Andrew Wilson: how will Zelensky survive in real life after basically a virtual campaign?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Brussels last week. This was the new president's first official visit abroad that demonstrates the priorities of his foreign policy. The political scientist Levko Orshynsky talked to Andrew Wilson, Professor in Ukrainian Studies at SSEES, University College London, to find out what the elections mean for the EU and for EU-Russia relations and what challenges Zelensky might face after a virtual campaign.

Starting with a general question: what’s your overall impression of the 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine and are the Ukrainians still unexpected  (reference to “The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation” book – Editor)

Well, certainly a lot of unexpected things happened in the campaign. We're finding out a lot more about Zelensky’s past history and according to some sources he planned this campaign as long ago as 2015 but it wasn’t public, and he wasn’t even in many opinion polls until he announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve. So, this is all too dramatic. It makes Ukraine at the cutting edge of virtual politics and virtual campaigning.

Campaigning is an interesting word; you are campaigning while you are anti-campaigning at the same time. So Zelensky is a tough phenomenon. We are still digesting the mechanics of the campaign. There's one thing that's very interesting – the innovative ways in which Zelensky’s campaign use social media, recruited people through social media, using them as kind of mass rebuttal army against what they defined as “fake news coming from other”.

But as with a lot of these new technologies, they’re good at disrupting old political processes but winning elections does not necessarily determine how you govern. Though here’s a thought: let’s take Zelensky literally. Maybe he is going to experiment with referenda/direct democracy and carry on trying to govern in a similar kind of way, using popular energy against entrenched privilege interests – that might be a good thing.

So, all of that was new, whether it's unexpected or not? What does it tell us about underlying issues of unity and national identity? There is an argument that Ukrainians chose Poroshenko in 2014 in May because of uncertainty and war escalating in Eastern Ukraine. He seemed like a safer option – maybe the opposite is true this time. Russia has immediately piled on various types of pressure immediately after the election. But there's a lower sense of existential and military threat than there was in the spring of 2014. So, the Ukrainians take a risk with a shot in the dark.

«Ukrainians chose Poroshenko in 2014 in May because of uncertainty and war escalating in Eastern Ukraine». Source

Do you consider these elections to be important in terms of the EU? And in terms of EU-Russia and EU-Ukraine relations and in what way that may be important for the EU?

Well, they cement Ukraine's status as a relatively regional democracy. In fact, in some key benchmarks, these were cleaner elections or healthier processes than in 2014. Turnout was higher, turnout in the East and South was higher so, rightly, Ukraine gets credit for that regardless of the outcome. Russia hasn't congratulated Ukraine. Putin hasn't come to congratulate Zelensky on winning yet but Russia is unable to make arguments about the legitimate authority in the way that Russia tried to do in 2014. That's progress.

Second thing, I guess the result the EU wants to see should not be ‘ad hominem’. It doesn't really depend on who wins. Will reforms continue or how will Ukraine implement the agreements with the EU? That's now the phase we're in - implementation rather than negotiation. So of course, the EU is very interested in the prospects for reform going forward. Again, mixed signals.

What all of this means for the peace process broadly defined? Again It’s a matter of huge interest. What happens with the Minsk process can be redefined or repurposed, what the implications are for potential diplomatic initiatives over other issues surrounding the war. It’s hugely important for the EU and Ukrainian-EU relations with all those respects.

Would you consider Poroshenko to be the pro-European and ruling effectively in terms of the European direction? Is it going to change under the new president? Because there were some grievances in the later times of Poroshenko about the reforms from the EU.

Well, I remember a process I was partly involved in back in 2014 at the Institute of World Policy as it was then called Kyiv-based think tank. Poroshenko was deemed to be the most pro-European candidate. Which was true but that meant of those who were standing. You can imagine a more pro-European candidate. But certainly, that was the promise in 2014 as a part of “living in a new way” (Poroshenko’s slogan). The EU for its part responded by fast-tracking the signing first of the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and then moving towards visa-free travel. All of that requires many reforms and many actions, a long list of deliverables, on which Poroshenko’s record is much less impressive. In fact, active frustration. Some key reforms have been noticeable: particularly sabotaging the new national Anti-Corruption Bureau and rendering the key legal slashed judicial reform so meaningless that actually the situation is worse. Brought more broadly, there are so many gaps in the so-called reform agenda that's at least one reason why Poroshenko lost his bid for re-election. Another is that although the economy has been growing more than 2-3 years now at 3 percent (that's after yet another very severe recession), there isn't much to celebrate in terms of bread and butter pocketbook issues for ordinary Ukrainians.

There was progress in fighting corruption. According to one study, six billion U.S. dollars per annum was saved by cutting down or cutting out many of the more egregious seen schemes of the Yanukovich era corruption in state procurement etc. So, although there was progress overall that progress was never ad hominem. Hardly any trials, no bad guys in jail and that's how you sell the fruits. These six billion a year is pretty abstract in terms of selling the message to public opinion that you are serious about corruption. The opposite was true. And you saw Poroshenko’s elite not only defending system but expanding within the system to control more and more schemes.

«So, although there was progress overall that progress was never ad hominem. Hardly any trials, no bad guys in jail and that's how you sell the fruits». Source

Some Ukrainians were skeptical about the pro-European perspective of Zelensky as a president. Why Zelensky did not set up the path to membership at the center of his election campaign? Will it affect his politics?

Well, there are many defining features of Zelensky’s campaign. One of them, which we haven't mentioned yet, was micro-messaging: saying different things to different audiences. Saying one thing to an audience in West Ukraine and another in Kharkiv, one thing to a younger audience online etc. And you can see sociologically that Zelensky’s massive winning coalition was exactly that – a coalition. Over 70 percent of the vote. It includes people who are pro EU and against, pro-Nato and against. So, the interesting question is: how does Zelensky find a path from multi signaling to coherent policy?

Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he continues to try and make small symbolic steps in all of these incompatible areas to try and keep this coalition together. So, the key question is: will you or can you transition from being a multi-message virtual politician into the executive president? He may not want to make that transition. So, the answer about the EU – we don't know.

If you look at what happened in Italy in last year's elections, you have Five Star Movement and La Lege (Lega Nord), both initially did well. Five Stars carried on with its kind of Zelensky style online, multi-messaging and therefore seems to have lost ground to the noisy simplifying La Lega, which was more ideological, has gotten a very simple message: anti-migrant. So, there is a general question about the Zelensky or any other multi-messaging politician: how do you survive in real life after basically a virtual campaign?

There are fears that Zelensky is an inexperienced president and will not be able to cope with the tasks set by EU. Maybe this can play a role in EU-Ukraine or Russia-Ukraine relations. Can it play a role?

Quite clearly, immediately after the second round Russia began testing Zelensky and see how he would react. Zelensky responded to the passport “proposal” quite well as a comedian, by joking about what happens if he says Russians may get Ukrainian citizenship. So there wasn't really a policy response but it worked well within his persona. Whereas the thing about pasportation in the Donbass that really does require a hard or more real-world policy response. And that's the kind of thing we don't know whether this landscape will be any good at. We don't know whether his relationship with Kolomoysky is a safely commercial one or a more like relationship "an oligarch and his puppet", which then makes Zelensky more vulnerable to others making similar bids for influence in his new team. Do you have a strategy to combat that? We don’t know. What's he going to do about other domestic forces and their maneuvering in the Rada (parliamentary) elections campaign? Difficult to see Zelensky getting a majority even if he has a bandwagon effect for “Sluga Narodu”, half of the deputies will be elected in the territorial constituencies and I can't see it having much impact there anyway. But there are other ways of winning politically. Again, maybe we take Zelensky literally. Maybe he will try and mobilize his strengths: his online audience etc.. How do you translate that into actual political leverage? – We don’t know.

So, I wouldn't say definitely he's weak. It's more a question of how his new type of politics is going to play out in context with the old Soviet.

«there is a general question about the Zelensky or any other multi-messaging politician: how do you survive in real life after basically a virtual campaign?» Source

The phenomenon of populism is undermining the principles of democracy now in Europe. Can we see how Zelensky’s populist style can be an obstacle for further European integration of Ukraine?

Well, it's a big question here about the extent to which Zelensky is actually a populist. If one of his key campaign slogans is “no promises no excuses” that’s certainly not the same as traditional populist promise “everything to everybody” – populism of the type that lost Tymoshenko. There is a very interesting piece by Volodymyr Yermolenko about Zelensky’s populism 2.0. So yes, populist but in terms of manner and media and mode rather than this promising everything to everybody paradigm. So, if you look at populism as it has existed in Ukraine up till now particularly the last two or three years what's it been about. It's been about exploiting legitimate pocketbook grievance with simplistic solutions: cutting tariff prices etc. There’s been a populist pushback against EU diktat or IMF diktat. Again, this is what populists do - they reframe something in simplistic terms, but it has been more talk of Ukraine relying on its own resources sovereignty not being pushed around by EU or the IMF. Certainly, there were episodes of “Sluga Narody” where Holoborodko (main character plaid by Zelensky) says something radically similar about the IMF. In the campaign Zelensky has been more pragmatic, sounded more like a politician about the IMF and the EU.

So, you could see elements of populist simplification. This kind of discourse would make things difficult in terms of relationship between the EU and Ukraine or IMF and Ukraine. As definitely part of Holoborodko persona and Zelensky persona and to a lesser extent. So again that's one of the sharks in the sea that he has to stir around and we don’t know how successful he's going to do that.

So could these elections affect EU-Russian relations?

It depends what the other moves are. It depends on how successful, long-term, Zelensky is as a Ukrainian president. You could question but it could be a surprising success. How does that affect all the other actors? We’ve seen Russia initially try to test him for the signs of weakness. That's just step one of many steps. At the least, we can say that this challenges our expectations in all sorts of areas. That which was stable and predictable is now unstable and uncertain in many areas.