Argument

Putin Should Fear Ukraine’s Russia-Friendly Front-Runner

The Kremlin will soon wish it were still dealing with a Ukrainian president who so much resembled its own.

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky enters a hall in Kiev on March 6, 2019. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky enters a hall in Kiev on March 6, 2019. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

In Ukraine, life really does imitate art. Since 2015, a Ukrainian TV channel has broadcast a series depicting an earnest history teacher who, almost by chance, becomes a candidate in the presidential elections. To everyone’s surprise, this representative of the ordinary people wins. He goes on to dismantle the corrupt system from within, getting into both humorous and tragic situations along the way.

Now Volodymyr Zelensky has gone from playing that accidental president to almost becoming him in real life, all the while staying diligently in his role and retaining the same intonation and facial expressions as his on-screen character. And just like his alter ego, he has promised to sever the unholy bond between the authorities and oligarchs in Ukraine, even though one of those oligarchs—that same TV station’s majority owner, Ihor Kolomoisky—is widely believed to stand behind the popular actor.

Although Servant of the People was filmed and shown during the war in Donbass, the conflict—on which Zelensky’s rival, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, has staked everything—barely features in it. Instead, it focuses on the embezzlement of state funds; abuse of authority; poverty and inequality; a nonindependent, biased justice system; and officials’ privileges and mansions. It’s not that Poroshenko has ruined the economy. Rather, he has failed to deliver the success that matches people’s hopes, which were inflated by the 2014 Maidan revolution. To get re-elected, he marginalized other nationalist candidates and is campaigning as the head of an unofficial party of war. In other words, Poroshenko is running as the head of the party of foreign achievements and Zelensky as the leader of the party of domestic issues.

This difference is obvious in the behavior of the television characters. Oligarchs try to bribe the ministers freshly appointed by Zelensky’s young and honest president. The ministers accept the boxes containing millions of dollars in cash but then use them to pay backdated wages. The TV president forgoes an official residence, cortege, security detail, stylists, and personal psychologist-motivator and moves the government offices and parliament into a more modest location. Ukraine’s main enemy in the series is not outside but inside the country and does not constitute separatism or Russian influence but oligarchs, corrupt civil servants, and even the simple folk who don’t pay taxes.

Looked at from this angle, Poroshenko is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s double, the country’s protector from external threats and its avenger. He is Mars, the god of war. But Ukrainian society prefers Mercury to Mars. Now his defeat will be a defeat for the war party, and a victory for Zelensky will mean victory for a measured, more pragmatic vision of Russian-Ukrainian relations.

Ukraine’s elections are coming as a surprise to those who only watch the country from afar. Elections are a time when the reticent, underrepresented parts of society speak out—the kind of people who are as little studied in Ukraine as they are in Russia. They don’t take part in discussions on social media. They watch television but don’t appear on it. They are less likely to come into contact with Western journalists.

Recent surveys show that more than half of Ukrainians actually have a positive attitude toward Russia. Even back in conflict-ridden 2017, the same number of Ukrainians named Russia as a military ally as they did the United States.

All this gives us a picture of a rather different Ukraine to the one Poroshenko was appealing to with his triple patriotic slogan, “Army! Language! Faith!” There is much less public enthusiasm for Ukraine’s five-year war with Russia. Servant of the People shows that language is more important for the intelligentsia, who have overseen the country’s emancipation from the Russian language for a century, than it is for ordinary people. The characters in Servant of the People, which was filmed for the domestic market, speak Russian but watch the news in Ukrainian or switch to Ukrainian in official situations. Finally, Ukraine is more religious than Russia, and many were pleased to finally get their own independent Orthodox Church—but ultimately, the final part of Poroshenko’s slogan, faith, is still less important to most than economy, medicine, or transport might have been.

So is all this good news for Russia and Putin? Yes and no. There were expectations in Russia that Ukrainian public opinion would cool down after the Maidan revolution and get over the damage inflicted by Russia when it annexed Crimea and supported separatism in Ukraine’s Donbass region. The hope was that Ukraine’s silent majority would find their voice at the secret ballot. The winner would not be a pro-Russian party nor the party of peace (this is tricky as long as there is no end in sight to the conflict in Donbass) but the party of geography. These are people who believe that Ukrainian politics should be built more on the country’s geographical position than on idealist aspirations. You can do everything possible to be European and as far from Russia as possible, but those wishes won’t magically transport Ukraine next door to Austria or Belgium. It will stay just where it is, next to Russia.

That change of mentality will be welcomed in Russia. Yet, in the longer run, Zelensky could prove a much less convenient opponent for the Kremlin than Poroshenko is. Putin projects himself as the leader of global populism, but at home he increasingly lacks the popular touch. Surrounded by circumspect technocrats and a close circle of billionaires, the president is the object of populist derision. Unknown spoiler candidates are already winning regional elections in Russia, and demand is building for a people’s candidate at the federal level.

Poroshenko’s Ukraine, a hostile country that has turned its back on Russia to look toward NATO, was a useful bogeyman for Russian domestic politics, an example of what route not to follow. Under a President Zelensky, Ukraine would go from being a foreign-policy problem for Russia to becoming a domestic one. An amiable, fresh young president with a sense of humor, who is focused on domestic issues, would become—in the eyes of an indeterminately large proportion of Russians—an alternative to Putin. To ward this off, Putin will have to attack Zelensky from the same positions that his enemy Poroshenko has taken: as a comedian, the oligarchs’ stooge, an inexperienced politician. But attacking him won’t be so easy. After all, the man likely to be Ukraine’s next president is the favored choice of the Russian-speaking voters, who are tired of the enmity between Ukraine and Russia.

Alexander Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of Carnegie.ru.

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