Ukrainians voted for change, but is it enough?

That governments tend to change in Ukraine makes it stand out when compared with other post-Soviet states. But this is no longer something new or unusual for Ukrainians.

Tetiana Bezruk
23 April 2019, 12.01am
Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky
(c) Yaghobzadeh Rafael/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Petro Poroshenko or Volodymyr Zelensky? This is the question that voters asked themselves in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election on 21 April. Poroshenko has been head of state for the past five years, while Zelensky, as you’ve probably heard, is a comic actor and entertainment producer. Even before voting had ended, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology released exit polls that put Zelensky at 73% of the vote, and Poroshenko - 25.5%. These figures may yet change with the official count, but it’s unlikely they’ll change significantly, as the results of the first round voting show. On 31 March, the marketing and sociological companies’ predictions were surprisingly precise.

Zelensky gained a high level of votes across Ukraine’s regions, aside from Lviv region in the west, contradicting the concept of “Two Ukraines” divided by the Dnipro river. According to this idea, Ukraine is divided as a state not only geographically, but politically. Regions in the west are drawn towards the European Union, and in the east - towards Russia. Indeed, per this division, issues around state language and historical memory play a crucial role. In public, this idea was most forcefully expressed during the 2004 Orange Revolution and under ex-president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country in the wake of the 2014 Revolution.

Still, sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina believes that Zelensky voters share a wide range of views. For example, Bekeshkina cited statistics on Zelensky supporters’ attitudes towards NATO membership - 37% support the idea, 33% support a neutral status for Ukraine, and six percent support a military union with Russia. In Bekeshkina’s opinion, Ukrainian citizens didn’t vote so much for Zelensky, but against Poroshenko.

It’s hard to figure out what Zelensky really offered Ukrainian voters, or how he sees internal and foreign politics. Indeed, Zelensky gave practically no interviews to journalists throughout the election campaign. For the most part, he limited himself to short phrases or jokes. In the end, he gave an interview to RBC-Ukraine several days before the election. But questions remained - and for both journalists and voters it was important to find out more about Zelensky. More, at least, than what they knew about him as the actor who plays a president in a popular television series.

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No answers to these questions came during or after the presidential debates, held on 19 April at Kyiv’s Olympic stadium. Neither candidate took part in the first round debates, but supporters of Poroshenko started insisting on them after 31 March.

At the debates themselves, the candidates accused one another of various sins - for example, Poroshenko asked Zelensky about his connections to Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch living in Israel. These concerns aren’t without grounds. Journalists at Bihus.info investigated the Zelensky-Kolomoisky relationship, and found that Kolomoisky’s lawyer Andriy Bohdan was involved in Zelensky’s election campaign as its chief legal advisor.

Moreover, Bogdan met with Artem Sitnik, director of Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau. According to NABU press secretary Svitlana Olifira, Zelensky’s team and civil society representatives initiated this meeting, which concerned the anti-corruption agencies and their cooperation. In their film, the Bihus.info team emphasised that Zelensky is not currently under investigation. But it should be said that NABU is currently investigating cases involving Privatbank, Ukrnafta and Ukraine International Airlines - companies which are all connected to Kolomoisky.

After the exit polls were released, Poroshenko conceded with a farewell speech in which he thanked Ukrainian citizens for their votes: “I’m leaving the office of president, but I’m not leaving politics.” Among Poroshenko’s achievements we can pick out the following: visa-free regime with the EU, an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church, a new and effective Ukrainian army, as well as the decentralisation reform. Poroshenko’s presidency coincided with the first years of the Russia-Ukraine war and the annexation of Crimea. And during Poroshenko’s rule, the Ukrainian government has built an international pro-Ukrainian coalition, which is important in terms of supporting sanctions against Russian officials responsible for crimes in Donbas and repressions in Crimea.

But at the same time, recent corruption scandals at defence manufacturer Ukroboronprom and in Ukraine’s energy sector suggested that Poroshenko was all-too loyal when it came to his “team”. The incumbent also drew on the support of regional politicians with “complex” backgrounds. The mayor of Odesa Gennady Trukhanov, who holds Russian citizenship, is connected to corruption schemes in the city, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Indeed, recent years have seen a wave of attacks on civil society activists in the southern port city.

Trukhanov publicly voiced his support for Poroshenko ahead of the election, as did Gennady Kernes, the Kharkiv mayor who was accused of organising the kidnapping and beating of EuroMaidan participants in 2014. (The investigation into these events was closed in 2018.) Meanwhile, the tragic death of Kherson activist Kateryna Handzyuk continues to have consequences: her father recently claimed that two local members of Poroshenko’s party, Andriy Gordeev and Evgeny Ryshchuk, ordered the attack on Handzyuk. These connections may not have been deciding factors in voters’ choices, but they were certainly in their field of vision.

The inauguration is likely to be held in May. But Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman has already stated he’s leaving Poroshenko’s party ahead of parliamentary elections later this year. Moreover, three regional governors - Lviv, Mykolaiv and Zakarpattya - have resigned without waiting for Poroshenko to leave. All this suggests that change is afoot in Poroshenko’s team.

As to Volodymyr Zelensky, he will need to present his views on a range of topics in far greater detail than before - and come to terms with the fact that he’s president of a country with citizens who exist in real life, and not just via the television. There’s also the 25% of the electorate who voted for Poroshenko: many of these people were active participants in the protests against Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, and have gone on to work on reforms. They feel slighted and unneeded as a result of the election.

That governments tend to change in Ukraine makes it stand out when compared with other post-Soviet states. But this is no longer something new or unusual for Ukrainians. Now they’re interested in the quality of government and the elites who represent it.

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