Ukraine tempted by the Trump model

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks with citizens and media before a performance of his concert team in the circus in the West Ukrainian city of Lviv, 8 February 2019. [Pavlo Palamarchuk/EPA/EFE]

Voters in Ukraine may be tempted by a Trump-style option at Presidential elections at the end of March. Be careful what you wish for, warns Dmitriy Frolovskiy.

Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and independent journalist.

The upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine are taking place during strange times. The rise of nativist parties, along with growing Euroscepticism, adds fuel to people’s frustration with the substantial work which remains to be done to combat corruption and reorient the country away from the Kremlin’s orbit. Tired of looming uncertainty which has rattled investors’ nerves, Ukrainians are increasingly turning to Trump-style candidates, hoping in vain that they will be a panacea.

The President and the Showman

Scheduled for 31 March, the elections are already set to be among the most contentious in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. With a record number of registered candidates – 44 – few dare to predict the outcome. It seems obvious, however, that the fiercest battle will be between popular showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy, currently polling at 19% of votes and president Petro Poroshenko, coming in with 15.1%.

On New Year’s Eve, Ukrainians experienced deja vu. Zelenskiy addressed the nation on the major TV channel ‘1+1’, controlled by the notorious oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. A 41-year old comedian and native of the small mining city of Kryvyi Rih, Zelensky and his team, known as Kvartal 95, acquired nationwide recognition after airing their own comedy show on Ukrainian TV in the mid-2000s. Poroshenko gave his own speech immediately following Zelenskiy’s, bringing to mind comparisons to the Orange Revolution when 5 Kanal TV station—owned by Poroshenko— broadcast then presidential frontrunner Viktor Yushchenko’s elocution before Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s speech.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo

Poroshenko was elected in 2014 on a platform of radically reforming institutions, adding new impulse to the economy and combating the corrupt establishment. Despite handling the country in perhaps its toughest period since independence and receiving praise abroad for his initiatives, domestic support for Poroshenko—and, indeed, for the entire Ukrainian political apparatus, including the parliament— has been on a consistently downward trend over the past years.

Ukrainians, many feeling that their country is still a type of ‘Wild West’ in which political alliances of businessmen emerge, change and disappear at the speed of light, are now seeking an out-of-the-box solution to transform the country.  In Ukraine, as elsewhere when disappointment with the political establishment grows, demand for radical and maverick politicians is hitting new highs.

The Trump factor

Anyone observing Ukrainian and American politics should pick up on the manifold parallels between Zelenskiy and Donald Trump’s political campaigns. Both men are political neophytes and outsiders to the system, promising in simple, crowd-friendly terms to bring radical change and encouraging voters to support them as a way of “sticking it” to the political establishment. Both made their mark on the small screen—Trump on ‘The Apprentice’, Zelenskiy on ‘Servant of the People’, in which, ironically, he plays a teacher who accidentally becomes the Ukrainian president. On the flipside, both have been accused of representing the interests of shadowy moneyed elites, and both have maintained controversial business relationships with Russia.

Zelenskiy’s unorthodox bid for the presidency may have come as a surprise to many ordinary Ukrainians, but analysts had long seen the writing on the wall pointing to the emergence of such an ‘outsider’, Trump-style candidate.

A few years ago, on the wave of the post-Maidan euphoria in 2015, Poroshenko invited the reform-oriented former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to lead Odessa Oblast. Although Saakashvili managed to achieve some tangible results even during his short tenure, his Ukrainian political career went sharply downhill. Saakashvili lobbed accusations at Poroshenko and the government in Kyiv; the Ukrainian prosecutor general alleged that Saakashvili’s allies had taken money from Russian oligarchs to destabilize Ukraine, and the saga ended with the former Georgian President being stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship and threatening to jump from a roof in Kyiv. Even though Saakashvili’s presidential ambitions had little chances for success, his political instincts helped him to grasp Ukraine’s growing public need for an outsider to ‘drain the swamp’.

To Kyiv’s political elite, Saakashvili’s brief campaign served as a powerful warning that the next elections will be all about earning protest votes through promising to challenge the establishment. In effect, a Ukrainian politician embracing the public’s need for a Trump-style candidate was only a matter of time.

Zelensky’s Ukraine: an impossible dream

In the preface to his policy platform, Zelenskiy imagines an idealized Ukraine, where it is possible to open a new business in an hour and instantly vote online, while also promising bills purporting forms of direct democracy and providing opportunities to impeach the president by scrapping political immunity. Although the vivid picture Zelenskiy paints resonates well with the disillusioned local electorate and strengthens his carefully-cultivated image of an outsider picking on the establishment— similarly to the plethora of Trump’s promises that turned out to be bogus—it’s difficult to believe that he would stand behind his words.

Despite the fact that he is a host on Kolomoyskyi’s ‘1+1’ channel, Zelenskiy denies any links to the controversial mogul. It seems doubtful – to say the least – that Zelenskiy’s stunt on New Year’s would have been possible without Kolomoyskyi’s direct approval. Recent investigations by Radio Liberty also discovered that Zelenskiy and his business partners – despite Zelensky’s assertions to the contrary – own three companies registered in Russia. Taken together, these elements make the image of an outsider which Zelenskiy has espoused seem somewhat questionable and possibly staged, like Trump’s notorious claims to get rid of Washington insiders that he never bothered to fulfil.

Beyond Ukraine’s borders

Many Ukrainian voters are hoping that the victor in this spring’s elections will bolster the country’s foreign policy. Zelenskiy has insisted that he is committed to supporting Ukraine in an effort to end the war and return the temporarily occupied territories in the East. It is not clear, however, from his program whether he considers Crimea as an occupied territory, although he recently pledged his commitment to returning the land and distancing Ukraine from Russia in front of the members of the radical Right Sector during his visit of Lviv.

Trump promised to quickly fix America’s trade and diplomatic problems, a pledge which has ended in disaster – confidence in U.S. leadership and diplomacy is now far lower than when he took office. In a similar vein, it is dubious that a comedian like Zelenskiy, without diplomatic experience, is qualified to efficiently handle the current gloomy state of affairs in the country’s favour. The future of relations with both the West and Russia is fraught with problems. Although Zelensky emphasizes Ukraine’s commitment to joining NATO, few believe that the alliance’s members are ready to accept the nation while its conflict with Russia remains so acute.

This reality, however, doesn’t stop many Ukrainians from supporting Zelenskiy, still trusting that once he assumed the presidency, he would push forward radical changes and jump-start reforms. Evidence from the United States suggests, unfortunately, that any hopes Ukraine pins on the Trump model are likely to be dashed.

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