Following his election observation, Taylor discusses Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s victory and how he can build support at home and abroad. “The president-elect is already getting a lot of support from the international community,” and if he implements the pro-Western policies he advocated during the campaign the U.S. will continue to strengthen bilateral ties, says Taylor.
On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.
Tim Farley (translating over Russian): I will never let you down. To all post-Soviet countries, I tell you, look at us. Everything is possible. We did it together, thanks to everyone. Now, there will be no pathetic speeches, I just want to say thank you.
Tim Farley: That is Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old actor and comedian winning an overwhelming victory in Ukraine's Presidential election on Sunday. You could come up with all kinds of jokes about the inauguration party, which is going to have whipped cream pies and all kinds of things like that, but this is serious business.
Tim Farley: Which is why we're lucky we can turn to William B. Taylor, U.S. Institute of Peace executive vice president, former ambassador to Ukraine, who also by the way is fresh off the plane from Kiev where he had participated as an international election observer, can give us some perspective. He is tweeting @USIP.
Tim Farley: Bill, welcome back. Thank you for being here.
Bill Taylor: Thank you Tim, it's great to be back.
Tim Farley: This was not unexpected, I believe, given the original, this was the runoff election, but still the idea that this individual who has no political experience and I guess is best known to the people of Ukraine through a show where he is actually playing somebody who is recruited to be the President, it's a comedy show. So life imitating art, I guess, in this particular case.
Tim Farley: Take us through this.
Bill Taylor: Right. Volodymyr Zelensky, as you say, is a TV personality. He's a well-known actor who has been in Ukrainian people's living rooms for years and is indeed loved and trusted. These, of course, are important characteristics, important attributes. So when he surprised people by announcing for President back in the end of December, just since the end of December that he's been running, it was something to watch.
Bill Taylor: As you say, Tim, it was 74% to 23%. 74% for Zelensky, and 23% for the incumbent President, President Poroshenko. He got 23%. So this is, as you quoted there, a really important message to the people of Ukraine, but the people in the region.
Bill Taylor: He said to the post-Soviet region, "Look at us, anything is possible." The post-Soviet region is not known for its democracy, it's not known for having real elections, and this was a real election that the incumbent President lost. The Russians cannot believe this really happened.
Tim Farley: As I said, this means the serious business begins. Number one, he's going to have to deal with Vladimir Putin, who I'm sure still has his designs on Ukraine, and number two, he's got to deal with the economy that's pretty much in the toilet right now, right?
Bill Taylor: Actually, it turns out that, to President Poroshenko's credit, the economy has been gradually, slowly recovering. The IMF has been a big help. So the economy is growing at 2% or 3% a year, that's not bad. The Russian economy, under sanctions, is not doing anywhere near so well.
Bill Taylor: Now, your point about dealing with the Rada, with the parliament, is important. The president-elect has no people in the Rada, and the Rada elections, the parliamentary elections, don't take place until October. He has no chance of having his own people, so he will have to strike deals with and work with the other political leaders for the next six months.
Tim Farley: How's that going to happen? In other words, how does he surround himself, Bill, with the right people to be able to move forward with this government? Because one can only imagine politics is a pretty rough business, and he's going to have to have some friends who can help him try to work on whatever agenda is that he wants to accomplish.
Bill Taylor: Tim, you're absolutely right. The selection of people, advisors, ministers, the inner circle, is going to be very important. There have been some good indications so far. He has a well-known and well-respected economic reformer, a former minister of finance on his team, has been on his team.
Bill Taylor: He's got a couple of reformers from the Rada on his team. He's indicated that he's going to pull people from the anti-corruption community to be on his team. There's a good indication that there are several very serious military, defense, security experts, who are considering joining his team, if asked. That's a good thing.
Bill Taylor: In addition, two or three of the serious leaders of Rada factions, of political parties that are in the parliament, have indicated they're willing to work with him.
Bill Taylor: President Poroshenko in a concession speech right away, by the way, after the polls closed, conceded and pledged his support to help the president-elect. President Poroshenko said he would be an opposition, but he would be a constructive opposition. He wants to have this President succeed, he wants to have Ukraine succeed.
Bill Taylor: Other leaders of political parties, a former prime minister, the current minister of internal affairs, probably the second most powerful person in the country, have all indicated the same thing.
Bill Taylor: There's some hope that he could surround himself with good people, and there's some hope that some of the major political parties will support.
Tim Farley: William B. Taylor, U.S. Institute of Peace executive vice president, he is the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. As we discuss the recent elections, talk about the U.S. equation here. Because President Trump, the statement from the White House, indicated that he had called Mr. Zelensky to offer his congratulations. What role does the U.S. play, what kind of relationship did President Trump have with President Poroshenko, and what might we expect in his relationship with the new President?
Bill Taylor: It's a great question.
Bill Taylor: I heard over and over this past week while I was there, the importance that Ukrainians put on the U.S. position, the U.S. support. So it was a very good sign that President Trump was among those world leaders who called. There's one world leader, notable, who hasn't called and that's Vladimir Putin. But President Trump has, Angela Merkel, Macron.
Bill Taylor: The new president, the president-elect, is getting a lot of support from the international community, and as people told me over and over, the Americans are key. So the calls from the United States, both President Trump and Ambassador Kurt Volker are really important indications that if the president-elect continues on the path that he has laid out in his campaign, that is movement towards the European Union, movement toward NATO, anti-corruption, investment climate that is attracting people to bring their funds there, if he continues in that direction, the United States will back him solidly.
Tim Farley: I know we don't have enough time to fully explore this, but I'm curious about the possibility. You mentioned maybe an alliance that includes becoming a NATO member for Ukraine, is that something even possible at this point? I can only imagine some of the political challenges to that, but is that something that is maybe a work in progress?
Bill Taylor: It's a work in progress, it's not possible today. NATO is on record of saying that Ukraine and Georgia, by the way, will become members of NATO at some point in the future, and both political candidates, both President Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky had as part of their campaign, entry into the EU and entry into NATO.
Bill Taylor: Now, there would be referenda, and these kind of things, but the direction is clear. It's not going to be anytime soon, there's a lot of work that they have to do, Ukrainians have to do, before they're ready to join, but in answer to your question, yes, it's possible.
Tim Farley: Wow, all right. A lot of things developing. We will see how it turns out and I'm sure we'll be able to catch up from time to time on this, William B. Taylor.
Tim Farley: Bill, thanks for being on the show.
Bill Taylor: Thank you, Tim.
Tim Farley: William B. Taylor, U.S. Institute of Peace executive vice president, he is the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He was there as an observer as the elections took place.
Tim Farley: Volodymyr Zelensky is a comedian, 41 years old. He has been elected to President. As Bill Taylor indicates, he's got some challenges ahead and it's one of the stories we'll be watching. It's a key part of the world, and naturally as it's related to Russia and the United States, a lot of consideration and a lot of eyes being placed on Ukraine, and they are moving forward.
Tim Farley: By the way, the Twitter handle to use is @USIP.