So, after a contentious election campaign, Volodymyr Zelensky has been elected overwhelmingly as Ukraine’s sixth president. Most of the Washington policy community – like the vast majority of the Ukrainian diaspora – would have preferred a continuation of the Poroshenko presidency, but the Ukrainian people had other ideas. Whether we like the results or not, these democratic elections reflected the will of the Ukrainian people and it is incumbent upon us to respect that choice. The choice was made by an electorate fed up with the ruling class and hungry for change.
Petro Poroshenko has been a strong president who has led the defense of Ukraine against Russia’s aggression, who moved Ukraine closer to the trans-Atlantic community of democratic nations, who undertook many important reforms and who was highly respected as an international partner and statesman. His agenda of “Army! Language! Faith!” – while critically important for Ukraine’s future – was not sufficient for most voters to overcome their frustration with living standards and in the failure to root out the scourge of Ukraine’s greatest internal enemy, corruption, and ensure the rule of law.
The majority of the populace felt that the pace of change was too slow and the progress that was made was insufficient. Indeed, Mr. Poroshenko was perceived as being part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Some of his associates were far from being paragons of virtue. Unfortunately, Mr. Poroshenko’s wounds were self-inflicted and he seemed to be tone-deaf in some respects.
Notwithstanding his shortcomings, for which he paid a heavy political price, I believe that Mr. Poroshenko has been Ukraine’s finest president to date and will be looked upon kindly by history for all that was accomplished under his watch. Moreover, he is still relatively young (53) and may very well still have a political future.
Worries about a Zelensky presidency are legitimate. While saying some things that are encouraging, other things he has said have produced serious apprehension. His unwillingness to meet with the press raise serious questions about his transparency. He has sent mixed messages. He is a relative tabula rasa, a political unknown, many of whose policies are vague or have yet to be fully articulated. And even though he has held Russia responsible for the ongoing war, many fear that his political naivete could be exploited by the evil, but far from stupid, Vladimir Putin. Other concerns range from Mr. Zelensky’s seeming disrespect for the country’s Ukrainian cultural and linguistic identity to his commitment to combatting corruption and the oligarchy, given his reported links to one of Ukraine’s most controversial oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoisky.
On social media and elsewhere, reaction to Mr. Zelensky has reminded me of Yulia Tymoshenko’s oft-quoted comment – “propalo vse” (“all is lost”). Although wariness is warranted, a Zelensky presidency will not mean Armageddon. He is not Viktor Yanukovych. Even if one thinks the very worst of him, he faces limitations. After all, Ukraine has a presidential-parliamentary system, so a president does not get everything he wants, especially if he does not control the Parliament or the government. In fact, we may not see all that much happen until the new Verkhovna Rada is elected in October. Even if he is as pro-Russian as some suggest, there are limits in how Moscow-friendly a president (or, for that matter, any leading political leader) can be in a post-Maidan Ukraine.
I had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Zelensky’s top advisor, who visited Washington shortly before the runoff. While I still have many questions and concerns, I came away relatively confident that a Zelensky presidency will continue to facilitate Ukraine’s Western orientation, although not as intently as Mr. Poroshenko’s would have. I found plans to fight corruption encouraging and seemingly sincere. Of course, the proof will be in the pudding. This kind of early outreach to the United States (and the European Union, which was also visited) and willingness to be open and listen to concerns sends a positive signal.
The U.S. government’s executive and legislative branches’ approach towards Ukrainian presidents has been to try and work with whomever the Ukrainian people elect freely and democratically. It is about policies and principles, not individuals. The United States wants to help Ukraine stay on course. Apprehension is understandable, but we have to try to cooperate on the basis of shared interests and values. That’s the only realistic option. It would be imprudent and unwise not to give the new president a chance. Hopefully, Mr. Zelensky will surround himself with a good team of people committed to a coherent security and reform agenda that moves Ukraine forward.
While the outcome of the elections may not give cause to jump up and down with joy, it is premature to succumb to despair. But what does give cause for celebration is the conduct of the elections. Ukraine held the kind of elections that simply are alien to its neighbors Russia and Belarus.
This was an election that was generally free and fair, with few serious violations. It was assessed positively by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international election observation missions, including the National Democratic Institute, National Republican Institute, Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Ukrainian World Congress and others. International and domestic observers reached the same broad conclusion: While by no means completely problem-free, especially during the campaign period, this was a competitive election with fundamental freedom generally respected that largely met international democratic standards. It reflected the will of the Ukrainian people.
For the first round, on March 31, the OSCE had the largest international mission, with 967 observers from 45 countries deployed all over Ukraine. The OSCE has become the gold standard in international election observation methodology. It’s a large, sophisticated operation – both logistically and substantively. Observers filled out thousands of standardized forms electronically via E-pen – a new experience for this veteran observer – that were transmitted directly to the mission’s headquarters in Kyiv, where statistical analysis was performed, forming the basis of the post-election day OSCE statement.
My experience as a first-round OSCE observer in Mykolayiv mirrored that of other observers across the country. The election-day voting itself was assessed positively in 99 percent of the stations observed. You can’t get much better than that. The percentages were not quite as high in observations of the count and tabulation, although the large majority were still judged positively. But any problems in these were more along the category of irregularities, rather than attempts to manipulate results – so there were very few serious violations.
Let me make one pitch regarding the tabulation of the results at the District Election Commissions: the process is way too slow and cumbersome, with understandably frustrated precinct station election workers having to wait hours and hours on end in at times overcrowded conditions. I saw this with my own eyes observing the tabulation at one DEC throughout the entire night of March 31-April 1. Procedures for dealing with tabulation need to be made more efficient.
More significant, in terms of improvements needed, is electoral reform which still has not passed the Rada, although it was introduced one and a half years ago, and many recommendations of the OSCE and others that followed earlier elections have yet to be implemented. So, there is still work to be done.
Notwithstanding the shortcomings in the election process, Ukraine again showed its strong commitment to democracy. This was a defeat for Mr. Putin’s Russia, for whom a democratic Ukraine represents an existential threat (not that it should). On the other hand, the positive conduct of the elections increased the confidence of Ukraine’s international friends and partners of Ukraine’s commitment to a brighter, democratic, Euro-Atlantic future. A flourishing democracy is ultimately the best guarantee of Ukraine’s security and independence. Even though it may very well be more challenging in a Zelensky presidency than it would have been under President Poroshenko, the United States and its allies need to continue to support Ukraine, especially its civil society.
Orest Deychakiwsky is Vice-Chair of the Board of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. This article originally appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly.