This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform
On 21 April, Volodymyr Zelensky won the Ukrainian presidential election by a landslide, collecting almost 73% of the vote against incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
To examine the implications of the election for Ukraine and the region, the World Economic Forum spoke with Orysia Lutsevych, Research Fellow and Manager, the Ukraine Forum in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.
1) The new president has a huge mandate, but how realistic are his chances of satisfying expectations, and what will be crucial to his success or failure?
Volodymyr Zelensky won with the highest voter support in the history of independent Ukraine in a contested race. He is the sixth president of Ukraine, in contrast to Russia, where power really switched hands only twice since the fall of the Soviet Union. With endorsement across all but one region of Ukraine, his victory is a revolution by ballot. Zelensky’s victory represents a backlash against the system most Ukrainians believe is rigged. Perceived as a new face with no toxic political baggage, Zelensky’s campaign created huge expectations for change. It is inevitable that some disillusionment will follow—in the same way that many of the high expectations that followed the 2014 Revolution of Dignity were not realized.
What Ukrainians fundamentally desire is a better functioning democracy, an end to a protracted war with Russia, and economic relief. Poroshenko’s team has made important steps when it comes to the latter, especially in public procurement, and the banking and energy sectors. It is crucial that Mr Zelensky protects these achievements of the post-Euromaidan leadership.
There are several factors that will determine the success of Zelensky’s presidency.
Second, Zelensky needs to deliver a modernization agenda that allows his voters to feel the economic gains of reforms. Rule of law is an underpinning reform that has barely started in Ukraine. If Zelensky manages to re-boot Ukraine’s new anti-corruption agencies and reform the Prosecutor’s General Office, it could create a new quality of judiciary. With better protection of property rights and fair trials, investors will up their stakes in Ukraine.
Equally crucial for his success is opening the economy to competition with effective anti-trust laws. Currently, 60% of Ukraine’s markets are non-competitive. Sectors such as car manufacturing enjoy high protectionist measures. All this creates incentives for tycoons with a high concentration of capital to solidify their positions and discourages FDI in Ukraine. The “limited access order” is the reason why the country lags way behind its neighbour, Poland, in economic prosperity.
Finally, in order to deliver on economic promises and the rule of law, Zelensky needs strong representation in parliament and a prime minister supportive of his policies. There are six months before parliamentary elections and he has an uphill struggle to build a political party with cross-national representation. If he loses momentum, his skyrocketing popularity may collapse and his presidency will be weakened.
2) What kind of signal is the electorate sending by electing Zelensky, and how much is this indicative of a wider political trend in Europe and beyond?
Zelensky won thanks to a strong anti-establishment sentiment and on the promise to break the system. In this way he is similar to US President Donald Trump, or Grillo Beppe in Italy. Zelensky’s inexperience with politics was his strength in the eyes of the voters, most of whom do not have confidence in the institutions of the state. Ukrainians do not trust public officials to work in their interest and for the public good. After the decades of Soviet totalitarian rule, and almost 25 years of stalled reforms and high levels of corruption, the state is often viewed as predatory toward the average citizen.
Although, Zelensky’s team utilized an innovative digital strategy, his victory was due in large measure to television. The fact that he portrayed a fictional president in the popular “The Servant of the People” series meant he had 100% recognition among Ukrainians. This is not uniquely a Ukrainian case. In Lithuania, the Union of Peasants and Greens of agricultural tycoon Ramunas Karbauskis scored a 2016 parliamentary victory after a five-year screening of “Summer in Naisai” soap opera, where an honest local farmer becomes a politician.
At the same time, Russian disinformation fed a corruption narrative that helped Zelenskyi. The toxic information created the strong perception that corruption was worse than it was under Viktor Yanukovych. As a result, the public vilified Poroshenko and the ruling elite. In reality, however, an in-depth study by the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting demonstrated that corruption measures have saved Ukraine around $6 billion, and the number of Ukrainians who reported having to hand over bribes decreased. Yet, 61% of Ukrainians believed that corruption had increased since 2013. As in other places, facts are lost to emotions of despair and feelings of injustice.
3) What will be the impact of the new presidency on the war in eastern Ukraine, as well as the effects on Ukraine–Russia relations, and the wider region?
Zelensky is not a pro-Russian president and Putin understands this. While Zelensky may wish to improve relations with Russia, there is strong support in Ukraine for the EU, and there is growing approval of NATO.This is why in the first days after Zelensky’s victory, Putin took aggressive steps to exert Russian control over Donbass—a Russian-occupied region in the eastern portion of Ukraine. By adopting a decree to simplify the issuing of Russian passports for Ukrainian citizens in Donbas, Putin sent a strong message that he is prepared to further escalate Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.
Importantly, the conflict in Donbas is not about control over just this specific territory or its resources. Rather, Russia is interested in the whole of Ukraine. Any Ukrainian president understands this and will therefore look to build deterrence and resilience, particularly because public opinion is opposed to a special status for the region.
More strategically, Zelensky—a Russian-speaking Ukrainian—defied the Russian narrative of a nationalist, Russophobe Ukraine. Most Russian disinformation directed towards Western and Russian audiences portrayed Ukraine as a place where nationalist forces terrorize Russian speakers. Zelensky does not fit Putin’s paradigm that if you speak Russian, you think Russian, and are Russian. Ukraine has moved away from viewing the country through an ethnocentric prism to, instead, one made up of civic, value-based categories. Increasingly, Ukrainians are proud of their Ukrainian citizenship, aspire for a better functioning democracy, and cherish individual rights and free expression.
Ukraine is a testing ground for democratic reforms for the whole region. If Ukraine succeeds in building a fair and effective system that delivers prosperity and security, it will be a powerful magnet for regional growth, an inspiration for others, and a powerful deterrent for Russia.