A New Servant of the Ukrainian People

Most of the headlines you will read regarding the Ukrainian election will first mention that a politically-inexperienced comedian beat the incumbent chocolate-shop owning president. While these statements are true, they leave readers with little information about what this election was about, how Ukraine got to this point, and where Ukraine is headed. The president-elect’s name is Volodymyr Zelensky, and many Ukrainians see him as more than a comedian.

Maidan, Crimea, and War in Eastern Ukraine

In November 2013, protests broke out in the streets of Kyiv over then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to not sign an agreement that would have made Ukraine economically closer to the European Union. Instead, he chose closer ties with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. The history between Russia and Ukraine is complicated, but Ukrainians do not want their independence infringed upon, particularly since Russian President Vladimir Putin desires to reverse the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, the protests remained relatively peaceful for several months until President Yanukovych decided to allow the use of force by riot police. Police fired at protesters and set fire to their camps. This violence had devastating consequences as over 100 protesters lost their lives, known as the “Heavenly Hundred,” on February 20th, 2014.

Today, there is a memorial in the process of construction that is set to open in the place where many of the protesters died in 2014. Until its completion, many visit stone etchings of those who died that were erected in the conflict areas in Kyiv. There, visitors lay flowers and tie yellow and blue ribbons, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, to trees and fencing. There are new flowers and ribbons every day. The loss of lives caused by a desire to better Ukraine during Maidan remains fresh in people’s minds particularly with the ongoing war in the East.

The events in Maidan eventually culminated in President Yanukovych resigning and fleeing to Russia in February 2014. During this time, President Yanukovych’s 340-acre estate called Mezhyhirya — created by his exploitation of Ukrainian citizens — was seen publicly. This feeling of betrayal by their president has stuck with Ukrainians and remained an issue in the 2019 election.

During the tumultuous time in 2014, when the Ukrainian Parliament and citizens were determining the best transition of power, President Putin annexed Crimea, a peninsula of Ukraine, and backed-separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. The war in Eastern Ukraine still continues today with a death toll climbing above 13,000 people.

The Man who Carried Ukraine Out of Maidan: President Petro Poroshenko

Following the resignation of President Yanukovych, Ukraine held a quick election as tensions rose in Eastern Ukraine. President Petro Poroshenko won in a landslide victory. Poroshenko, both a politician and a businessman, founded the confectionary company Roshen, which is one of the most famous companies of its kind in eastern Europe. Even though Roshen gave President Poroshenko name-recognition in Ukraine, his last notable political position before being elected President was as a member of parliament that co-chaired the committee on cooperation with the European Union.

President Poroshenko's alignment with the ‘western world’ was one of the defining elements of his presidency. During his time as president, he promised to work towards joining NATO and accepted aid and weapons from Western allies to fight the war in eastern Ukraine. He has advocated for Western economic sanctions against Russia. In his own country, he has banned Russian television stations and social media, instead advocating for Ukrainian and Western-based news.

Most recently, he has advocated for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to break away from the Russian Orthodox Church and become an autocephalous church. He got his wish and the Church officially became independent on January 6th, 2019. President Poroshenko embraced this schism as a moment of freedom for Ukraine, which helped him to gain support in election polls. He announced the new Patriarchate of the independent church in front of a large crowd and said, “This day will go into history as a sacred day...the day of the final independence from Russia.”

His stance against Russia is most evident with regard to the war in eastern Ukraine. Poroshenko made the war the main theme of his campaign, emphasizing that he was the one to end the war and that he knew how to handle the situation best. Unfortunately for President Poroshenko, his experience caused many Ukrainians to see him as a crooked politician rather than a seasoned professional.

During his 2014 presidential campaign, President Poroshenko said that he would work to rid the Ukrainian government of corruption. Unfortunately, President Poroshenko's record became tarnished in 2016 when the Panama Papers were released. Even though President Poroshenko had promised to sell his confectionary business during the 2014 election, it turned out he transferred his assets to an offshore-holding company. This discovery hurt Ukrainians citizens’ trust in him and followed him to the 2019 election when more corruption was thought to be discovered. A son of an ally of Poroshenko was accused of organizing a deal that allowed Russian weapons to be sold at increased prices to the Ukrainian military. This revelation forced Poroshenko to be consumed by another corruption scandal.

Enter President Volodymyr Zelensky

Zelensky entered the presidential race on New Years’ Eve in 2019 as a relatively surprising candidate. Zelensky had name recognition since he played the role of the Ukrainian President on a television show called “Servant of the People.” On the show, Zelensky plays a teacher who is catapulted to the presidency after a video of his rant about corruption goes viral.

Zelensky used the character people recognized from the television show in order to help him during his campaign and come across as more of a man of the people. The majority of his platform focused on weeding out corruption in government, similar to President Poroshenko's platform in 2014. Additionally, he avoided events that made him seem like a normal politician. He did not come to the first Presidential debate, did not make talk show appearances, and held very few press conferences. He defended these actions as a way to show the people that he was not a typical politician who made empty promises.

Nonetheless, his lack of public appearances have led many to question what his exact plans are behind the anti-corruption platform. In response, within two days of his victory, Zelensky announced a plan to take away the immunity the Prime Minister currently possesses under Ukrainian law. This is the first concrete plan Zelensky has offered regarding combating corruption.

Even though corruption is a concern for Ukrainians, the war in the east is not far from their minds. Many Ukrainians have lost their lives in this seemingly never-ending war and the economy continues to be in worse shape than it was before the war. Within the two days following the election, Zelensky has also proposed holding direct peace talks with Russia.

Unlike Poroshenko, Zelensky has already shown a willingness to cooperate with Russia. To start, Zelensky speaks Russian most of the time. By contrast, Poroshenko worked to ensure that Ukrainian became the national language of the country. Additionally, Zelensky has not been a staunch advocate of Ukraine joining NATO or the EU as President Poroshenko has been. Zelensky has said he will leave that up to the people to vote by referendum.

Nevertheless, Zelensky is willing to stand up to Russia. On election night, prior to his win, he said, “to all countries of the post-Soviet Union: Look at us — everything is possible.” Now, the world will wait to see what this new president truly means for a country that has endured so much.

Katherine Malus