedly untarnished by association with politics, his popularity has shaken Ukraine’s political infrastructure to the core. Consequently, his run has centred around an anti-elite, anti-establishment and anti-corruption ticket.

When the laughter stops

Zelenskiy has been able to turn his inexperience into a virtue, courting disillusioned voters who have been switched off by the failure of politicians to deliver on their promises. But the threat of his attracting many protest votes is no laughing matter. After all, a comedian taking up serious political office isn’t likely to have the skills to form an effective government – especially in a country experiencing continuing hostilities with Russia.

One only needs to turn to Italy for a pertinent example of what happens when such anti-establishment movements turn into a political force that suddenly has to deliver on high-flying promises made during a shrill electoral campaign. Comic Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement had leveraged public discontent since 2009 to become a powerful force for populism. But now in government in a coalition with the equally populist Lega Nord, it is better known for its chaotic and ill-considered policies than its successes.

In fact, Italy is now in recession and heading for minimal growth of a paltry 0.2 percent this year. Rome will need all the friends it can get in Europe, as it looks to finance infrastructure projects like the Turin-Lyon high-speed rail link. But the fallout between the coalition leaders and France’s President Macron – which has been characterised by intemperate language from Rome in an attempt to regain its radical, anti-establishment credentials – is serious enough to have led to the withdrawal of the French ambassador in Italy, and doesn’t bode well for future relations.

It also puts extra strain on the fragile Italian economy, as well as on the country’s relationship with the European Union. Brussels has demanded that Italy practice greater fiscal discipline and insisted that it introduce reforms to improve growth and productivity. However, this requires an effective government working in tandem with the EU. But Italy’s current government coalition was born out of anti-EU sentiment, which is making cooperation uneasy at best and unproductive at worst.

Does Zelenskiy spell trouble for Ukraine?

Similar adverse effects can be expected in Ukraine too, should Zelenskiy make it into a government position, or even to the president’s seat. So far, he’s managed to sidestep allegations of wrongdoing by dismissing claims that he’s a puppet for Ihor Kolomoyskiy, expat billionaire banker and opponent of incumbent president Poroshenko. But reporters recently revealed that his production company, Kvartal 95, earns money from Russia, despite his assertions that he no longer has business ventures there. The sources of his campaign funding also remain unclear.

A vote for Zelenskiy is seen as a way to get back at the country’s corrupt political establishment, and Zelenskiy – in a bid to distance himself from accepted political manoeuvres – has eschewed a traditional political manifesto in favour of a crowdsourcing approach to identify the most pressing problems and their solutions. Ironically, one of his key intentions, namely to let Ukraine’s voters have the final word on a compromise with Russian President Vladimir Putin, may prove to be his Achilles’ heel.

At the core is the fact that even mentioning a compromise with Russia is generally political suicide these days, and will hardly be acceptable to Ukrainian nationalists, high-flying since the Euromaidan protests and especially since the eruption of the Crimea conflict. Furthermore, although he speaks fluent Ukrainian, Zelenskiy is a native Russian speaker. Coupled with his unclear history in Russian business dealings, voters may start to perceive him as being pro-Russian, which would inevitably subject him to closer scrutiny.

Fighting the tide of populism

International observers make a point to compare him to Donald Trump, due to the potent mix of unconventionalism and lack of leadership credentials to head a country in crisis. With Zelenskiy’s political programme unknown, the chaos and unpredictability he’s injecting into the political landscape could turn out to be a boon for Moscow. A left-field election victory could not only alter the trajectory of Ukraine’s westward integration, but also its stance towards Russia – besides turning Ukraine’s important elections into a farce.

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