FP Guide

FP’s Guide to the Ukrainian Election

Eight things to read ahead of a crucial vote.

A Ukrainian voter examines her ballot at a polling station during the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections in Kiev on March 31. (Sergei Chuzavkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian voter examines her ballot at a polling station during the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections in Kiev on March 31. (Sergei Chuzavkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

On April 21, Ukrainians will head to the polls to pick their next president. After a first-round vote at the end of March, their choice has been narrowed down to Volodymyr Zelensky, a television star and front-runner in the race, or Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president.

As the competition heats up with televised debates and slick viral videos, we’ve gathered Foreign Policy’s top reads on how Ukrainian politics got to this point—and where the country will go from here.

With Russia occupying about 7 percent of the country and corruption still endemic, Westerners continue to think of Ukraine as a basket case, writes the journalist Paul Hockenos. But it isn’t. “Ukraine isn’t a failing state or a hopeless Potemkin democracy—it’s a country, though war-torn, firmly on the path of making good on the 2014 Maidan Revolution and, under reasonable conditions, succeeding as a European country in good standing.”

Much of the credit, argues Alexander J. Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark, should go to Poroshenko. Ongoing problems with corruption aside, the Poroshenko administration, Motyl notes, “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.” Kiev has “developed extensive political, diplomatic, cultural, and economic ties with the West … stabilized the currency, and rationalized energy prices.” Beyond that, Poroshenko’s team “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.”

That’s a list many presidents would envy, yet Poroshenko secured less than 16 percent of the vote in the first round of the election. The problem, according to Motyl, is that Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution set the public’s hopes too high. By failing to catapult the country into the European Union and fully root out corruption, Poroshenko has harmed his reputation as a reformer.

Perhaps sensing that he will need something akin to a miracle to win, the journalist Michael Colborne notes, Poroshenko has started to amp up his nationalist rhetoric. “As the results came in Sunday night,” Colborne reports, “Poroshenko … sounded more like a right-wing nationalist than the ‘consummate political pragmatist’ who was elected five years ago.” He has called for a “total mobilization of all Ukrainian patriots” and has played up his slogan of “Army! Language! Faith!” Unfortunately for Poroshenko, Colborne concludes, such rhetoric will do “little to address the dissatisfaction felt by many Ukrainian voters.”

Will Zelensky be more palatable? In some ways, yes. As a television star and comedian, Zelensky has some built-in advantages, explains Tej Parikh, a policy analyst and journalist. Such figures “tend to reject the values and authority of the existing power establishment”—a plus when the public is fed up with the existing order. “Comedians also have a psychological advantage in appealing to the public,” Parikh continues. “Humor is typically a positive social signal; people, in short, like those who make them feel good. And at a time when global, economic, and technological change is driving upheaval and uncertainty, it’s understandable that voters would especially lean toward basic feel-good leadership.”

That trend worries Motyl. On the campaign trail, Zelensky has put forward few policy proposals. Instead, he has let his television character, President Holoborodko of the hit TV series Servant of the People, do the talking for him. And the values the show espouses are curiously pro-Russian: In the series, there is no Russia or Russian President Vladimir Putin. “In its alternate universe, Crimea and Donbass are not occupied. There is no war. There are no deaths. There is no mention of Russian attempts to quash Ukrainian independence since 1991.” These omissions, Motyl warns, suggest “either that Zelensky, who serves as the show’s executive producer, has no idea how to deal with a very real existential threat to Ukraine or, far worse, that he doesn’t believe that there is one.”

This isn’t to say that Zelensky is a pro-Russian figure or that the public would back a pro-Russian candidate. By seizing Crimea and Donbass, Chris Miller, an assistant professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, points out, “Russia chopped off the two regions with the least developed sense of Ukrainian identity.” With them gone, “no pro-Russian candidate could win a Ukrainian election.” And that marks a major change from the days in which “candidates such as former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was openly sympathetic to Russia, could win a majority of votes.”

Moscow still has designs on the Ukrainian election, however. Russian disinformation campaigns to paint the vote as chaotic and rigged, the journalist Justin Lynch notes, could “torpedo trust in the winner in a cunning blitz of psychological warfare.”

Far more important than whoever actually wins, argues Daniel Twining, the president of the International Republican Institute, is that the vote is seen as legitimate. “The integrity of the Ukrainian state itself is at stake—strong democracy will ultimately serve as the best guarantor of the country’s sovereignty and stability.” Indeed, “[i]f democracy succeeds in Ukraine, the Ukrainian people will have shown the world that it can succeed anywhere—even in Putin’s own backyard.”

Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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