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The Week In Russia: The Long Ballot Next Door

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has a number of qualities that together amount to one thing -- he is not Vladimir Putin. 
Volodymyr Zelenskiy has a number of qualities that together amount to one thing -- he is not Vladimir Putin. 

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Moscow watches as Ukraine holds a presidential ballot that seems less like a Russian election every day, and the Kremlin gives an almost extravagantly modest reception to Kazakhstan's new interim president. Meanwhile, a survey shows that one in five Russians would vote with their feet and leave the country if they could, including 44 percent of those under 30.

Ukraine's Election

Volodymyr Zelenskiy got more than 30 percent of the votes cast in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election, almost twice as many as the incumbent he'll face in a runoff on April 21.

But how are his numbers in Russia?

That question was raised by journalist Leonid Ragozin in a tweet a few days after the 41-year-old comedian and TV personality outperformed predictions and outdid the 38 other candidates on the ballot -- by a long shot.

"One thing I'd be very keen to watch from now on is [Zelenskiy's] approval ratings in Russia," Ragozin tweeted. "This kind of political product sells there, too."

That's something that seems unlikely to have escaped the attention of the president "there" -- Vladimir Putin.

For Putin, there's not a lot to like in Ukraine's presidential election -- and one thing not to like, for various reasons, is Zelenskiy.

True, critics claim he'll be soft on Russia. And while he has made assertive statements about standing up to Moscow, some of them -- such as his suggestion that Putin will simply hand Crimea back to Kyiv if he is elected -- might sound more like part of a stand-up routine than a realistic plan.

Neither of the candidates, Petro Poroshenko (left) and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, would seem to please the Kremlin should they win.
Neither of the candidates, Petro Poroshenko (left) and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, would seem to please the Kremlin should they win.

Also, Putin and the Kremlin -- whatever their desires and dreams -- have stated clearly that they hope the elections will usher out President Petro Poroshenko, whom they have portrayed as a junta leader and who has portrayed them as a slavering serial aggressor out to destroy Ukraine.

But Zelenskiy has a number of qualities that together amount to one thing: He is not Putin.

Some of these qualities are very basic. They include his age, 41 -- Putin is 66 -- and his profession, showman -- Putin is a former KGB agent and, for the last quarter-century or so, a state official, something Zelenskiy has never been.

Until recently, he was not even a politician, except on TV. Now, before the runoff vote is held, he might be debating the incumbent at a 70,000-seat stadium in the capital -- a showdown that would be impossible to imagine Putin engaging in at say, Moscow's Luzhniki stadium, unless it were choreographed as closely as a New Year's show on Russian state TV in advance.

'De Facto Referendum'

There's also the matter of why a political novice did so well in the first round: A big part of it is trust, or lack thereof, in the non-novices he faced -- former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, for one, and most of all Poroshenko, the president for almost half a decade.

A Gallup poll found that 9 percent of Ukrainians had confidence in the government in 2018 -- the lowest level in the world for the second year in a row.

The poll result was noted in an article in The Guardian by Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko.

The second-round vote, Ishchenko wrote, "will be a de facto referendum on Poroshenko and everything he symbolizes: corrupt oligarchy, the lack of economic prospects for the majority of Ukrainians, aggressive nationalism, and authoritarian attacks on dissent and freedom of speech."

Sound familiar? With minor adjustments -- or maybe without -- that could refer to Putin.

Comedy And Choice

Russian authorities kept Aleksei Navalny -- a politician who in 2013 got about the same proportion of votes as Zelenskiy, albeit in a Moscow mayoral contest, not a nationwide one -- off the ballot in the March 2018 election that handed Putin a new six-year term.

That ballot was a lot shorter than the one used in Ukraine on March 31 -- it had eight names on it, not 39. And even if few of those listed in Ukraine had any chance of success, it sent a signal that for someone who spent time in the Soviet Union would be as dazzlingly clear as rows of colorful fruit at a grocery store on a visit home: look at the choice.

A lot more to choose from on this ballot than a Russian one.
A lot more to choose from on this ballot than a Russian one.

The main difference between Ukraine's presidential election and the last few in Russia, or course, is that it's not entirely clear who will win.

If Poroshenko pulls it out, Putin will presumably continue blaming Kyiv for lots of things, including the rock-bottom state of bilateral relations and the lack of progress toward peace and a political settlement in the Donbas, where Russia-backed forces hold parts of two Ukrainian provinces.

If Zelenskiy wins, the Kremlin may look for ways to benefit -- or simply be hoping he fails spectacularly, enabling Moscow to take advantage of any ensuing disorder. Meanwhile, it seems inevitable that pro-Putin pundits and Kremlin-controlled media would continue to sling mud at the election in Ukraine and portray the winner -- a comedian -- as the punch line of a dirty joke.

Ukraine, of course, has not had a Moscow-friendly president in office since Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia more than five years ago in the face of the Maidan protests, Russia's subsequent seizure of Crimea and involvement in the conflict it helped start in the Donbas have unified many Ukrainians and tarnished Moscow's reputation there for what seems likely to be a long time to come.

But on top of that, a Zelenskiy presidency would be another fresh brushstroke on a changing post-Soviet political landscape in which one of the slowly dwindling number of constants is Putin. The runoff in Ukraine comes almost exactly a year after Armenia's longtime leader stepped down in the face of protests led by opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinian, who soon afterward became prime minister at the age of 42.

Double-Digit Deputies

There's a new head of state now in Kazakhstan, too, where Nursultan Nazarbaev abruptly resigned last month after nearly two decades as president -- a job he held even before the Soviet Union fell apart. But you might not realize Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev is interim president if you watched the welcome he got in Moscow, his first foreign destination since he took office: Instead of Putin or Sergei Lavrov, Toqaev was met at the airport by Aleksandr Pankin, one of Russia's 10 deputy foreign ministers, and by two lower-level diplomats.

Kazakh interim President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev did not get a big welcome in Moscow.
Kazakh interim President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev did not get a big welcome in Moscow.

The modest reception suggested that for whatever reason, the Kremlin wanted to emphasize that the interim president is a temporary figure who may be out of a job after an election in April 2020. It could also have been meant to signal that to Moscow, Nazarbaev -- who still heads the ruling party, is lifetime chairman of the influential Security Council, and holds the status of Elbasy, or "leader of the nation" -- is still No. 1 in Kazakhstan.

That's intriguing in light of the possibility that Putin could try to employ a similar strategy to retain powerful influence past 2024, when he is constitutionally barred from seeking another presidential term.

To pull off something like that, Putin would need -- arguably, at least -- the trust of the people.

While nowhere near the 9 percent level recorded by Gallup for Ukraine's government, Putin's trust rating has dropped during the first year of his new term. A poll released on March 7 by the state-funded Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) found that it had fallen to 32 percent, its lowest level since 2006.

Other recent numbers have brought what may be unwelcome news for the Kremlin.

Would If I Could

U.S.-based Gallup reported on April 4 that given the opportunity, a record 20 percent of Russians -- including 44 percent of those aged 15-29 -- would move permanently to another country.

Of those who would leave, 40 percent said they do not support Putin's actions as president, while 12 percent said they do.

One of Putin's main goals over nearly 20 years in power has been to ensure there are more people in Russia in the first place. In 2017, he declared that the country had overcome its demographic crisis, and in an annual address this February, he called for a return to natural population growth by 2023-24 -- the end of his current term.

But Russia's population fell last year for the first time in a decade, despite immigration. A statistic cited on April 3 by Tatyana Golikova, the deputy prime minister responsible for social and health policy, provided one reason why -- and underscored a hurdle on the path to Putin's goal: She said that the mortality rate rose in one-third of Russia's regions in 2018.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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