CAVAN HOGUE. Ukraine, clowns and comedians.

Apr 4, 2019

It looks very much like Ukraine will elect a TV comedian with no political experience as president. Since Australia is ruled by clowns at the moment we are hardly in a position to criticise!

Ukrainians are fed up with corruption, incompetence and influential oligarchs but, unlike neighbours who have Claytons elections, the result generally reflects the votes cast. President Poroshenko is an oligarch who is narrowly nationalistic and strongly anti Russian. The front runner, Volodomyr Zelensky, is a Russian speaker who seems to be well disposed to democracy and the West but has said he wants to talk to Putin about ending the war in the east. The general chaos is not helped by religious, political and linguistic differences.

To its credit, Ukraine is basically a democracy which has real elections where the person who gets the most votes wins. As this election shows, the result is not known in advance as it is in many of its neighbours. It is, however, a somewhat fractious  democracy rent by divisions, corruption and history.  There is widespread corruption in the military, the judiciary, the government and there are accusations of vote buying. The economy is in bad shape but Poroshenko continues to prosper along with his fellow oligarchs. While the TV celebrity’s popularity is no doubt a factor, widespread dissatisfaction with the economy and the political scene must be a greater one. In the TV show Servant of the People  he plays a school teacher who by accident becomes president and takes on the establishment. Perhaps many voters want him to put this into real life. He only got 30% of the vote but that puts him well ahead of his nearest rivals, President Petro Poroshenko, former Prime Minister, Yulia  Tymoshenko, and pro-Western former Defence Minister, Anatoly Hrytsenko as a poor fourth. There now has to be a run off on 21 April between the two top candidates in which Zelensky is expected to defeat Petroshenko. Of course, something could go wrong with the predictions of the polls and pundits but the smart money remains on the honest candidate.

Ukraine is made up of bits of territory with different histories. Sections have been at one time part of Lithuania, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. It was all part of the USSR. While the core population which emerged as truly Ukrainian speaks Ukrainian and identifies clearly as a nation, that is quite separate from a threatening Russia; there are many who speak Russian and are better disposed towards Russia. For its part most Russians find it hard to see Ukraine as something other than Little Russia which was an old name for it.  President Putin is also anxious to have a buffer between Russia and NATO. The civil war is essentially between those who want a multicultural Ukraine where they can use Russian and those like Poroshenko who want  one language, one culture and one people. Russia has supported the rebels in the East with “volunteers” and equipment. Most of them would probably be happy to accept  better treatment within Ukraine but some would prefer to be part of Russia and there can be no doubt what Putin would prefer. There is also a religious conflict between Orthodox believers and Catholics. The Orthodox Church has become independent from the Russian Patriarchy which has cause a further division. Poroshenko pushed this since the Russian church has become a Putin supporter, as in the days of the Tsars.

Zelensky has promised to talk to Vladimir Putin to try to end the war in the East. The Holy Fool meets the wily Tsar?  It will be interesting to see how they get on. An end to the war is a highly desirable outcome for everyone but the question is what price would the rebels and also Putin demand that Zelensky could accept?  Russia would like good relations with Ukraine on Russian terms but Ukraine is wary of Russian domination so finding a modus vivendi will not be easy.

Insofar as he has any platform, Zelensky is in favour of democracy and well disposed towards the West while at the same time wanting to find a path to good relations with Russia. He will have a problem in Parliament where he is unlikely to have a majority and has only recently formed his own political party. It will be interesting to see how many seats his party gets.

Many Ukrainians would like to join the EU and even NATO which would make Russia very upset indeed. It is  hard to see what the EU would have to gain by accepting Ukraine however democratic it may be. Joining NATO would be seen by Russia as a hostile act which is how it would be intended. The USA has supported  Poroshenko essentially because he is against Russia unlike his predecessor Viktor Yanakovich.

It looks like a rocky road ahead with many imponderables for a new factor in a struggling democracy with a host of built-in and self-imposed problems. The legacy of the Soviet Union remains essentially negative and far too much has not changed.

Cavan Hogue was Ambassador to Russia and dually accredited to Ukraine.



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