What to make of Zelensky’s victory in Ukraine

For those who had closely followed Ukrainian events for the last couple of years, Poroshenko’s resounding defeat did not come as a surprise. After having obtained only 16% in the first round of the Presidential election on 31 March, he would have needed a miracle to beat his opponent, Vladimir Zelensky, who only political experience until now was to play an outsider becoming President of Ukraine in a famous TV series.

Poroshenko’s debacle, however, come as a shock to many observers, experts and simple citizens alike, in the West. Under his Presidency Ukraine decisively moved away from the Russian orbit, signed the Association Agreement with the European Union, Ukrainians obtained visa-free travel to the EU (for 90 days a year), and Ukraine even got recognition for her own autocephalous branch of the Orthodox Church from the Patriarch in Constantinople. Moreover, Ukraine was instrumental in the creation of an international anti-Putin coalition, saw her army being rebuild almost from scratch and in the face of what everyone was calling “Russian aggression”, people suddenly rediscovered a new sense of pride in being patriotic Ukrainians sporting their vyshivankas while going to the office or to school. Many Ukrainians ditched the Russian language, now regarded as a symbol of oppression, to rediscover and in some cases learn from the start Ukrainian. In the last months of Poroshenko’s presidency, the new course taken by Ukraine to join the EU and NATO was even enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution. So, what could have Poroshenko done wrong then?

When the Maidan protests started in November 2013, people in West were delighted to see that outside of the European Union there were people who were ready to “die for European values”. Within Europe itself there might have been a rise of Euroscepticism, but the sheer sight of so many European flags warmed the hearts and minds of many, sometimes disillusioned, EU enthusiasts, mostly young people, but not only. Throughout all the years of the confrontation with Russia, as the conflict in Eastern Ukraine was framed, European leaders, almost without exceptions, and the vast majority of Europeans firmly stood on the side of Ukraine. So, what does Poroshenko’s defeat mean to the European friends of Ukraine?

Well, the reply is, hardly anything. When your opponent gets 73% of the vote, it could be the moment to do some soul searching. Don’t expect anything like that here, though. Worth of note, by the way, is that Poroshenko actually won the vote among Ukrainians living abroad. Also worth of note, however, is that of all the millions of Ukrainians living and working abroad, less to than 60,000 actually went to the ballot box to cast their vote. How so?

Ukraine’s rapprochement to Europe has generally been celebrated in the West and has been seen as another sign confirming the universality of the Western model. The problem is, the country’s reorientation from Russia towards Europe could not come without a heavy price. The price has not been just the loss of Crimea and the conflict in the Donbass. Ukraine’s industrial complex, in a way a relic of the Soviet era, was deeply integrated with the Russia economy. Its products have no market in Europe. European reorientation meant for Ukraine that they would see now H&M stores opening up in the country, while exporting honey, corn and poultry to Europe.

During his term as President Poroshenko enjoyed posing as if he was leading Ukraine’s last bastion against the omnipresent Russian aggression. After the Kerch strait naval incident of late November 2018, when a 30-day state of emergency was introduced, he declared that Putin wanted to take the whole of Ukraine. With hindsight, that may seem somewhat exaggerated. Not for everyone though. For many Ukrainians, Putin become nothing less than the incarnation of pure evil, a malign creature whose deepest desire was to enslave Ukraine. In the atmosphere of animosity that was cultivated and fomented following the confrontation between the West and Russia over Ukraine, many were more than ready to passionately believe in these things. Poroshenko for his part insisted that every vote not for him was going to be a vote for Putin. Does this mean that Ukrainians voted for Putin? Of course not. But it clearly means that most Ukrainians were tired of the incessant war rhetoric. The “war with Russia” is a limited regional conflict, not entirely frozen but almost, and could not be used as the pretext for continuing to preside over a system that Poroshenko was not ready to change. For Ukrainian expats and the European friends of Ukraine, the conflict with Russia and the complementary rapprochement to Europe and NATO were per se reasons to cheer and continue on the same path. For the people actually living in Ukraine, the abstract ideas of European values, Western freedoms and war with Russia became little more than empty words, in the best case, and in the worst case intentional inflammatory rhetoric used to manipulate the electorate. This is way Ukrainians voted for change. Being part of Europe (in the narrow sense of a Europe dominated by the Western Europe), joining NATO and other universal ideals are not necessarily things that people regard as fundamental to the their happiness or satisfaction.

Will this be a lesson for people in the West too? Unlikely. People in the West are too deeply persuaded that the only way to the future is the way of Europe and America. And it is not a belief that allows for any possible alternative. Others may not be entirely convinced though. Meanwhile, life in Ukraine will go on. As usual, between East and West.

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