April 19, 2019

Ukrainians once again are voting for someone they hope has a magic wand, says Portnikov


No one should have been surprised that Volodymyr Zelensky ran far ahead of all other candidates in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election, Vitaly Portnikov says. His victory shows that Ukrainians continue to vote their hopes that someone will come to office with a magic wand and solve all their problems.

The Ukrainian commentator says that what this shows is not that Mr. Zelensky is some special phenomenon – in fact, the television personality was simply boosted into the top position by oligarch Igor Kolomoisky – but that “the Ukrainian voter has not changed over the last two and a half decades” (svoboda.org/a/29853834.html).

According to Mr. Portnikov, the Ukrainian voter “traditionally casts his or her ballot not for a manager or a political leader but for a magician and then, after a year or so having become convinced that his or her idol has no magic wand, grows disappointed with the choice and begins to blame him rather than himself or herself.”

Over the last 28 years, he continues, “only one of [Ukraine’s] presidents has succeeded in being re-elected for a second term” – Leonid Kuchma. “But now few recall that it was precisely Kuchma, who also unexpectedly for many having won the 1994 elections was the first Ukrainian ‘president of great hopes.’ ” But having won, he rapidly showed he was no miracle worker.

“The next Ukrainian president of hopes was the idol of ‘the Orange Maidan,’ Viktor Yushchenko.” But when he sought re-election, he had lost so much support that he did not even get into the second round. Instead, he lost to Viktor Yanukovych, “the president of the hopes of the Ukrainian east,” who ultimately was ousted by the Maidan of 2013-2014.

Petro Poroshenko, too, came out of nowhere and became another “president of hopes, hope that the legitimacy of the presidency would be restored, that the war would be finished, and that the occupied territories would be recovered.” But he was unable to achieve what Ukrainians hoped for when they voted for him. And so the cycle is continuing.

“In this sense,” Mr. Portnikov argues, “Volodymyr Zelensky is the Kuchma, Yushchenko and Poroshenko of 2019, the candidate of hopes in a pure form,” given that even more than his predecessors he has no record and people can invest in him whatever their hopes dictate without fear of immediate contradiction.

What’s likely to come next “is not so difficult to predict,” the commentator says. Mr. Poroshenko will be able to defeat Mr. Zelensky in the second round “only if there is a maximum consolidation of the national-democratic electorate – and that the voters view Zelensky as unpatriotic and his election a threat for the future of Ukraine.”

But those conditions may not be met, and Mr. Zelensky may be elected, Mr. Portnikov says. And what that will mean is suggested not only by the last decades of Ukrainian politics but also by the behavior of Mr. Zelensky himself. During the campaign, he said he would get on his knees to ask Vladimir Putin for peace.

But once he won the first round and looks set to become president of “Ukraine and not some other country,” Mr. Portnikov notes, Mr. Zelensky said that he would meet with the Russian president only after the return of the occupied territories and only in order to demand compensation for the occupation of Crimea and the Donbas.


Paul Goble is a long-time specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia who has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau, as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The article above is reprinted with permission from his blog called “Window on Eurasia” (http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/).