In electing a political newcomer as president, Ukrainians have conducted their third revolution in 27 years of independence from Russian rule. Millions filled public squares to demand democratic accountability in the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2013-14 Euromaidan. But last Sunday, Ukrainians overhauled their government through the ballot box—a consolidation of their maturing democracy. They elected television actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy with 73 percent of the vote, a protest against persistent economic and political corruption and disappointment with lack of progress ending the war in the east of the country. Like any sharp political turn, it raises uncertainties—but the international community should reinforce Ukrainian voters’ demand for truly effective anti-corruption reforms, and for continued—even expanded—pressure to counter Russia’s assaults on Ukraine’s independence.
With other international election observers, I was encouraged to see many signs of Ukraine’s democratic maturation: a fair voting process, a (raucous) debate during the campaign, and a quick and gracious concession of the result by the defeated President Petro Poroshenko. International monitors pinpointed the areas for improvement, notably broader access to mass media in a country where the influence wielded by television networks is concentrated among four oligarchs.
Zelenskiy and the Corruption Issue
During his campaign, Zelenskiy did not discuss his policy ideas in detail, so his next steps raise some of the larger political unknowns in Ukrainian politics in some time. A first sign of Zelenskiy’s real inclinations on the biggest issues will be his choices for the most important presidential appointments: foreign minister, defense minister, prosecutor general, and head of the national security service. Experienced candidates with solid reformist credentials are willing to serve.
On the biggest domestic issue, corruption, many Ukrainians have voiced concern at the documented business connections between Zelenskiy and the billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV network on which the president-elect’s shows have aired. At the same time Zelenskiy’s campaign team included prominent anti-corruption reformists. International diplomacy, public and private, should reinforce with the president-elect’s team the clear desire by Ukrainians for the incoming administration to name a strong, independent prosecutor general.
One asset for the new president is that he comes from the media world and knows communications. If he stays committed to transparency, he could help win back Ukrainians’ trust in government, now at a record low. Zelenskiy could lean his administration toward the model of Alex Gorgan, a district-level administrator in Kyiv province who, while in office, live-streamed his meetings and posted all official documents he signed, plus his daily calendar, online. His constituents could see his every move and appreciated his transparency.
Responding to Russia
On Ukraine’s effort to reverse Russia’s five-year-old military incursions and end a war that has killed 13,000 people, public discussion has focused on Zelenskiy’s lack of political experience. Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to test Zelenskiy early—and already may be doing so by ordering procedures to help Ukrainians in the Russian-held portion of the Donbas region quickly obtain Russian passports and floating the possibility of lower natural gas prices. Putin may mix carrots and sticks, offering Russian natural gas supplies at favorable prices. Or he may propose to stand down the Russian-backed forces in Donbas in exchange for Ukraine’s acceptance of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. These would be non-starters for most Ukrainians and almost surely for the new president.
Zelenskiy could counter by reviving the international peace effort. During the campaign, he suggested adding U.S. and British delegations to the “Normandy Four” participants—Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. He could propose international peacekeepers and an interim civilian administration to facilitate an eventual Russian withdrawal.
On both domestic reforms and a rollback of Russia’s aggression, any progress in the coming six months could be especially influential. That is because Ukraine in October is scheduled to vote for the parliament that will govern with the country’s first fully post-Soviet president. While the election of a 41-year-old political newcomer has raised immediate policy questions for Ukraine, its deeper reality may well be the irreversible rise to power of the country’s post-independence generation—a cohort that will not accede to the Kremlin’s dream of restoring a corrupt and compliant Ukrainian satellite state.