This Sunday, Ukraine will hold the final round of presidential elections between comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy and incumbent president Petro Poroshenko. On March 31, Zelenskiy crushed Poroshenko 30 percent to 15 percent in the first round, and has only widened his lead since.
Thus far, Western media have focused on the “Isn’t this quirky?” aspect of an untested comedian about to become the leader of Ukraine. But there’s nothing quirky about it.
For millions of Ukrainian citizens mired in economic corruption, this election is anything but funny. Millions of rational people would rather take their chances with an untested comedian than the US-backed Poroshenko. That staggering decision behooves us to pay attention.
For the past five years, Ukraine played a central role in US foreign policy. Washington vigorously supported the 2013–14 Maidan uprising that ousted Viktor Yanukovych and brought Poroshenko to power. A bipartisan Who’s Who of Washington powerbrokers, including Senator John McCain and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, hustled into Kiev to cheer on the uprising.
Five years later, the majority of Ukrainians are overwhelmingly rejecting that choice.
Indeed, it’s hard to consider this election as anything other than a referendum on not only Poroshenko’s presidency, but the entire US-backed Maidan project.
Calling Zelenskiy inexperienced is an understatement. The man’s never held political office; more importantly, he doesn’t appear to have much of a platform. His defining characteristic is not being Poroshenko. This makes his campaign, and the fact that he’s the clear front-runner, an unequivocal rejection of Poroshenko, the post-Maidan president. Specifically, it’s a rejection of the two defining features of Poroshenko’s presidency: corruption and ultranationalism.
Battling corruption was a central demand of Maidan. Unfortunately, Poroshenko failed to heed the call, enabling corruption to flourish to the point where even the New York Times editorial board—which has been extraordinarily supportive of Maidan—described Poroshenko’s Ukraine as a “corrupt swamp.”
But the clearest verdict on the matter comes from Ukrainian voters. Time and again, corruption is the major issue brought up in the land. A recent poll showed over two-thirds believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, while Gallup reported that Ukraine now has the world’s lowest trust in the government: 9 percent.
Over the past five years, as Western politicians and think tankers churned out bromides about Kiev’s being on the front lines of freedom and democracy, ordinary Ukrainians were plunged into an economic nightmare in a nation that, under Poroshenko, became the poorest country in Europe.
The New York Times and NBC recently ran devastating stories about the millions who’d fled the country for economic reasons. “Millions have already voted with their feet to leave a nation mired in corruption and inequality,” is how the Times described those forced to take up menial jobs in the West.
That’s a particularly bitter pill to swallow, considering that the Western politicians who cheered on Maidan promised Ukrainians an idyllic integration with Western Europe. Five years later, visions of sipping coffee in Paris have been replaced by the necessity of doing menial labor in Poland and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the Kyiv Post discovered that the Ukrainians who’d been driven to scrounge for work in Western Europe overwhelmingly voted for Zelenskiy.
It’s safe to say the millions of Ukrainian citizens currently working in Russia would have done the same, except that Poroshenko’s government denied them their right to vote.
The US and the EU sank billions into Poroshenko’s Kiev in the hope he’d tackle corruption. Of course, the notion was ludicrous. Putting one of the richest men in Ukraine—whose assets had soared the year after Maidan—in charge of defeating corruption is a bit like putting the drug baron El Chapo in charge of drug enforcement. The outcome wasn’t hard to predict.
The West’s faith in Poroshenko further cemented hatred against him. One would imagine the only thing worse than being unable to afford food is doing so while listening to “let them eat spreadsheets” platitudes from Western analysts as the country’s billionaire president adds to his piggy bank.
This brings us to Poroshenko’s other defining characteristic: ultranationalism. Over the past five years, he’s steadily ratcheted up a nationalist agenda, including: state-sponsored glorification of western Ukrainian Nazi collaborators who are reviled in eastern Ukraine; forced “decommunization”; language laws elevating Ukrainian above other tongues in radio, television, and education; and book bans of “anti-Ukrainian” literature, including by acclaimed Western historians.
The ultranationalism has gone hand-in-hand with the proliferation of far-right gangs, including outright neo-Nazi ones, that act with impunity, flouting the rule of law. Earlier this year, the US State Department classified two of them as “nationalist hate groups,” while the G7 ambassadors took the unprecedented step of publicly urging Kiev to rein in the far right.
As I recently chronicled in The Nation, the outcome has been the imposition of ethnonationalist intolerance across a multilingual, multicultural nation.
Take “decommunization,” a process in which Poroshenko’s Kiev forced all of Ukraine to get rid of Soviet place names and monuments, regardless of how the local residents felt about it. Radio Free Europe reported that Russian-speaking Kharkiv—Ukraine’s second-largest city—resisted “decommunization” efforts “tooth and nail.” When Kiev demanded that Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s third-largest city, change its name, the residents overwhelmingly voted not to. Instead of listening to eastern Ukrainians, Kiev imposed the name change on them anyway.
Indeed, just this week, Myrotvorets, a nationalist website linked to Poroshenko’s government, released documents allegedly showing that Zelenskiy is supported by the Kremlin. Myrotvorets has a dark history: In 2016, they doxed Western journalists accredited by eastern Ukrainian rebels, labeling them “terrorist collaborators.” This extraordinarily dangerous move was condemned by New York Times op-ed contributor Ian Bateson as well as by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the G7 ambassadors to Ukraine. Myrotvorets also named Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich one of their “enemies of Ukraine,” forcing the cancellation of her talk in Odessa last year.
Shockingly, Myrotvorets’ claims about Zelenskiy were amplified by Newsweek as well as Western journalists and analysts. The fact that Western reporters would recklessly spread claims by a website that has openly targeted journalists and a Nobel laureate shows how ingrained the “Zelenskiy is pro-Russian” narrative is not just in Poroshenko’s circles but also in the West.
Are the millions of Ukrainian citizens who voted for Zelenskiy also “pro-Russian”? Because the more likely explanation is that they simply don’t want western Ukrainian ultranationalism, “heroes,” and language shoved down their throats. That’s not being “pro-Russian”—it’s being pro-multicultural.
Lastly, Zelenskiy got a surprising amount of support from the one group even nationalists can’t label “pro-Russian”: Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines. Radio Free Europe discovered that Poroshenko barely beat out Zelenskiy among front-line troops, receiving 38.1 percent to Zelenskiy’s 36.4 percent. Poroshenko’s supporters tout his military achievements; the soldiers appear to be markedly less enthusiastic.
Over the past five years, the United States has invested billions into Ukraine, as politicians and analysts sang paeans to Poroshenko. If American taxpayers are to continue doing this, the least they can do is understand that the leader backed by Washington elites is being overwhelmingly rejected by Ukrainians. That’s important to note, especially for a nation that’s not shy about removing corrupt leaders—via the ballot box, or via revolution.