Ukrainian Politics is Like a Box of Chocolates…. You Really Never Know What You’re Gonna Get
On May 25th 2014, following the events of Euro Maidan, ‘Chocolate King’ Petro Poroshenko was elected President of Ukraine in the first round of voting. Purely by coincidence, I spent the day visiting the ghost town of Pripyat and the Chernobyl exclusion zone. On the way to our destination we stopped at a service station, which seemed rather busy considering it was at the side of an otherwise deserted highway. The reason for the commotion was a brief visit to use the facilities by another presidential candidate on his way to Kyiv with his death stare firmly set on the main prize. Standing at a urinal next to Darth Vader, leader of the short-lived ‘Internet Party of Ukraine’, was just one of the many times when I realised that every time I start to think I understand, I’m only setting myself up for the next reminder that in Ukraine you really never do know what you’re going to get.
Servant of the People
2014 was a very different time to now, and Vader’s simplistic electoral promise of ‘Peace: Yes, War: No’ was of course, never expected to be taken seriously, and had no impact on Poroshenko ultimately sweeping to victory in the first round of voting. Yet, fast forward five years, and Ukrainians find themselves with a genuinely surreal choice following an extraordinary electoral campaign between the incumbent ‘Chocolate King’ and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, most famous for playing a fictional Ukrainian President on popular TV Show ‘Servant of the People’. Billing this as a battle between a Clown and a Real Politician has left many Ukrainians wondering whether it was always so simple in the past to divide the two roles. Regardless of who emerges as victorious after the second-round run-off, an election campaign which has taken every opportunity to blur the lines between fiction and reality provides a strong case for throwing away the rule book and sitting back to watch the spectacle unfold.
And make no mistake, this election has been a spectacle. Just like any good soap opera, drama, comedy, unexpected comebacks and barely believable plot twists have occurred throughout. Would it have been any less of a surprise back in 2014 to imagine Yulia Tymoschenko to make a return as one of the main contenders for this election? I was one of many who went down to the Maidan to witness Yulia, wheelchair bound and frail after her politically motivated imprisonment for signing a gas deal with Russia, deliver what she must have imagined would be a rallying cry, a glorious shot at redemption, catapulting her to the top of the metaphorical tree, alongside the physical one her face had adorned for the previous three months, only to receive a lukewarm reception from the crowd. But alas there was no cinematic ending that day, this was not her revolution, her time was done. Yet here she was again in 2019, reborn, apparently years younger and at one stage favourite to finally become president at the third time of asking. However, despite the initial refusal of the former Gas Princess to accept missing out on a top-two finish following the first round of voting, her role in this election proved to be simply a cameo, and a prelude to the main event.
The type of comic timing Ukrainians may have come to expect in ‘Servant of the People’ was partially evident in the selection of April 1st as the date when the first-round results would be revealed. And it soon became apparent that the possibility of Zelenskiy winning this election was no joke as he gained over 30% of votes, almost double that of Poroshenko. Yet, upon watching scenes of the frontrunner on election day playing table tennis with a journalist, whose superior ping-pong skills subsequently scored him the only interview with the presidential hopeful, who could have predicted the Facebook videos, blood tests and will-they, won’t-they stadium debates that were to come? Zelenskiy, thanks in no small part to his media-savvy campaign team who have not only managed to get him this far with no discernible policies, and barely any mention of the war with Russia, but now they’ve also turned Ukrainian politics into something akin to WWF by challenging the President of the country to a live debate in the national stadium, on the condition that he could pass a compulsory drug test. As popular as ‘Servant of the People’ may be in Ukraine, surely there’s no way this kind of storyline could have been passed off without accusations of having Jumped the Shark, so distant from reality as it would appear to be.
Theatrics aside, much has been written about Zelenskiy’s lack of credentials to take over such an important role in Ukraine, at such a critical juncture in the country’s history. War with Russia and rampant corruption cannot be solved overnight, and even Zelenskiy’s character in ‘Servant of the People’ finds that it takes more than an idealistic outlook to make such enormous changes. Yet less frequently discussed is why Poroshenko is struggling to overcome an opponent with zero political experience and few concrete policies who is widely accused of being the puppet of another oligarch: Igor Kolomoisky. To understand why, it is first important to consider why Poroshenko is the President in the first place.
Poroshenko was elected in the aftermath of Euro Maidan; a movement born of widespread frustration, passion and anger, but also belief that a better future driven by ordinary Ukrainians was possible. His victory at the first opportunity in 2014 partly reflected his own popularity and credibility, but was also a result of tactical voting, as the ominously looming spectre of open Russian invasion of the Donbass strengthened awareness in Ukrainian society of the need to avoid prolonging the electoral process any longer than necessary. None of the most prominent opposition leaders during EuroMaidan had presented a convincing enough case to lead the country in their own right, meaning Poroshenko was the best-fit under the circumstances. His win was greeted predominantly with relief, in stark contrast the euphoria which followed Viktor Yushchenko’s defeat of Yanukovych in January 2005 after the Orange Revolution.
If anything, the muted celebrations ought to have been a good thing, signalling an awareness of the huge amount of work which needed to be done to bring Ukraine closer to both the EU and NATO. After all, Ukraine was, and still is, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and Poroshenko has, under extremely trying circumstances done a decent enough job in a number of areas. Ukraine now has an army capable of defending itself, which was not the case under Yanukovych, and almost as a result of Moscow’s concerted efforts to intervene via a myriad of hybrid warfare techniques and disinformation campaigns, ordinary Ukrainians are much more determined to distance their culture and nation from Russia than before. Yet, ironically it appears that this time around, Poroshenko has greatly overplayed the nationalist card, which five years previously may have chimed more with the understandable wave of national sentiment and strong emotions which Euro Maidan brought to the fore. It is no coincidence that in the first round of this campaign, the Chocolate King’s main support base was in the traditionally nationalist heartland of Western Ukraine, where the campaign slogans of ‘One Language’ (Ukrainian rather than Russian), an ‘Independent Ukrainian Church’ and ‘Strong Army’ as ways to ‘Hurt Moscow’ were unsurprisingly more appealing than in other parts of the country.
The only surprise is that Poroshenko expected this approach to do anything but alienate large numbers of Ukrainians, who five years after the passions which drove a pro-Ukrainian nationalist agenda following Euro Maidan have reflected a lot on what being Ukrainian actually means, and in 2019, ‘Feeling yourself Ukrainian’ does not depend on which language you speak or your religious affiliations. Perhaps if the incumbent President had seen the episode of ‘Servant of the People’ where Zelenskiy’s fictional President finds himself facing the prospect of a ‘new Maidan’ after raising taxes on alcohol to cover Ukraine’s crippling national debt, he might have reconsidered his approach to the current election. Whilst (fictional) Zelenskiy’s team of ministers are discussing ways to distract the Ukrainian public from their anger at the alcohol tax, a number of suggestions are made including faking a terrorist attack and staging a meteorite landing. It is only when the idea of re-opening the debate on the state language is raised that the discussion is called off for having gone too far.
City of Humour
There is no doubt that Ukraine’s messy divorce from Russia continues to play a major role in shaping the course of domestic politics and it may seem extremely surprising that Zelenskiy appears to be able to gloss over the issue whilst retaining such high levels of support. However, this surely reiterates the scale of Poroshenko’s miscalculation of tying himself so closely to such uncompromising stances regarding divisive issues like language and church. The image of a future Ukraine which Poroshenko’s campaign projects is ironically most at odds with the views of citizens in his native Odessa Oblast, particularly in Odessa itself, the so-called Ukrainian City of Humour, where the President remains extremely unpopular. Instead, Zelenskiy’s tendency to use Russian more than Ukrainian, and assertion that faith should be a private matter, not to be discussed in public seems more in line with a Ukraine at ease, and maybe even proud, of its rich linguistic, cultural and religious diversity.
One thing is for sure, if Zelenskiy does go on to win, no one really knows what might happen next. An expertly managed electoral campaign will no doubt prove difficult to sustain when reality bites, as his character frequently discovers in ‘Servant of the People’. And this is why just as in 2014, Poroshenko is the safe choice for Ukrainians. As an actor, Zelenskiy has succeeded in skillfully using words to inspire belief that he can be a credible president, but if he does win in the second round on Sunday, Poroshenko’s fixation on language and faith will have been just as much to blame.
Michael Cole is an Early Stage Researcher on the FATIGUE Project, based in Tartu, Estonia. Follow him on Twitter here: @NotTheMikeCole
Olena Yermakova is also an Early Stage Researcher on the FATIGUE Project based in Krakow, Poland. Follow her on Twitter here: @O_Yermakova
The opinions presented are those of the authors and do not represent the views of their institutions.