Comedian takes lead: What does it mean for Ukraine?

Between the West and the Rest, Ukraine was forced to choose the lesser of two evils, but stumbled upon yet another fundamental juncture.

May 6, 2019 22:58
4 minute read.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY . (photo credit: TNS)

The victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the Ukrainian presidential election is a major leap forward for Ukraine’s democracy. And this has everything to do with his professional background and anti-establishment appeal. Just not in the way that you think.
After the fall of the USSR, Ukraine was one of the first former Soviet republics to add revolutionary colors to the sad, gray and uninspiring post-Soviet politics. Then they did it again in 2013. Now, almost five years later, Ukraine is back at it. Except this time, they took it to the ballot box instead of the streets. It took 14 national elections and two revolutions for the Ukrainian people to get the message across – they like their voices heard and their votes counted.
This time around, Ukraine’s courts refused to remove Zelensky from the list of candidates after considering at least four clearly provocative and equally pathetic lawsuits. A few weeks later, the Central Election Commission recorded and counted every one of the million votes for the non-incumbent candidate. It is safe to say that the message has finally sunk in. And in the post-Soviet region, this is a historical rarity.
Since gaining its independence in 1991, Ukraine found itself at a cultural crossroad between the Western and the Russian spheres of influence: a “torn country,” in Samuel Huntington’s terms. In 2014, an over-a-decade-long dysfunctional relationship with Russia has finally ended with a sharp reality check. Outgunned, weaker states often fall into the trap of bandwagoning until the stronger adversary finally shows its teeth. Russia’s aggression was just a matter of time: the Kremlin has always sought influence elsewhere, while treating its immediate neighbors with an outright conquest.
Paradoxically, what ended as a national tragedy has become Ukraine’s golden ticket out of the post-empire obsessed with punishing the very concept of liberal democracy for its defeat in the Cold War. Whether or not you believe that a state incapable of blocking social media for its own citizens has the ability to meaningfully influence the US presidential election, it is hard to deny Russia’s influence over its neighboring states. Albeit institutionally and ideologically weaker than China, it continues to be a poster boy for enlightened authoritarianism.
Between the West and the Rest, Ukraine was forced to choose the lesser of two evils, but stumbled upon yet another fundamental juncture. In the year 2019, the country is still recovering from the unlawful annexation of Crimea and is fighting an ongoing war against Russia-backed separatists in the country’s East. A large portion of the population is struggling to survive on the minimum wages amid a stagnating economy and endemic corruption. Politically, Ukraine is rapidly cutting ties with the “big brother,” while its European integration is far from complete.
Weak institutions paired with highly developed clientelism is a recipe for a disaster. History proves time after time that many young democracies submit to the faulty allure of authoritarianism precisely for these reasons. In the wake of the crisis of Western liberalism, tainted with selective application of the universal values and declining institutional trust, a heavy-handed leader gets a shot at stealing the show. But let’s not forget that the last mildly autocratic Ukrainian politician, Viktor Yanukovich, had to be urgently escorted out of Kiev by the Russian troops. Accused of treason and disowned by his own party, he will most certainly never set foot on Ukrainian soil. And none of the three central candidates in the 2019 election played the nation’s savior card. 
The difference between one kind of authoritarianism and another can sometimes be as great as the difference between authoritarianism and democracy, as Robert D. Kaplan wisely remarks. Post-Soviet republics rarely elect autocrats. Rather, they elect a moderate politician, and out of fear of making things worse, stick with him for decades – for as long as it takes for him to eventually turn into an old, paranoid dictator. This is a trap of authoritarian stability. And the reelection of Ukraine’s outgoing-President Petro Poroshenko would be a definite step back to square one. Instead, Ukraine has built up enough courage to switch gears, a decision that will prevent the further entrenchment of Poroshenko’s government. 
International media keeps interpreting Zelensky’s success through the lens of the Western populist challenge: his anti-establishment appeal, lack of political experience and promotion of the nationalist agenda. But this analogy is fundamentally wrong. As far as democracy is concerned, these are steps in the opposite directions. Casting a vote for a politician attempting to pull the rug out from under centuries-old democratic institutions is not the same as electing an outsider to hopefully start building them. Zelensky’s victory is a final “no, thank you” to the post-Soviet myth of a “strong hand” – and the first bullet in the head of the “dark knight” of the Eastern European neighborhood. There will be many more, but democracy is a process.
The author is a Russian journalist currently living and working in Tel Aviv.

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