Can comic actor Vladimir Zelenskiy improve Ukrainian politics?
Since the 2014 revolution, Ukraine has undergone many significant changes. The most serious of these has been the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in the Donbass region of the country. However, anti-corruption activists argue that the issue of corruption has been completely overlooked amidst the anti-Russian rhetoric.
In the run up to the first round of the Ukrainian Presidential Elections, President Poroshenko has been using his pro-military credentials to his advantage whilst simultaneously ignoring the serious issue of corruption. In contrast, a comedian by the name of Vladimir Zelenskiy, is tackling the corruption issue head on in a message which appears to be resonating with the Ukrainian electorate. In standing for president, he seeks to end the rules which prevent the prosecution of high-level officials and thereby fulfil the original ideals of the 2014 revolution. This has led some commentators to suggest that he will bring a welcome change to Ukrainian politics.
Since taking office, President Poroshenko has overseen a substantial increase in the Ukrainian defence budget and set the country on a path to EU and NATO integration. These policies are generally favoured by the electorate due to the large fall in the number of Russian voters. Yet, many people in Ukraine are sceptical about his attitude towards corruption
In February, impeachment proceedings were started against Poroshenko in the Ukrainian parliament over allegations that he overlooked a scheme whereby military parts were sold to the military at massively inflated prices. This has both made the President look weak on corruption and undermined his pro-military stance. Whilst the impeachment proceedings are unlikely to succeed due to parliamentary arithmetic, they symbolise the extent to which trust in his presidency has collapsed.
With the serious concerns over corruption in Ukraine, it’s almost unsurprising that Vladimir Zelenskiy is ahead of the incumbent President in most opinion polls. Compared with the other front-runners, he is uniquely untainted by the corruption which has plagued the country since it gained independence in 1991. However, this lack of experience could rapidly become a serious problem if he gains the presidency. Ukraine has been the victim of increasingly aggressive Russian actions and the very survival of Ukraine depends on its ability to fend off the Russian threat. In late 2018, tensions escalated significantly when Ukrainian naval vessels were fired upon and captured in the black sea by Russian forces. Despite this, Zelenskiy has publicly declared his desire to negotiate with Russia to end the ongoing conflict. Critics argue that he would undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine by giving into the demands of Vladimir Putin.
The final serious frontrunner is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In an effort to gain populist appeal, she has criticised the reforms instituted by Ukraine to gain access to IMF support. Moreover, she is determined to bring back old economic policies and could thereby imperil the only serious lifeline which keeps Ukraine from economic ruin. Whilst having the experience to potentially manage the crisis in Eastern Ukraine, there are also questions about how far she might be prepared to capitulate to Russia in order to make peace. In addition, there is also the likely prospect that Russia will attempt to interfere in the election and potentially in favour of Tymoshenko. Indeed, given how far Russia has gone to interfere in Ukraine militarily, it seems fair to assume that this interference will spread to the 2019 Presidential Election.
Ultimately, Ukraine cannot afford to elect a populist figure to the presidency in 2019. The situation which the county faces is far too volatile to take any actions which might deviate from NATO integration or undermine Ukrainian territorial integrity. Whilst Poroshenko may be tolerating a system of rampant corruption, his determination to see off Russian aggression makes him the only logical electoral choice. Only once the country is safe from foreign interference can the dreams of the 2014 revolution be truly realised.