By Olena Dobrunik
BOLOGNA, Italy — April 21 will be remembered as the day when Ukraine turned against the traditional political establishment by electing Volodymyr Zelenskiy as their president. The resounding defeat of Petro Poroshenko at the hands of Zelenskiy, who received over 70 percent of the vote, should be seen as a positive step forward for the democratic health of a country that is still riddled with corruption in all major domains of public policy.
The election of a new and politically-inexperienced candidate tells us a lot about the status of politics in Ukraine. It tells us that since the beginning of the Ukrainian political crisis and conflict with Russia in 2014, and Poroshenko’s corresponding election, little improvement has been made in key issues such as corruption, economic growth and the war in the Donbass.
Indeed, when it comes to corruption and transparency, Poroshenko’s narrative appears to be rather unclear. For a president who wanted to build an image based on fairness and transparency, and not that of a business magnate, it was surprising to see his name surface in the Panama Papers and to be accused of offshore business and tax evasion, particularly given the fact the Ukrainian constitution bans the president from business activities.
That said, all those who consider Zelenskiy’s political inexperience a major shortcoming should exercise caution when making their assumptions. Perhaps his inexperience will lead to better management of corruption and set the basis for the reform of both the internal and external policies of the country.
Yet, there should be no illusions about the magnitude of the change that the newly-elected president can have on Ukrainian politics. Being an outsider, Zelenskiy lacks the political capital necessary to make major changes although he does have something more valuable — a genuine commitment to fostering positive change in Ukraine.
Zelenskiy’s foreign policy is expected to take a more pro-Western approach, which cannot be taken for granted given the country’s history of Russia-backed presidents. On the internal front, he promises to reshape major policy areas such as public financing, pensions and utility costs, using Europe as a model. Moreover, his anti-establishment stance during the campaign suggests that one of his first political moves will be the abolition of prosecutorial immunity for deputies, judges and the president himself. However, the way with which many these reforms will be undertaken is rather innovative. Zelenskiy advocates a direct democratic-style referendum system for all major political decisions, suggesting that a country historically ruled by few, will finally be given the opportunity to express its will.
Concerning foreign policy and the resolution of the conflict in the Donbass, no precise plans were suggested in Zelenskiy’s platform, but one idea in all his talks has been that the surrender of Ukrainian territories cannot be a topic for negotiation. What we can expect is a proposal for an improved Minsk Protocol, capable of involving more Western countries, that will hopefully guarantee a successful peace.
One challenge for Zelenskiy will be that he has not received the warmest welcome from the country’s administrative apparatus that was generally supportive of Poroshenko. As an example, the night before the second round of the election, a Poroshenko supporter dragged Zelenskiy to court trying to prevent him from participating in the election, exemplifying the non-transparent and questionable methods used by the outgoing president that voters finally decided to oppose.
What is certain, is that the electoral success of Zelenskiy is a triumph for the majority of Ukrainians and for the young Ukrainian democracy. But, the newly-elected president will not only receive the presidential bulava (mace), but also a heavy responsibility. The responsibility of reforming the most corrupt country in Eastern Europe and the duty to protect the Ukrainian identity in a time when this identity is being shaped in different ways, languages and traditions, would prove challenging for any new head of state, especially one with no political experience.
Olena Dobrunik is a second-year MAIA student at the Bologna campus. She was born in Ukraine and moved to Italy at the age of seven. She earned her bachelor’s degree in international relations and diplomatic affairs from the University of Bologna.