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Ukraine election: The West’s Poroshenko gamble blows up as joker Zelensky tops poll

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia.
Ukraine election: The West’s Poroshenko gamble blows up as joker Zelensky tops poll
TV comic Volodymyr Zelensky has won 30 percent of the vote in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election. He’ll face the beleaguered Western-backed president, Petro Poroshenko, in a run-off.

Forget geopolitics for a moment. Because, for those on the ground who did the heavy lifting, Ukraine’s 2013/14 Euromaidan was about removing the corrupt post-Soviet elite.

Thus, it always seemed bizarre that the chief political beneficiary was a billionaire who’d served as a minister in the two detested previous administrations.

Make no mistake, the original Maidan protesters believed their efforts would sweep away the old ruling class. And they fell for promises of swift Western integration and pledges of reviving an impoverished economy.

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Instead, it all rapidly turned cynical and they got a US-imposed interim administration. Washington’s point-woman Victoria Nuland declared “Yats is the guy,” and Arseniy Yatsenyuk quickly became caretaker PM.

Soon after, the West backed Petro Poroshenko in a presidential election which amounted to a showdown with ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko, which the former easily won.

So, if Euromaidan was a revolution, its result was strange. Something akin to Marie Antoinette’s baker taking over France in 1793.

Here we are five years later and just 9 percent of Ukrainians have confidence in their government. Which is the lowest mark on the planet. And down from 24 percent during the tail-end of the Yanukovich era. Meanwhile, average wages have fallen to US$320 a month, deaths far exceed births, taxes have increased, and gas prices have risen dramatically.

Fatigue Falls

At the same time, the West has become increasingly bored of Ukraine, corruption has increased and young people are voting with their feet, by leaving. Thus, you have around 2 million Ukrainians in Poland and over 3 million in Russia* (see footnote). By comparison, the population of Kiev is 2.8 million, and the second biggest city, Kharkov, is home to about 1.4 million.

As a result, it’s hardly a surprise that Zelensky has topped the polls in round one. A popular celebrity who plays a fictional president on a local TV serial, he’s effectively a Ukrainian Beppe Grillo or Donald Trump, albeit with a different worldview.

Some observers are stunned by Zelensky’s rise and wonder why Ukrainians haven’t rallied around an outsider with a background in economics, or perhaps a charismatic young liberal. Well, this is explained by how entry to the Ukrainian political arena is tightly controlled by considerable financial and situational barriers. Hence, it’s only a prospect for either the super rich or super famous. And even Zelensky has benefitted from the patronage of billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, who controls key sectors of Ukraine’s media, including eight TV stations.  

It’s Zelensky’s good fortune that after years of patriotic chest-beating and promotion of a siege mentality with endless talk of “war” against Russia, voters seem fatigued by Poroshenko. And the poll topper has capitalized on this by offering a more peaceful platform.

Indeed, he has even expressed favorable feelings towards the Russian language, and indicated he’s open to resolving the stand-off in Donbass.

Also, he hails from the central industrial city of Krivoy Rog, which itself is primarily Russian-speaking.

Zelensky has also avoided targeting minority groups, the subject of religion, and has laid off the patriotic talk. This stands in contrast to Poroshenko, who has campaigned on the use of Ukrainian, promotion of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and the virtues of a strong military.

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No Sanders

But Zelensky is also not a leftist populist. There’s been no elaborate social spending pledges, guarantees to halt privatizations, nor rhetoric about taxing the well-off. Indeed, unrealistic proposals may have kiboshed third-placed Tymoshenko, who suggested she would more than treble wages to Polish levels within five years – an absurdly ridiculous pipe-dream.

While he’s in the driver’s seat now, there’s no guarantee of Zelensky winning the run-off on April 21. Poroshenko’s political machine will throw the kitchen sink at him over the coming weeks (around 80 percent of Ukrainians believe the election is likely to be stolen), and he may struggle in proposed TV debates against his more experienced opponent.

Furthermore, even if he succeeds, Zelensky will lack support in parliament, and he has no established political bloc. The only way he can remotely surmount this hurdle is by making deals with existing factions. But the price could be installing Tymoshenko as prime minister, and perhaps retaining hardline Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Both of whom are very wealthy individuals who have been dogged by corruption allegations.

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Such moves, of course, wouldn’t represent a break with the past, and would risk disappointing Ukrainian voters yet again by denying them the fresh start so many desire.

As for Russia, it’s unclear which candidate would be a better option for its interests. While Zelensky offers a fresh face, it’s unlikely he’d be able to get any perceived concessions to Moscow through parliament, at least as it’s currently constituted.

For this reason, another term for Poroshenko might be preferable. Because five more years of rampant corruption, little economic progress, and over-the-top nationalism will probably leave Ukrainians completely disillusioned with the prospect of Western integration.

Plus, with an US/EU recession almost inevitable before 2024, it’s likely the West will have more to worry about than Ukraine, and its own appeal to Ukrainians may well dim, assuming Russia remains stable and avoids another financial crisis of its own.

Footnote: These 3 million, or more, Ukrainians were disenfranchised when Kiev decided not to allow voting at Ukrainian consulates in Russia, citing “security concerns.” If they’d been allowed to participate, and had heavily backed Yuri Boiko (who is conciliatory towards Russia and finished with 11-12 percent), it’s probable he’d have made the second round instead of Poroshenko.  

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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