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So Far, Zelenskiy Is High On Charisma And Light On Policy. Do Ukrainians Care?


Volodymyr Zelenskiy shooting the television series, where he plays the president, in Kyiv in March.

KYIV -- By just about any measure, Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been heavy on charisma and light on specifics.

Meanwhile, a glance at the only measure that really counts -- his first-place tally in last month's first round of the Ukrainian presidential election -- makes it hard to argue that the voters don't like what they are seeing.

So even veteran political analysts acknowledge the 41-year-old Zelenskiy's savvy path of essentially providing a divided country with a blank political canvas, allowing voters to paint their own picture of what he is and what he could be as head of state. For those who see the past five years as a series of blunders and missed opportunities, that represents a reverse image of incumbent Petro Poroshenko, Zelenskiy's opponent in the runoff in less than two weeks' time.

To such prospective voters, "Poroshenko represents everything, I think, that Ukrainians dislike in business, society, and politics -- oligarchs,” said Timothy Ash, a London-based economist focused on emerging economies.

It is a strategy that Zelenskiy has largely maintained since the first round, despite his own links to Ukrainian oligarch and outspoken Poroshenko nemesis Ihor Kolomoyskiy.

The 56-year-old Kolomoyskiy, who reportedly lives in Israel, owns the TV channel on which Zelenskiy’s comedy programs are aired and has provided security, lawyers, and vehicles for the candidate. A U.S. report this week suggested that Kolomoyskiy -- whose international activities span the metal, fossil-fuel, and finance businesses, among others -- was the subject of an FBI investigation over possible financial wrongdoing, a charge that his lawyer rejected.

A spokeswoman for the agency, Tina Jagerson, told RFE/RL by e-mail that under Justice Department policy, the FBI "neither confirms nor denies the existence of any investigation."

So far, that connection with Kolomoyskiy hasn’t torpedoed Zelenskiy's candidacy.

If opinion polls are right -- and they largely were in the first round -- then Zelenskiy stands a solid chance of defeating Poroshenko in their two-man race.

“I think Zelenskiy wins, as his first-round lead is just too big for Poroshenko to pull back and the sheer dislike and distrust of Poroshenko [is] so large,” Ash predicted.

A Kyiv International Institute of Sociology poll published in late March showed Poroshenko with a negative rating of over 61 percent -- higher than any other candidate. Zelenskiy’s was just 23 percent.

If the comic whose only political experience is portraying a schoolteacher whose anticorruption rant lands him in the presidency can hold on, Ukraine could wake up on April 22 with more questions about its future than answers.

No Policies, No Problem

Personable, witty, and a master at social media, Zelenskiy has tapped into the psyche of Ukrainians desperate for “a new face” in a system long dominated by establishment politicians.

He has done so with a simple message that has resonated across the country: I am whatever you say I am.

“This vagueness is probably deliberate, because it increases the appeal of Zelenskiy to a wider centrist electorate,” said Alex Kokcharov, a principal research analyst on Ukraine at the London-based risk-assessment-firm IHS Markit. “However, if elected, this would probably translate into inconsistent and erratic policy-making.”

Critics would argue that erratic policymaking is hardly what a country that faces huge diplomatic and economic challenges, not least of which is a simmering armed conflict with Russia-backed fighters in its eastern Donbas region, needs.

Poroshenko, a confectionery mogul who also served terms as the minister of foreign affairs and of industry before emerging as a compromise candidate in 2014, has sought to play up his political experience as key to a steady and reliable alternative.

In an attempt to persuade voters still considering their options and wary of putting a political novice at the helm, Zelenskiy's campaign released a pre-election program last week.

The platform arguably reads more like a list of personal values than specific policies.

Advisers told RFE/RL recently that they had encouraged Zelenskiy to simply lay out his values matter-of-factly and leave them to draw up more specific policies for him based on those principles.

Former Finance Minister Oleksandr Danylyuk, former Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, and a former member of the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption (NAPC), Rouslan Riaboshapka, were among the Zelenskiy camp's team members providing insight into the candidate’s thinking and plans. All are also helping him to develop his platform.

“I hope that the first thing he will do [as president] is creatively ruin the system that for so many years was holding Ukraine back,” Danylyuk told RFE/RL on election night. “After that, we will see a new Ukraine, a new government, a new type of people that will run the country.”

While there is still much uncertainty about the front-runner, here is what we know so far about where Zelenskiy stands on key issues.

‘Not Fighting But Defeating Corruption’

Speaking to RFE/RL, Riaboshapka said fighting corruption would be Zelenskiy’s top priority if he became president.

“His plan for the first 100 days will focus on anticorruption measures,” Riaboshapka said on election night, promising to publish the plan before the second round.

Zelenskiy will face Poroshenko (left) in a runoff on April 21
Zelenskiy will face Poroshenko (left) in a runoff on April 21

Riaboshapka offered few details as to how that would happen. But Zelenskiy has promised that "we’ll institute the same rules for everyone. There’s one law for everyone. Just like I learned in law school," he told Ukrayinska Pravda in January, adding, “We’ll ask Great Britain, set up a High Court of Justice.”

Zelenskiy’s team also told RFE/RL that as president he would ban those convicted of corruption offenses from holding government posts and forbid those charged with corruption to be released on bail.

Government officials, they said, would need to be hired through open screening and granted higher salaries than those offered under the current administration to discourage bribe taking.

Moreover, Riaboshapka said, Zelenskiy would “relaunch” the special anticorruption prosecutor’s office and other anticorruption agencies and “guarantee their independence.”

Talk To Putin To End The War

Zelenskiy has complained that the war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has dragged on for five years and killed roughly 13,000 lives, needs to stop.

To make that happen, he has vowed to negotiate directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he also said in an interview with the Ukraine TV channel this week that he would never agree to sacrifice any territory or citizens.

Moscow and Kyiv “will have to talk...coming together somewhere in the middle,” he said in an interview late last year.

The comment brought criticism from Ukrainian war veterans and nationalists who were similarly disturbed by a 2014 comment the comic made that recently resurfaced about how to avoid war with Russia.

“I can beg you on my knees, but do not put our people on our knees,” Zelenskiy said in public comments directed at Putin at the time.

For his part, Poroshenko has sought to portray Zelenskiy as unfit to defend Ukraine from Russia. Putin, the president said on the night of the first round of elections, “dreams of a soft, pliant, tender, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically undecided president of Ukraine. Are we really going to give him that opportunity?”

More recently, Zelenskiy has said he supports the Minsk peace accords -- two agreements between Moscow and Kyiv signed in September 2014 and February 2015 that provide a road map to peace, albeit one that has allowed each side to interpret the direction of that road differently.

While the Minsk deals have helped decrease the fighting and dying, they haven’t led to a lasting cease-fire.

Zelenskiy has also said in the few interviews he’s done that he would like the United States and the United Kingdom to join peace negotiations. Currently, those talks are held in the Normandy format -- a four-way dialogue between Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France.

He has also shown interest in allowing an international peacekeeping force to secure the war-torn east.

“I like [U.S. special representative for Ukraine] Kurt Volker’s plan: have a separation line, a peacekeeping mission, start with [liberating] small villages, then move on to Luhansk and Donetsk,” Zelenskiy said recently.

The peacekeeper plan has been floated for the past two years, but Moscow has objected over who should control the eastern Ukraine-Russia border. With that border under the control of Kyiv, Moscow would in effect lose its direct support route to separatist forces, potentially losing much leverage.

Ukraine should also start a major “informational war” and win it, Zelenskiy said in the Ukraine interview.

Zelenskiy’s seemingly unfocused thinking when it comes to the conflict has worried some.

“Frankly, I am worried about the vague statements of Zelenskiy about the Donbas and Crimea,” Ukrainian reformist lawmaker Mustafa Nayyem wrote in an April 6 op-ed. “Caution during elections is acceptable in all but war.”

Crimea Is Ukraine, But How To Return It?

A particularly tricky issue for Zelenskiy is likely to be Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March 2014.

Ukrainian servicemen take part in a drill in the region of Zhytomyr in western Ukraine in November 2018.
Ukrainian servicemen take part in a drill in the region of Zhytomyr in western Ukraine in November 2018.

​He has backed the official Ukrainian position -- that the Black Sea peninsula is indisputably Ukrainian. But he hasn't provided any answers as to how to return control to Ukraine.

Zelenskiy has said that “Crimea will be returned after the ruling regime changes in Russia” and that he wants Russia to compensate Ukraine for annexing it and fomenting war in the east.

Referendum On EU, NATO Membership

Unlike Poroshenko, who has been crystal-clear about his desire to see Ukraine join the European Union and NATO, Zelenskiy has taken a more cautious approach to the issue.

While seeming to support EU and NATO membership and saying he does not plan to change Ukraine’s westward course, he says he would like to give Ukrainians the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to stay on the course set upon by Poroshenko with referendums on the matters.

"Ukraine chose a course toward European integration, a course toward Europe long, long ago, and nobody is going to change this course," Zelenskiy said on Ukraina. "But in order to join NATO, after all, we should explain to people...that this is not some alligator that wants to swallow us, Ukraine, and that this is really about the country's security.”

"We need to reach out to every person living in the east of Ukraine...to every Ukrainian,” he continued. “And NATO [membership] must be acquired through a referendum.”

‘Speak Whatever Language You Want’

A native Russian speaker from south-central Kryviy Rih, Zelenskiy has spoken out against the Poroshenko government’s restriction on Russian language in government, media, and art. He has also taken a stand against bans on artists from Russia visiting Ukraine.

“We should not marginalize those who speak other languages,” he told Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty. “Everyone knows Ukrainian; if they don’t know it in the east, they’ll learn it.”

“There’s the Ukrainian language, it’s the federal language,” he added. “But you should be able to speak whatever you want.”

Judicial System ‘Flipped On Its Head’

Speaking with Novoye Vremya news magazine, Danylyuk said Zelenskiy’s team would present its plan this week to reform the judicial system. While Poroshenko has claimed to have carried out a “complete reboot” of the courts, many believe that hasn’t actually happened.

Under a Zelenskiy presidency, the system “will be flipped it on its head,” Danylyuk said.

While not providing specifics as to how that might be achieved, Danylyuk said Zelenskiy’s administration would start with the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.

Economy

Zelenskiy used the Ukraine interview to also explain -- again in broad terms -- his plan to create a favorable climate for foreign and domestic investments in Ukraine.

The country should set up a special institution dealing with economic crimes, Zelenskiy said.

"The law enforcement agencies, such as the Security Service, the Prosecutor-General's Office, and the Interior Ministry, must be deprived of all functions that allow them to put pressure on the business sector and influence the economy," he said.

To stimulate the economy Zelenskiy’s team has proposed allowing shadow businesses to become legal upon paying a 5-percent fee, according to the Kyiv Post. The newspaper reported also that as president he vowed to continue cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which he had previously spoken out against.

On Health Care, Elections, Social Benefits

Broadly, Zelenskiy has stated his support for health-care reform and acting Health Minister Ulana Suprun.

He has also laid out possible changes to election legislation, which include introducing an open-list, proportional-representation system for parties.

In parliament, where critics say lawmakers have for years neglected their duties, he say he will introduce a law allowing for their expulsion.

And Zelenskiy has also proposed renewing state pensions for Ukrainians living in the territories of eastern Ukraine currently controlled by Russia-backed separatists -- something that many there perceived as a punitive measure introduced by Poroshenko.

Wait And See

But all of these are merely promises, and vague ones at that, experts say. The true test of any candidate's governing abilities and desires come only after they are elected. And then, much could still change.

“As Zelenskiy is not viewed within Ukraine as someone driven by a specific ideological agenda or an established team, he will likely be targeted by various influence groups, from political parties and leaders to business interests, who would aim to modulate his policies to their own benefit,” said Kokcharov.

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