“Why is your chocolate sold in Moscow?” asked Volodymyr Zelensky, the 41-year-old actor and comedian who, according to Sunday night’s exit polls, has been elected Ukraine’s new president. The question, he put to Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president, at their bizarre debate held at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium on Friday, hit to the core of the Ukrainian public’s distrust of the president.
Billionaire chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko led Ukraine through nearly five years of simmering conflict with Russia in which he often pushed for a more confrontational posture towards the Kremlin. But at the same time the products of his eponymous “Roshen,” the most popular confectionery maker in Eastern Europe, continued to be sold across the border in Russia. Ultimately, it made Poroshenko vulnerable on the three issues that most matter to Ukrainians: endemic corruption at all levels of government, the weak economy and the ongoing occupation of wide swathes of eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed “separatists.”
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Poroshenko’s failure to make serious headway on any of these three issues, coupled with the fact that he could not get the voters to forget the fact that he also had a personal stake in the cross-border trade, while they could no longer buy their favorite Russian vodka in local stores, brought his presidency to an end.
This is not just the downfall of Poroshenko, but of an entire generation of Ukrainian politicians, such as the no less prominent Yulia Tymoshenko, who also failed to gain traction in this presidential election. This generation has now been replaced by a total newcomer to politics, whose only qualification for the position is that having played a fictional president in the wildly popular comedy “Servant of the People,” he looks the part. It as if Israeli chat-show host and dilettante politician Yair Lapid had succeeded in being elected instead of Benjamin Netanyahu. But Zelensky has one thing that Lapid, whose supporters make up a small cultish part of Israel’s bored middle class, doesn’t have – a truly broad appeal.
There have been comparisons between Zelensky and another European comedian-politician, Italy’s Bepe Grillo. But while Grillo had long had an anarchist agenda that was part of his show, Zelensky’s lines were scripted for laughs, not policy. There have also been comparisons with another young president – France’s Emmanuel Macron (who is only five weeks older than Zelensky). But Macron, had 13 years of “relevant” experience in government and finance before coming to power.
It’s too easy to draw these comparisons and say that Zelensky’s surge is just another example of how celebrity and populism in the age of Donald Trump have replaced serious political debate. Ukraine is unlike any Western democracy. Its issues are existential. It is a young and unstable nation in the grip of an aggressive neighbor, which doesn’t consider it a legitimate country in its own right. Poroshenko was right in his campaign to highlight the uncertainties in Zelensky’s policies when it comes to Ukraine’s attempts to distance itself from Russia’s shadow and align itself more closely with NATO and the European Union. There is absolutely no guarantee that Zelensky, or more likely the oligarchs who have bankrolled his campaign, have a better formula to succeed where Poroshenko has failed.
Zelensky has one valuable asset. One that could be swiftly eroded. He is a unifying and untainted figure, at least for now. And for a country that is still struggling not only to free itself from Russia’s grasp, but to define itself as a distinct nation, that could be a huge advantage. And of course, it can’t be ignored that the Ukrainians, a nation which has a very checkered history when it comes to its often murderous relationship with its Jewish minority, has just elected a Jewish president. Ukraine is a nation where there are still people who religiously tend the grave of Andrei Yushchinsky, the Christian child found murdered 108 years ago in Kiev, and whose death lead to the Beilis blood libel.
Anti-Semitism has not been extirpated in Ukraine. Far from it. But it is now the only country in the world, other than Israel, with both a Jewish prime minister (Volodymyr Groysman) and a Jewish president. In voting for them, Ukrainians, who are all extremely conscious of Groysman and Zelensky’s Jewishness, were also making a statement about their country. They were trying to show that despite Russian propaganda, which has tried to portray all Ukrainian patriots and nationalists as rabid neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, (some are), that is not the new Ukraine. It is an attempt to articulate a new sense of Ukrainian nationhood, one that can be more at peace with its troubled past and with its minorities and neighbors. For now at least, Volodymyr Zelensky embodies that for them.