The Ukrainian presidential elections have come down to a choice between a crook and a clown. So far the clown is winning.
Volodymyr Zelensky, a prominent comedian without political experience, received 30 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate election last Sunday. Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, a corrupt oligarch, came in second with 16 percent. They face a runoff election later this month.
Like Donald Trump and comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy, Zelensky has capitalized on his entertainment fame to run as an outsider, campaigning as if he was the character in his hit TV series.
“He’s just an average guy who runs into increased corruption,” Nicolai Petro, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, tells me in a phone interview. “He maintains his fundamental honesty, and that’s what he’s saying as a political candidate.”
The election comes at a crucial time. The dispute over Crimea continues, and Russian troops back armed insurrection in eastern Ukraine. The conflict has killed 13,000 people and displaced millions. Conflict between Russia and the United States is also heating up as both sides compete for profits and influence in the region.
During a 1990 reporting trip to Kiev, I saw more than 5,000 young people one blustery winter day, waving huge yellow and blue Ukrainian flags as they converged on the city’s central square. They had just forced the prime minister to resign.
“It’s a great victory,” one student told me. “It’s a day I will remember all of my life.”
That was in 1990, back when Ukraine was still part of the USSR. Ukrainian nationalists were convinced that forming a separate nation would lead to democracy and economic prosperity. It didn’t work out that way.
Ordinary people in the USSR were legitimately angry at the government and Soviet-style socialism, which wasn’t providing enough food, housing or quality medical care. But opportunist leaders, backed by various western countries, manipulated that anger for their own power and profit.
As the world has seen, independent outsiders have a much harder time governing than campaigning.
Ukraine, at the time, had the second largest economy among the Soviet Republics, with abundant natural resources, industry, and a rich agricultural base. A Soviet pipeline carried natural gas through Ukraine to western Europe. Nowadays, both the United States and Russia value Ukraine for geopolitical reasons, according to Lev Golinkin, a journalist and memoirist born in Ukraine.
“The U.S. considers Ukraine to be part of Russia’s backyard,” Golinkin says in a phone interview. “The U.S. believes that if you can turn Ukraine into a western democracy, then Russians will want the same.”
Russian officials have the same concerns, only in mirror image. Russia doesn’t want Ukraine to join NATO, and has hostile troops posted along its border. Vladimir Putin often asserts that Russian speakers living in Ukraine face discrimination.
As Golinkin observes, “Putin has positioned himself as a protector of the Russian world.”
Over the past twenty years, Ukraine has seen a series of mass demonstrations, elections, and coups that have brought pro-Western or pro-Russian governments to power. In 2004, the so-called Orange Revolution replaced a corrupt, pro-Russian government with one backed by the United States.
In 2014 the elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, angered Western powers by blocking plans for Ukraine to associate with the European Union. Ukrainians returned to Kiev’s central Maidan Square to protest against Yanukovych.
These demonstrations, dubbed the Maidan Revolution, included strong participation by Svoboda (Freedom), an anti-Semitic, pro-fascist political movement, as well as oligarchs bent on installing themselves in power.
The Obama Administration played an active behind-the-scenes role in choosing Ukraine’s new leaders, as revealed in a tapped phone conversation between two high level U.S. diplomats. A transcript of the conversation shows that they planned to back certain Ukrainian politicians while ignoring EU favorites.
“Talk about meddling,” said Golinkin. “They are talking like corporate managers and the country is theirs.”
Petro Poroshenko, a pro-U.S. billionaire chocolate manufacturer, won hastily called elections in 2014, campaigning as an outsider. Three members of Svoboda joined the cabinet, and one became deputy prime minister. Russia retaliated by instigating an independence movement in Crimea, a key region of Ukraine populated mostly by ethnic Russians.
In Russia’s view, “the Crimean parliament had the right to self determination,” says Professor Petro. Crimea voted 95 percent to leave Ukraine and join Russia.
Meanwhile, according to the government in Kiev, out-of-uniform Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, an industrialized area with a large majority of Russian speaking Ukrainians. Allied with local militias, Russian troops still occupy parts of eastern Ukraine.
The United States denounced Russian aggression and imposed harsh sanctions. Russia has weathered the storm, however, and Ukraine continues to experience a low-intensity war.
The runoff election for Ukrainian presidential candidates Zelensky and Poroshenko is scheduled for April 21. Zelensky has expressed willingness to negotiate with Russia while Poroshenko has publicly refused. Right-wingers in Ukraine oppose any reconciliation with Russia and will seek to prevent talks no matter who wins.
As the world has seen, independent outsiders have a much harder time governing than campaigning. Nevertheless, a peaceful resolution to the Russia/Ukraine conflict is essential. Let’s hope that whoever wins the election can make some headway.