Petro Poroshenko, left, and Volodymyr Zelensky, right, during a presidential debate on April 19, 2019. Photograph: The Presidential Administration of Ukraine
Written by Luke Grabowski
Edited by David Saveliev
Laughter, at its core, depends on an element of surprise; stable foreign policy – on diffusing it. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president-elect, famous comedian, and newcomer to public office, will have you believe he can play it by ear. Pundits and politicians anxiously await to see what kind of a leader he turns out to be – a reckless nationalist? an establishment crony? a steadying hand? As foreign policymakers across Europe hold their breath, continuity will suffer and Ukraine might find itself further yet from its tepid allies.
In an electoral landscape now oddly familiar across the western world, Zelensky trounced fellow contenders Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent, and Yulia Tymonshenko, a perennial powerhouse in Ukrainian politics, to win 73% of the vote. Mr. Zelensky has so far offered little in the way of concrete policy plans or an organized foreign policy outlook.
Media speculation about Zelensky’s potential blueprint, or lack thereof, has produced wide-ranging opinions. Some, like Vox writer Alex Ward, are weary of his populist messaging throughout the campaign: he capitalized on Poroshenko’s weak points and deftly responded to the public’s growing sense of disillusionment and economic uncertainty. Under Poroshenko, an influential billionaire himself, corruption in Ukraine has persisted – a major cause of fleeing foreign investment and the electorate’s flirtation with flashy outsider candidates. Indeed, Zelensky followed a textbook game plan for tapping into an at-risk nation’s populist curiosity.
This rampant opportunism has manifested contradictory remarks and ambiguity, particularly on foreign policy issues. On the topic of Russia’s encroachments on Ukrainian territory and the Donbass war, he has expressed sympathy for both hardline nationalism and conciliatory pragmatism. “We would find a common ground somewhere in the middle,” he said. The “somewhere” remains undefined.
Others, including Viktor Andrusiv, executive director of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, are cautiously optimistic. His anti-corruption proposals, notably the abolishment of immunity from prosecution for members of parliament, have drawn praise and, according to Andrusiv, would eliminate a powerful loophole used by oligarchs. He also finds reassurance in Zelensky’s advisory ensemble, made up of “top experts, economists, and reformers.” Yet, on this subject, too, Zelensky has vacillated: he had earlier made promises about “recruiting a non-political team.”
The speculation and anticipation raise bigger questions about the unpredictability of self-styled populists in public office. His success vis-à-vis Poroshenko is one of convenient political circumstance, off-beat popularity, and a whatever-sticks policy agenda.
Crucially, this success was made possible by Poroshenko’s misreading of the electorate. The incumbent doubled-down on ultra-nationalistic themes of “army, mova [the Ukrainian tongue], and faith” in his campaign, a strategy rooted in a systemic anti-Russian ideology. As a result, he ostracized a big chunk of Ukraine’s Russian speakers and the ethnic Russian minority. And even his supporters cared less about the foreign policy track record than the entrenched internal dysfunctions of Ukrainian government that both preceded and defined Poroshenko’s presidency.
As such, Zelensky may be savvy enough to not repeat his predecessor’s mistakes; populist rhetoric might not save him if Ukrainians bear the brunt of broken promises yet again. A concerted effort to fight corruption could boost business confidence and inject much needed capital into Ukraine’s sapped economy.
Where does that leave Zelensky’s foreign policy, especially if voter priorities remain at home?
A skeptic like Ward would argue that strategic agenda-setting will play second fiddle to Zelensky’s core political identity as a celebrity populist. Like Trump – permanently in campaign mode – Zelensky will fixate on discrete opportunities to marshal a strong electoral base. That is, the ebbs and flows of public support will take precedent over continuities of governance, in domestic and foreign spheres.
And despite Andrusiv’s optimistic outlook – hinging on a handful of proposals and staffing decisions – Zelensky will still be the outward-facing leader of his nation. The idea of a mediating group of advisors who put out fires started by their boss is incongruent with a cult-of-personality presidency. As long as electoral politics are at play, Zelensky will say whatever he needs to say to keep his murky vision alive.
In the campaign, Zelensky’s non-committal foreign policy stances may have been interpreted as moderation by voters, a desirable alternative to Poroshenko’s unyielding anti-Russian project. Unfortunately, happy-go-lucky populism is a dangerous proposition for fellow European leaders and Ukrainians. When opportunism and novelty serve as the guiding logic of governance, trust, and stability wither. It may turn out that Zelensky is perfectly capable of diffusing Russian aggression or, however unlikely, working towards Ukraine’s European integration. But if he is not willing to shed his populist cloak, words may have larger repercussions than any eventual actions.