Ukraine elects a comedian president

Volodomyr Zelensky celebrating his landslide victory Sunday evening.
Tuesday, April 23, 2019

On Sunday, Ukraine went to the polls in the second round of its presidential election and, in an outcome that, although predicted by all the polls, was nevertheless stunning, elected Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old actor and comedian with no previous political experience, in a landslide over the incumbent, Petro O. Poroshenko. Zelensky, who played a high school history teacher in a popular television show, Servant of the People, who, after a rant about corruption that is secretly videoed and goes viral, becomes president, won 73.2 per cent of the vote. Poroshenko won 24.5 per cent. It was indeed a case of life imitating art.

Zelensky ran as the candidate of a party created last year by his production company, which produces Servant of the People. In December, the party, which has the same name as the show, not surprisingly selected him as its candidate in the presidential election. Prior to that, Zelensky was polling between 10 and 15 per cent, roughly the same as Poroshenko but well below Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and presidential candidate in 2014. But after December, he enjoyed a dramatic increase in support, and in the first round of the election on Mar. 31 he placed first in a field of 39 candidates with 30 per cent, well ahead of Poroshenko, who received 16 per cent, and Tymoshenko, who won 13 per cent. Sunday’s second round was restricted to the two highest-polling candidates in the first round.

Zelensky’s party has no platform or manifesto and, of course, no seats in the Verkovna Rada that was elected in Oct. 2014. (The next parliamentary election is scheduled for October.) In the campaign, Zelensky avoided any substantive interviews or discussions about specific public policies other than to express his outrage about the corruption that continues to plague all levels of Ukraine government, the continuing poverty and marginal standard of living of many Ukrainians, the high degree of inequality, epitomized by the continued wealth and political influence of oligarchs such as Poroshenko, and the low-level but lethal conflict that continues on the frontlines between Ukraine’s troops and those of the pro-Russia separatists who, supported by Russia, control, via self-proclaimed People’s Republics, substantial portions of the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. But that was enough – more than enough – for most voters; Sunday’s second round was a referendum on Poroshenko and, as one person told a reporter, anyone who had run against him Sunday would have won in a landslide.

In a raucous debate last Friday between the two candidates before 22,000 in Kyiv’s Olympic stadium, Poroshenko, a billionaire who owns, among other things, the large Roshen Confectionary Company – hence the nickname “chocolate king” – alluded to Zelensky’s apparent lack of any substantive or programmatic positions by referring to him as a “bright candy wrapper in which everyone can find what he is looking for.” Zelensky, for his part, used the same appeal that got his character, Vasyl Holoborodko, in Servant of the People elected president after one of his high school pupils secretly filmed him ranting about the crooks who keep getting elected, the video went viral and millions of Ukrainians crowdfunded his campaign. At Friday’s debate, he said, “I am not a politician. I am just a simple person who has come to break down this system.” To Poroshenko, he said, “I am the result of your mistakes and promises.”

Poroshenko, 54, was elected president in the first round on May 25, 2014 in the wake of the Maidan (Independence Square) Revolution that began when President Viktor Yanukovych, presiding over an economy that was close to bankruptcy and facing the prospect of being defeated in the 2015 presidential election, decided in late 2013 not to accept an IMF loan that would have come with politically-costly conditions and to accept instead, and in exchange for agreeing not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, substantial financial assistance from Russia – decisions that prompted widespread public protests and the occupation of the Maidan in Kyiv that were in turn followed, after the use of lethal force against the Maidan protestors in Feb. 2014, by Yanukovych’s middle-of-the-night flight to Russia, the appointment of an acting president and formation of a new government by the opposition parties, Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea, and the take-over of substantial portions of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists supported by Russian troops.

In addition to owning Roshen and a number of other companies, including a television channel, Poroshenko came to the 2014 election with a good deal of experience in government. He had been a deputy from 1998 to 2007 and again from 2012 until he took office in June 2014, had served as the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council under President Viktor Yushchenko in 2005, Minister of Foreign Affairs under Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in 2009-10, and Minister of Trade and Economic Development in 2011-12. Drawing largely on his stature as an oligarch with substantial experience in government, especially in regard to defense and foreign affairs, in the May 25, 2014 election, in which there were 21 candidates, Poroshenko received 55 per cent of the vote. His nearest competitor, Tymoshenko, received only 13 per cent.

As in every national election in Ukraine, there was a marked east-west variation in the extent of support for Poroshenko in 2014. For example, in the Lviv region on the western border with Poland, where less than 4 per cent of the population are ethnic Russians and claim Russian as their native language, Poroshenko won 70 per cent of the vote. In contrast, in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions on the border with Russia in eastern Ukraine, where 40 per cent are ethnic Russians and 70 per cent claim Russian as their native language, Poroshenko won only 33 and 36 per cent of the vote in 2014.

Despite the scale of Zelensky’s victory on Sunday, the region-by-region breakdown of the vote shows the same marked east-west variation evident in previous elections. On Sunday, Zelensky won all of the two dozen regions in Ukraine except one – Lviv, where Poroshenko, despite winning only 25 per cent of the national vote, won 63 per cent of the vote. In the neighboring regions of Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil, he won 45 per cent of the vote. In contrast, he won only 11 per cent in Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk and 8 per cent in Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, compared with 85-90 per cent for Zelensky. Masked by the battle between incumbent and challenger, president and comedian, was one between those, especially in western Ukraine, who share a Ukrainian identity and look to the west and the EU and those, especially in eastern Ukraine, who share a Russian identity and look to Moscow and Putin. Poroshenko attracted disproportionate support from the former and Zelensky, who stumbled in the campaign when he spoke Ukrainian, attracted disproportionate support from the latter.

Zelensky’s landslide victory is perhaps understandable given the widespread poverty and economic insecurity of many Ukrainians, the fact that public corruption is pervasive, and the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine. To note but one example – the issue that figured so prominently in his popular television show – Transparency International reports that in 2013, Ukraine received a score of 25 and ranked 144 among 177 countries on its 0-100 scale of perceived public sector corruption, where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean. Last year, Ukraine received a score of 32 and ranked 120 among 180 countries – a slight improvement, but only a slight improvement; Ukraine remains a country in which public corruption is pervasive, just as it remains, after five years of the Poroshenko presidency, a country in which there is widespread poverty and economic insecurity and in which pro-Russian separatists continue, with Russia’s overt and covert support, to control a substantial portion of the industrial heartland of the country.

Nevertheless, the scale of Poroshenko’s defeat does strike one as a bit unfair, given the severity of the economic, military and geopolitical challenges he inherited when he took office in June 2014. At that time, Ukraine was on the brink of insolvency. It had a current account deficit equivalent to more than 8 per cent of GDP, a budget deficit over 6.5 per cent, foreign reserves that covered only three months of imports, $8 billion in foreign debt, including $3.7 billion to the IMF on a 2008 loan, that had to be repaid, and it owed Russia about $12 billion a year for gas. In 2013, Yanukovych had sought a standby arrangement from the IMF similar to the $15.5 billion standby arrangement Ukraine obtained in 2010. But it was clear, both from the severity of the crisis and the fact that Ukraine had refused to implement the conditions attached to the 2010 arrangement, that the IMF would not lend Ukraine as much as it needed and would attach conditions that would be economically and politically painful – for example, greater exchange rate flexibility that would allow the currency to depreciate, thereby increasing the cost of imported oil and gas, both of which are priced internationally in dollars, and elimination of the substantial household subsidy for the cost of energy.

In two secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Nov. 2013, Yanukovych agreed that, in return for not signing the EU Association Agreement he was scheduled to sign in Vilnius later that month and resuming talks about closer trade ties with Russia, Ukraine’s disputed gas bill would be settled, the price of its future deliveries would be reduced, recently-imposed customs controls and import controls would be ended, and Russia would provide it with additional financial assistance. Later that month, the IMF formally offered Ukraine $5 billion – much less than the $15-20 billion it needed – and required that it repay $3.7 billon it owed on its 2008 loan. The EU, for its part, offered €610 million, about $840 million. The next day Yanukovych announced Ukraine would not sign the Association Agreement, prompting demonstrations in the Maidan. In December, Putin and Yanukovych met again, this time publicly, and it was announced that Russia would purchase $15 billion of Ukraine government debt through its National Wealth Fund and lower the price of gas supplied to Ukraine’s state-owned company by one-third. There was no overt commitment that Ukraine would join Russia’s Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan but the consequences were obvious; clearly, the agreement would strengthen Ukraine’s economic ties with Russia over the long run. 

After Yanukovych fled in the night after the shooting of Maidan demonstrators in Feb. 2014 and the Rada, after concluding that he had abandoned his position, appointed an Acting President – an act Putin described as a “coup d’état” – the Russian assistance was summarily cancelled. That, coupled with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Mar. 2014 and the protracted conflict between Ukraine and the pro-Russia separatists and their Russian patrons in heavily-industrialized eastern Ukraine thereafter, resulted in a severe contraction of the economy in 2014-15. Whereas in 2012 Ukraine’s Gross Domestic Product barely increased, by 0.2 per cent, and didn’t change at all in 2013, in 2014 it decreased by 6.5 per cent and in 2015 it decreased by 9.8 per cent – a two-year contraction of 16 per cent, which the head of the central bank said was the worst since World War II.

In late April 2014, Ukraine received a two-year loan of $17.1 billion from the IMF, accompanied by conditions that, among other things, required that the minimum wage be frozen and the gas price be increased by 50 per cent. And in Feb. 2015, it received a four-year loan of $17.5 billion from the IMF which, when combined with $4.5 billion from the 2014 loan, resulted in a $22 billion loan. Like the earlier one, it came with conditions – most notably, a reduction in spending on social services and a restructuring of the banks. In 2017, the loan was frozen because of a failure to implement the agreed reforms, but last December the IMF granted Ukraine another loan of $3.9 billion. In the wake of the IMF assistance, which was accompanied by assistance from the EU, the economy slowly recovered, with the GDP increasing by 2.4 per cent in 2016, 2.5 per cent in 2017 and 3.3 per cent last year.

If, thanks largely to the IMF, Poroshenko was able to alleviate the imminent bankruptcy of the country and restore at least a modest rate of economic growth, he also strengthened the relationship between Ukraine and the EU. In June 2014, immediately after his election as president, Poroshenko signed the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement which Yanukovych had decided not to sign. The agreement, some titles of which were provisionally applied as of Nov. 2014 and which entered into force in Sept. 2017, commits the EU and Ukraine to cooperate in regard to economic policy and regulation, move toward visa-free movement of people and create a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. In addition, Ukraine would, with the assistance of the EU, undertake a wide range of economic, financial and judicial reforms and would obtain preferential access to the EU market. Although largely ignored by voters, the Agreement has already transformed and will continue to strengthen the economic and financial relationship between Ukraine and the EU in the years to come. And although it does not explicitly offer the prospect of eventual membership in the EU, the Agreement may well constitute, as Poroshenko suggested when he signed it in June 2014, the “first but most decisive step” toward eventual EU membership for Ukraine.

Poroshenko also strengthened the Ukraine military by reorganizing the command structure and providing it with the weapons and troops required to hold the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine at bay and prevent a further incursion by Russian troops, either in the rest of Luhansk and Donetsk regions or along the land corridor through the port city of Mariupol that would connect Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine to Crimea. And with the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, he and Putin agreed to the Minsk Protocol of Sept. 2014 to stabilize the front by separating the forces and the subsequent Minsk agreement, known as Minsk II, in Feb. 2015 to bring about a ceasefire. The conflict has not ended, intermittent violence continues, and the constitutional reforms agreed by the parties have not been implemented. But at least the scale of the conflict has subsided. On Sunday, Zelensky said he plans to continue the Minsk process, would like to “reboot” talks with the separatists and reach a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and would like to undertake talks with Russia aimed at freeing Ukraine soldiers and sailors being held by Russia.

Zelensky will take office on June 3. Which parties will he ask to form the government? Who will he select as prime minister? How will he transform Servant of the People into a party that can contest and win seats in the Rada in the October election? What changes in existing policies and new policies will he put forward? How will he address the challenges of promoting growth and reducing poverty and inequality while adhering to the IMF conditions attached to its loans? What will he do to at least reduce, if not eliminate, public corruption and increase the rule of law? How will he induce Russia and the pro-Russian separatists to accept a permanent ceasefire, terminate the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and restore to Ukraine full control of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and the eastern border?

We don’t know. All of these questions remain to be answered by the comedian, now president-elect. How he answers them will in all likelihood determine whether, five years hence, he experiences the same electoral fate Petro Poroshenko experienced Sunday.


David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.