Ukraine’s Pretend President Now Faces a Real Test

In his fight against corruption, Zelensky will face real challenges—not least from his own constituents.

Volodymyr Zelensky celebrates after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev on April 21.
Volodymyr Zelensky celebrates after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev on April 21. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

After a second-round vote this weekend, Ukrainians have selected Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian with no political experience, as their next president. In doing so, they’ve likely increased the chances of instability, but a dire outcome for Ukraine is not inevitable. To keep the country on track, the forces that made a Zelensky presidency inevitable should acknowledge responsibility and attempt to contain the damage he may well do to Ukraine’s sovereignty.

For the last few years, Ukrainian writers, commentators, journalists, and analysts have had little good to say about outgoing President Petro Poroshenko. They rarely recognized his many real reforms, treated him and his administration with contempt, derided Poroshenko’s supporters as apologists who were on his payroll, and insisted that he was as corrupt as any of the country’s old bosses. “Nothing has changed” became a common mantra—one that was only abandoned when Zelensky won the first round of the election and his victory in the second appeared imminent. Suddenly, Poroshenko didn’t look quite so bad, and his achievements appeared to be not insubstantial.

In reality, Poroshenko transformed the broken Ukraine he inherited after the 2014 Maidan Revolution: He made it more independent, more pro-Western, more pro-Ukrainian, more efficient, more secure, more market-oriented, and more democratic. However, while reducing systemic corruption, he failed to bring any individual corruptioneers to justice. Unwilling to view this failure in the context of Ukraine’s overall progress, however, Ukrainian opinion-makers and corruption fighters in the country and the West transformed it into the only thing that mattered in Ukrainian politics. Corruption was depicted as an even greater threat to Ukraine’s security than the thousands of Russian troops, tanks, and missiles amassed along the country’s frontiers.

In demonizing Poroshenko, this narrative effectively made the incumbent’s polar opposite the strongest candidate for president. And that person could not have been a member of the country’s existing political elite, nor could he or she have had any political experience. The only person who fit the bill was not even real. It was the character Zelensky played on television: the teacher-turned-president Vasyl Holoborodko. In turn, Zelensky won the election without much campaigning. He let Holoborodko do the talking for him.

Naturally, Poroshenko didn’t help his cause by failing to reach out to voters before the presidential campaign began. But, ultimately, it mattered little what Poroshenko did or did not do. He couldn’t win against his hyperidealized antipode.

Sooner rather than later, Ukrainians will wake up from their infatuation with a virtual president and come to realize that Zelensky now faces the very real task of running a country beset with economic, social, and demographic problems that is fighting a war against a regional superpower. Disenchantment with the new president is inevitable. His landslide victory has raised expectations of immediate change to such dizzying heights that there is no way any president, least of all an inexperienced comedian, could possibly meet them.

If Zelensky does pursue some internal reform, he will quickly encounter the same opposition of the bureaucrats and oligarchs that every other erstwhile reformer has confronted.

If Zelensky does pursue some internal reform, for example, he will quickly encounter the same opposition of the bureaucrats and oligarchs that every other erstwhile reformer has confronted. He’ll also have to deal with his own impatient voters, most of whom aren’t ready for the economic pain that comes with real reform, and with the same corruption-focused activists who demonized Poroshenko. Alternatively, Zelensky may prove to be what critics such as the Ukrainian writer Vitaly Portnikov has suspected: someone put in place by the oligarchs. In that case, corruption will soar. Ukrainians may one day look back at the Poroshenko era as a period of good governance and steady reform.

It’s far too easy to imagine any number of destabilizing scenarios: nationalist marches, attempted assassinations, police violence, a collapsing currency, calls for a third Maidan Revolution. Will Zelensky be able to maintain stability without cracking heads? Possibly. Will his popularity dive? Of course. Will Russian President Vladimir Putin, beset by declining popularity and economic hardship at home, seize the opportunity to intervene, bite off a few more chunks of Ukraine, and generate some imperial enthusiasm? That could happen. And if it does, all bets are off.

Unfortunately, Zelensky’s primary advisor, the West-leaning reformer Oleksandr Danyliuk, has recently provided a clue of how the worst-case scenario might come about. According to Ukraine Business News, Danyliuk said at a recent press conference: “The prosecution service is a failure, courts are a failure, the SBU [Ukraine’s security service] is a failure, and the State Fiscal Service is a complete flop! … Therefore, there is the only approach, which we will have to apply, this is a long-standing approach of the revolution: destroy it completely and then rebuild it anew.” Disbanding the SBU at a time of war would be like disbanding the CIA and FBI after 9/11.

Fortunately, such dire prospects are not inevitable. Poroshenko’s reforms have created a new country that is highly unlikely to tolerate too much incompetence or Russian interference. Five years of reform have also created fairly stable institutions that will not crumble all that easily. No less important, the forces that made Zelensky’s rise possible also make him containable.

Ukraine’s Poroshenko-hating intellectual class will have to do two contradictory things. Some of them will have to work within the administration they championed and either promote reform or do everything possible to limit the damage. Others will have to stay on the outside and monitor every Zelensky infraction and hold him accountable for every misdeed and misstep. The first group will have to keep Zelensky from becoming a demon; the second will have to demonize him. For many of Ukraine’s intellectuals and for most of its self-declared defenders of civil society, this won’t be easy. But they’ve set themselves up for the task.

Western policymakers, especially those who fetishized corruption, will have to adopt an equally two-pronged, contradictory posture with respect to Zelensky. Like their comrades in Ukraine, they will have to hold Zelensky’s feet to the fire. But, also like their comrades in Ukraine, they will have to do everything possible to make Zelensky look to the West, and not to Putin, for support. That means two things. Western policymakers will have to turn a blind eye to any egregious corruption that emerges under Zelensky. If they do not, he’ll move closer to Putin. At the same time, Western financial managers—especially those in the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—will have to give Zelensky some of the slack they refused to give Poroshenko. They’ll have no choice. A Zelensky desperate for cash can always go, hat in hand, to Putin, who’ll be happy to give it with none of the unpleasant strings the IMF attaches to it.

Western policymakers and anti-corruption activists will have to bite the bullet. They might be criticized for hypocrisy, but they’ll have only themselves to blame. Having helped make a Zelensky presidency inevitable, it’s only fair that they should atone for their sins by minimizing its damage.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.