Comedian Dethrones Chocolate Mogul in Ukraine Election

Volodymyr Zelensky
Volodymyr Zelensky, December 23, 2018. Photo credit: Максим Стоялов
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Ukraine, a major flashpoint of tensions between Russia and the West in recent years, has elected a new president who some accuse of links to Moscow — though Russia has so far received him coldly. Little is known so far about his planned policies, other than that he intends to fight corruption.

Across the country, the total population of which is just under 45 million, Volodymyr Zelensky is already famous as a president who fights corruption: only, so far he has done it on TV, in his show called Servant of the People. Similarly to his character, a high school teacher whose anti-corruption rant randomly goes viral and gets him elected, Zelensky on Sunday defeated Ukraine’s sitting president, former chocolate mogul Petro Poroshenko, in a landslide.

Many pundits see hope for reforms and even peace in his victory.

“According to public opinion polls, the vast majority of Ukrainians [want] radical change and peace in Donbas” [the Russian-speaking eastern areas of Ukraine where armed conflict has raged for several years now],” wrote Balázs Jarábik, a Ukraine expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“This is why they voted against the current government and for Zelenskiy. … He will try to freeze the war in Donbas, ease Russian language restrictions (but continue to promote the Ukrainian language), stand behind Western integration and try to build a state less preoccupied by ideology and more focused on offering people efficient services.”

But others are skeptical toward him, in part because of Zelensky’s ties to Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch — and opponent of Poroshenko — who owns the TV channel where the comedian’s show runs.

“The election of a presidential candidate with no political experience, no intelligible program of action, and no well-coordinated team, brings risks and opportunities,” wrote Denys Kiryukhin, another Ukraine expert whose comments were featured by the Carnegie Endowment. “The risk is that, as has repeatedly happened in recent Ukrainian history, a change of power will just turn out to be a castling move inside the elite.”

Despite — or perhaps because of — accusations of collusion between Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin has so far refused to congratulate Zelensky and even made a move widely interpreted as hostile: making it easier for residents of eastern Ukraine to receive Russian passports. Zelensky in turn denounced Russia’s actions as those of an “aggressor state.” During his election campaign, he has expressed support for Western sanctions against Russia though he has also said that he intends to negotiate peace with Putin.

Zelensky also faces significant challenges cooperating with Ukraine’s parliament, at least until a parliamentary election in October. Pundits are eagerly expecting his first moves and appointments while on the job in order to gauge the future course of a country that on several recent occasions has come close to igniting a shooting war between NATO and Russia. Stay tuned.


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