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  • Ryan Metz

Volodymyr Zelensky and the Changing Face of Ukrainian Politics

Volodymyr Zelensky was best known for his role as the ordinary teacher turned president on the popular Ukrainian TV show "Servant of the People.” The comedian brought the show’s plot to life last April when he ousted the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and went on to win the national election. One of Zelensky’s first acts after taking office was to then call snap elections in the Ukrainian Parliament, which took place over the weekend of July 20th. By calling early parliamentary elections, Zelensky sought to win a majority of seats for his Servant of the People Party to approve his pro-western reformist agenda. Defying expert predictions Zelensky’s party received an overwhelming 42.7% of the popular vote. The party’s effective voter mobilization seems to represent some of the repercussions from the 2014 Maidan Revolution, a Ukrainian people’s revolution against a corrupt political system. Both elections demonstrate that the Maidan Revolution still holds a steady influence over Ukraine’s culture of political participation.

Running on a vague platform of anti-corruption measures and a stronger relationship with the European Union, Zelensky tapped into widespread resentment of oligarchic immobility on such issues. Furthermore, voters were also drawn to the unconventional style of Zelensky and his party, both seen as authentic representations of the people. Many expressed their admiration for Zelensky’s informal chats, photo postings on social media, and his purchasing of gas station sandwiches. “He’s a populist, he’s a reformer, he’s an authoritarian, and he’s a democrat,” said Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who follows Ukraine.

All across the world, there has been a consistent trend that favors outsider political parties or candidates. The United States, Mexico, Italy, and Brazil all represent a push to find a leader for the "common man." While Ukraine's preference in leadership style does mirror the global enthusiasm for outsider candidates, the drive for political reform does not stem entirely from internal strife. The overwhelming push for a freer political system represents a desire to shake the influence of Russia's aggressive foreign policy. Russia's desire to control Ukraine political affairs has been a key component to their post-cold war foreign policy; however, the Maidan Revolution help catalyze the development of representative Ukrainian government.

The revolution began as a rejection of the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after he decided to abandon any possible trade deal with the European Union. The decision represented Russia's control on Ukraine's political leaders in an attempt to keep them from aligning with western powers. Yanukovych's decision led to days of protest in central Kyiv. By February 20th a gunfight erupted between the opposition and government forces in Maidan Square. In fear of the growing violence, Yanukovych fled to the confines of Russia as thousands overtook his lavish estate. In an effort to reassert its dwindling control over the Ukrainian government, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent military forces into Crimea, a region with strong Russian loyalties.

The annexation of Crimea triggered thousands of pro-Russian rebels to separate larger sections of eastern Ukrainian, leading the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk into chaos. These separatist have been well supported by Russian military hardware and soldiers, despite the Kremlin’s denial of any official army service assistance. Furthermore, when Petro Poroshenko was elected as a reformist leader for the Ukrainian people in May of 2014, many saw his presidency as anticlimactic. Poroshenko reverted to back-room deals synonymous with political corruption and actually stifled the work of the "independent" National Anti-Corruption Bureau. By the end of 2014, it seemed the Maidan Revolution had only secured Putin's foothold on Ukraine's economic and political decisions.

The election of Zelensky, however, proves otherwise. The force behind Zelensky's election (polls estimate he won with 73% of the popular vote) points to a rising amount of class activism among the Ukrainian people. After the Maidan protests, a majority of the population came to realize the potential behind its voice. The revolution showed that if the people felt unrepresented, then they had the power to change their rulers and their policies. This lesson created a unique moment in the country's history, a moment in which outsiders could enter politics. What we see in Ukraine now is the long-term success of Maidan, which created a more active and alert body politic. Maidan’s legacy helped cement Zelensky's victory and the overall Ukrainian populist climate now found in so many other pockets of the world.

Some argue that Zelensky and his party only represent another Poroshenko government: one that promises sweeping change, but falls short of delivering. Throughout much of his campaign, Zelensky was light on the specifics of his plan to oust foreign corruption or how he would succeed in accomplishing those goals. In addition to his lack of detail, Zelensky appears to have close ties to oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, who owns the network that aired "Servant of the People." Zelensky's presidency could continue to provide lucrative benefits to Kolomoisky as a Kyiv court considers to nationalize PrivatBank, one of Kolomoisky's ventures. While this skepticism is warranted, it also steers focus away from the real accomplishment of the recent presidential and parliamentary elections. The real success is how the Ukrainian people have exercised their power with the peaceful and sweeping transition of leadership through free elections. Political scientist Francis Fukuyaman noted that “Getting the dictator out is the easy part. The really difficult part is exercising power in a way that is legitimate and self-sustaining…”

After the parliamentary election results, it appears that the outsider will continue to have a name in Ukraine politics. Take Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, for example. Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is the lead singer of the rock group Okean Elzy, but will also enter Ukraine's parliament after polls showed his Golos party taking twenty percent of the vote. The singer has longed to pursue a political career, being a supporter of Kyiv's pro-western Orange Revolution in 2004 and briefly holding a seat in parliament in 2007. Vakarchuk’s party contains a wide variety of young upstarts, professionals, and activists ready to shake up Ukraine’s political system. The Maidan revolution has encouraged all kinds of backgrounds to enter government positions as people increasingly exercise their power to change leadership.

Thus, the results of the parliamentary election, as well as Zelensky's victory last April, demonstrate the repercussions of the Maidan Revolution. Although the success of the actual protest was short-lived, the long term benefits cannot be underestimated. One of the essential tools of democracy is the ability to maintain peaceful transitions of power that reflect the will of its population. The Maidan Revolution encouraged a widespread culture of conventional activism and thereby remained a crucial factor in the sweeping changes to Ukraine's political landscape. Both elections offered Ukraine an opportunity to develop a representative government responsible for its own political and economic decisions while adhering to the electoral process. Therefore, it seems that the Maidan Revolution continues to shape the Ukraine government into a true servant of the people.

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