8 June 2019

Ukraine: what’s next? Three scenarios for Zelensky’s presidency

 Scenari internazionali


In 2019, Ukraine became next in line in surprising the world with an unexpected electoral result: Volodymyr Zelensky is the youngest President ever elected in Ukraine (41 years) and famous for interpreting the Ukrainian President in a popular TV comedy show. He won a record 73% of votes in the second tour of the Presidential elections on April 21. Expectations on him run even higher.


His inauguration at the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament), on May 20, was a long-awaited first public appearance after the election and, as usual, Zelensky surprised many. He presented himself as a hands-on, reformist and surprisingly emotional candidate, calling on Ukraine to unite. In the last minute of the speech, he called on the Rada to remove parliamentary immunity, pass a long-awaited electoral code and remove the head of the security services, Vasyl Hrytsak, the prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, and the minister of defence, Stepan Poltorak. Unusual moves for a country at war, facing hostility in a Parliament that already refused to support the dismissal of Hrytsak and Poltorak.


Zelensky informed the Rada that he intended to dissolve it as well. The decree on snap elections has entered into force on 23 May and early elections have been called for the 21 July, despite this move being constitutionally controversial (Center of Policy and Legal Reform, 2019). Zelensky has just formed his Sluga Narodu[1] party, named after the TV-show which made him famous, and would like to translate his current popularity into seats. In fact, Zelensky’s political capital and effectiveness largely depend on forming a new Parliament, since in the Ukrainian semi-Presidential system the Parliament plays a crucial role. Most recent polls show Sluga Narodu with a large majority of 48.2%, with the Russia-friendly “Opposition Platform” in second place at 10.7%. Both former President Poroshenko’s party and Yuliya Timshenko’s “Fatherland” party are predicted in the single digits, with 7.9% and 6.9% respectively (Rating Group Ukraine, 2019). If the polls are right, Zelensky should have an easy time, but long-term predictions in 2019 politics should be taken with a grain of salt.


As Zelensky refrained from adopting a clear ideological framework, it is interesting to wonder which direction his presidency will take. The following will outline three plausible scenarios for a Zelensky-led Ukraine.


Scenario One: Zelensky the populist, a Ukrainian Donald Trump

When he first put out his candidacy, it was en vogue to put Zelensky into one row with other politicians considered “populist”. Due to his career as an actor, he was often compared to Italy’s comedian Beppe Grillo who founded the 5-Star Movement (Sasse, 2019). Zelensky is taking a reverse approach however, running for office first and forming a party second. The fact that he has no prior experience in politics has also caused many to compare him to Donald Trump. Building on the parallels between the two, his future politics would be characterized by ad hoc decisions based on gut feeling and unpredictability.


Zelensky has repeatedly blamed “the establishment” for the country’s situation (Meduza, 2019). His speech at the Verkhovna Rada could be an indication that he intends to continue on a course pursued in this direction since he told current Members of Parliament to strip themselves of immunity. This is a risky move in a country where judiciary reform has made little progress over the last five years and “could be used for selective prosecution and political revenge” (Lutsevych and Gerasymchuk, 2019). In a Zelensky-Trump scenario, the President would use his popularity for repressive measures.


Uncertainty also remains on Zelensky’s relations with Ihor Kolomoisky, the owner of the TV channel that hosted his show, who provided him with extensive airtime during the Presidential campaign (Financial Times, 2019). Both have denied a special relationship, but it remains plausible that the new President would defend oligarchic interests (Sasse, 2019). This possibility falls under the Trump category, a President Zelensky who will adapt policies to private business interests.


Therefore, it is easy identify some parallels – unpredictability, anti-establishment sentiment and business interests – that render a Trump-like scenario possible. The fact that Zelensky started out his presidency by interfering in the regular democratic electoral process by calling for snap elections points to this direction. However, distinctions must be clarified. While Zelensky-Kolomoisky relation remains unclear, Poroshenko was an oligarch himself, and he still managed to pursue various reforms, albeit with limited success (Lutsevych and Gerasymchuk, 2019). Further, it appears intuitive that Western media would compare Zelensky to Donald Trump and give him the stamp of a populist because of his background – which neglects the very different nature of Ukraine’s problems as compared to Western democracies. (Meduza, 2019).


Scenario Two: Zelensky the dreamer, a Ukrainian Macron

When French President Macron was elected in 2017, he was the pro-European neoliberal version of an anti-establishment candidate. Macron, despite being part of the elite himself, ran against established political parties. Much in parallel to Zelensky, he created a new political party after he had become President and used elections to swipe old parties out of the French Assemblée Nationale (which is however much less powerful than the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada). Macron likes to portray himself as a visionary and has tried to implement comprehensive reforms (regardless of how one might judge their content).


In a Zelensky-Macron-scenario, Zelensky would be committed to anti-corruption reforms and dialogue with Russia, despite the opposition these policies might face. If this is the case, and if the French example can teach us anything, it is that a visionary rarely fulfils a vision in full – even if a majority in Parliament is achieved.


It is not likely that Zelensky will encounter protest in the form of violent Gilets Jaunes protests. The Ukrainians have had a revolution five years ago and there appears to be some fatigue that makes a gilets-jaunes-scenario unlikely. At the same time, democracy in Ukraine is still young and fragile, and it is crucial that the country remains on a reform course (Ukraine Forum, 2019). Opposition towards Zelensky’s measures will be more likely to come from the political and business elite: “If Zelensky does pursue some internal reform (…)  he will quickly encounter the same opposition of the bureaucrats and oligarchs that every other erstwhile reformer has confronted” (Foreign Policy, 2019). Unlike President Macron, Zelensky does not have experience in politics, never held public office before and may soon discover that a country is a very slow-moving ship. It is therefore possible Zelensky runs a similar course as former Ukrainian President Yushenko, who became President after the Orange Revolution and was unable to pass reforms through Parliament (Meduza, 2019).


Scenario Three: Zelensky, just another President

There are many aspects that set Ukraine apart from both the US and France. The most important one is the wider political context. Crimea is under Russian firm occupation and war continues to wage in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine is set on a course of closer integration with the European Union and NATO. Both scenarios are unlikely to change.


Regarding relations with Russia, former President Poroshenko accused Zelensky during his campaign to be a Russian proxy candidate, which is deemed a clear exaggeration by most analysts. Currently, Zelensky is as much of a wild card to Putin than anyone else. An initial provocation by the Kremlin, the handing out of Russian passports in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk right after his election, was met with a smart response: Zelensky offered Ukrainian citizenship to Russian dissidents (De Waal, 2019). But while Zelensky plans to initiate dialogue with Russia, which 70% of Ukrainians support (Hosa, 2019), it is not clear how he would end the war in Donbas. Zelensky might be as unsuccessful in striking a deal with Russia as Trump was with North Korea. The new President will be a more unifying figure than Poroshenko, starting with the fact that he is a Russian native speaker and does not attach a national(ist) value to language. He might, however, not be able to substantially change the stalemate with Russia.


Similarly, Zelensky will pursue the country’s course towards the West. Countering initial worries, he has promised to remain on a pro-European path, and used his first visit to Brussels on 4 and 5 June to reassure both NATO and EU partners of this. While the EU will be focused on domestic matters over the coming months, it remains engaged in Ukraine, inter alia as its biggest donor, and this is unlikely to change (Dempsey, 2019).


The most likely future scenario for President Zelensky is therefore that of a normal President: progress will be made but it won’t match expectations. Zelensky won’t end the war in Ukraine, but hopefully he will not make things substantially worse. It is possible that Zelensky will deliver on anti-corruption reforms, but the extent of these in unpredictable. It is unlikely that Zelensky will sway the course of the country away from its current goals on NATO and the EU. The bigger question is how the Ukrainian population will react once it will be clear that he cannot deliver on all of his promises quickly. As outlined above, it is unlikely that they will pursue another revolution, but then again, analysts predicted the same in 2013.


Potentially, the biggest success under Zelensky’s presidency has already happened: a peaceful and democratic transition of power. His window of opportunity to deliver beyond that is small (Burlyuk et al, 2019). Meanwhile, the EU should not focus on making predictions about a presidency whose character won’t be known for quite a while (Dempsey, 2019), but rather remain engaged in Ukraine and keep incentivizing the reform process.


[1] Ukrainian for “servant of the people”


Image: Volodymyr Zelensky presidential inauguration‎, 20th May 2019. From the official website of the President of Ukraine, Creative Commons 4.0




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