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Ukraine’s Poroshenko Paradox
In upcoming elections, the incumbent president may well lose to a man who plays one on TV.
Ukraine has changed more, and for the better, in the last five years under President Petro Poroshenko than in the preceding 25. By any logic, he should be a shoo-in in the upcoming presidential elections on March 31. Instead, about half of Ukrainians detest him. And a quarter would rather elect an inexperienced comedian to lead the country.
If Poroshenko makes the second round scheduled for April 21, he’ll likely face off against Volodymyr Zelensky, the jokester whose only qualification consists of playing a make-believe reformist president on television. For Ukrainians, it will be yet another existential choice that could affect their country’s very survival. Back in 1999, a Communist almost won the presidency. In 2004, the thuggish pro-Russian corruptioneer Viktor Yanukovych would have won, by theft, had the Orange Revolution not stopped him. In 2010, that same Yanukovych did win, fair and square, eventually provoking the Euromaidan revolution of 2013.
As always, the choice before Ukrainians will be clear: either a continuation of current policies under a detested politician, Poroshenko, or an abrupt break with them and the possibility of a breakdown of the state under Zelensky. On the one hand, Ukrainians’ past record in do-or-die ballots suggests they should come to their senses and vote for the person who can deliver stability, security, and reform. On the other, Ukrainians do appear susceptible to the same kind of bizarre mood swings that affect politics in Europe and the United States.
Most Ukrainians, including an alarmingly large number of journalists and commentators, insist that nothing has changed since the Euromaidan revolution of 2013. Some, including the presidential candidate Anatoliy Hrytsenko, even go so far as to suggest that Poroshenko is worse than the ousted dictator, Yanukovych.
In fact, Ukraine is a much better country today than it was in 2013, in the immediate aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution. At that time, pro-Russian separatists were threatening to seize the southeast provinces. Russia had just occupied Crimea. The Russian army seemed poised to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine’s GDP was heading into a radical tailspin that would lower it by close to one quarter in two years. The governmental system was in tatters, the army and secret police were penetrated by Russian agents, and the deeply rooted corruption of the Yanukovych regime had done untold damage to the economy and society. Indeed, despite the optimism generated by the democratic revolution, Ukraine was arguably on the verge of collapse.
Not so anymore. Although Crimea is still lost, the Poroshenko administration has built an army and fought the Russians and their proxies to a standstill in the eastern Donbass. It has reformed the police and streamlined the secret police. It has developed extensive political, diplomatic, cultural, and economic ties with the West. It has cleaned up the malfunctioning banking sector, stabilized the currency, and rationalized energy prices—all in compliance with requirements from the International Monetary Fund. It has instituted reforms of education and medicine and promoted Ukrainian culture. It has devoted millions of dollars to fixing Ukraine’s dilapidated infrastructure and ensuring the country’s energy independence. It has devolved authority and resources to local governments. All it takes is a walk down any Ukrainian street to see the positive changes.
No less important, Ukraine has experienced such enormous changes without backtracking on democracy and human rights. Indeed, by any measure, Ukraine is a stable, functioning democracy with a high degree of freedom of speech and assembly and a very low level of extremism and intolerance (according to the group Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, anti-Semitism there is at one of the lowest levels in Eastern Europe). In addition, Ukraine is a functioning market economy. To be sure, the country is not yet perfect, and politics and the economy still favor superrich oligarchs. That said, given the alarming anti-democratic, anti-market, and populist trends elsewhere in Europe, Ukraine looks quite healthy—far more “European”—in comparison.
All in all, then, Poroshenko’s overall record is pretty good. He saved the country from Russia—thereby earning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s undying enmity—and set it firmly on the path of pro-Western integration and reform.
Poroshenko is rightly criticized for having failed to bring any of the country’s past or current elites to justice for their malfeasance under Yanukovych. Although the crooks remain at liberty, Poroshenko has done much to reduce the institutional and structural sources of corruption. An authoritative study by the respected Kiev-based Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting suggests that the “aggregate economic gain from anticorruption measures amounts to nearly 6% of GDP,” about $6 billion. Small wonder that Ukraine has improved in the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” ratings, that foreign direct investment is bouncing back, and that the IT sector is booming.
Presumably, Poroshenko decided to combat corruption without attacking the corruptioneers on purpose. That makes sense. He appears to understand that the only way to transform the Ukrainian economy and rid it of the scourge of corruption is to eliminate the institutional and structural incentives that make corruption a viable course of behavior. He also must have decided that he needs the tacit support of past and present elites in order to push through his reforms.
Poroshenko is right to believe that institutional change is much more effective in rooting out corruption than convicting a handful of criminals. That said, he clearly miscalculated in thinking that post-Euromaidan Ukraine would tolerate the continued impunity of corrupt elites. After all, it was Yanukovych’s extreme corruption that was one of the most important drivers of the 2013 revolution. In that sense, Poroshenko’s strategy may have been excellent as a means to reform, but terrible as a means to re-election.
That said, critics are wrong to think that corruption is a greater threat to Ukraine’s existence than Russia. Putin’s rockets could incinerate Ukraine in a few seconds. His armies could occupy the country in weeks and kill hundreds of thousands of people in the process. And, as Russia’s obsession with rearmament and nuclear war suggests, its blockade of Ukraine’s ports on the Sea of Azov, its continued presence in the occupied Donbass, and its stationing of thousands of Russian soldiers and tanks along Ukraine’s frontier cannot be interpreted as signs of benign intent.
So why are so many Ukrainians so convinced that nothing has changed that they would elect Zelensky? A large part of the answer is that the Euromaidan revolution generated unrealistic expectations that Ukraine would catapult into the European Union overnight. The reality is that, although Ukraine has steadily moved toward integration with European institutions, it still has a long way to go before it becomes the Switzerland of Eastern Europe.
Ukraine’s raucous, wildly free, and frequently irresponsible media also bear a portion of the responsibility. Papers and shows attempt to attract viewers, listeners, or readers with what sells best: scandalous stories of corruption. Ukraine’s equally raucous, free, and irresponsible civil society watchdog organizations are not without fault either. They invariably focus on high-level malfeasance in the government sectors they monitor while failing to provide context and a fuller appreciation of what’s been done right. Russian trolls and media, which many Ukrainians are still exposed to, have done their share as well to create an image of unrelieved gloom and doom.
Finally, there’s the fact that Zelensky’s primary base of support is young people. Clearly, they’re distrustful of the establishment—as are most young people in most democracies in the EU and North America. But their seeming inability to distinguish between real credentials and Zelensky’s television persona may also be indicative of the degree to which image, symbols, and representations have become more important for young Ukrainians than actual substance. Although young Ukrainians differ little from their counterparts in the West in this regard, the ease with which they’ve abandoned reality undermines hopes that young people raised and educated in post-Soviet circumstances would necessarily be better political consumers.
If Ukrainians fail to appreciate the Poroshenko paradox and elect Zelensky president, they will have five years of likely misrule before they have another chance to radically shift their country’s direction. If, however, Ukrainians would prefer their country to become a stable market democracy, they’d do well to ask themselves just which candidate Putin hates most. That’s who should be president.