Stockholm (Ekonamik) – Ukraine stands before a fateful crossroads ahead of the first round of its presidential election on March 31. With the very real possibility that a comedian – whose calling card is to impersonate a president – will reach the second round scheduled for April 21, Ukrainians face a choice that will fundamentally determine the course of the country for the next five years.
President Petro Poroshenko is seen as corrupt and ineffective by about half of Ukrainians, who are sickened by decades of mismanagement by the country’s elites and the continuing war with and encroachment by Russia on the nation’s politics. The support for Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian, is in large part due for a desire to make a clean break with the past. But Mr Zelensky has no clear platform and no political experience.
Moreover, some of the criticism directed at Mr Poroshenko appears to be misplaced. Despite the deeply rooted corruption in the Ukrainian political system, Mr Poroshenko’s administration has a number of notable achievements under its belt since coming to power in the aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution in 2013. At that time, Crimea had just been occupied by Russia and the countries were poised for full-scale war; the Ukrainian economy was in a tailspin, and the corruption of the Yanukovych regime had done immense damage to civil society and the nation’s institutions.
But during Mr Poroshenko’s tenure, Ukraine has regained a functioning market economy, a more stable democracy and an arguably flourishing civil society. His administration has cleaned up a derelict banking sector and stabilized its currency in compliance with IMF requirements, alongside ensuring Ukraine’s energy independence. The World Bank projects Ukraine’s GDP will grow by 4% in 2019. Power has become more decentralised, even though the economy and politics are still stacked in the favour of oligarchs. And Mr Poroshenko’s efforts to build an army have helped bring the conflict with Russia in eastern Donbass to a virtual standstill, though Russian incursions still continue.
The choice before Ukrainians appears, in essence, to be whether they oppose corruption, which remains pervasive, or oppose Russian influence, which Mr Poroshenko has done much to combat. Not surprisingly, Mr Poroshenko is Russian President Vladmir Putin’s least favoured candidate. Conversely, if a neophyte like Mr Zelensky is elected the country is likely to fall back under the Russian sphere of influence, after years in which ties with Europe and the West have been strengthened.
The other main candidate in the race, Yulia Tymoshenko, an ex Prime Minister and leader of the Batkivshyna (“Fatherland”) party, is an experienced politician promising to overhaul the constitution to change Ukraine into a parliamentary republic and change the way Ukraine works with international partners to deal with the conflict with Russia. But Ms Tymoshenko has been unclear as to how she would implement her suggested changes, and is also seen as part of the established order so opposed by Mr Zelensky’s (mostly young) supporters.
It may feel satisfying in the short term to “stick it to the system” by electing Mr Zelensky, but it is still in the longer-term interests of Ukraine for the country to continue on its current course. If the overriding objective is to cleanse the country of its corruption, the current trajectory of continued integration with international institutions and rapprochement with Europe is wisest, however counter intuitively. Mr Poroshenko deserves a chance to try to finish the job.
Image: Petro Poroshenko during the Munich Security Conference, 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)