By Nick Nguyen
Like populism in the West, but much more extreme, Ukraine’s politics today is becoming a surreal world where everything is possible. The political arena is inhabited by power players who almost resemble cartoon caricatures.
The dust has now settled on Ukraine’s presidential election. The new president, elected by a landslide, is Volodymyr Zelensky, a young comedian with no political experience. One may think Ukraine reflects a trend in global politics where populists are winning power. Ukrainian politics are however much, much more surreal than that.
A well-known actor, Zelensky rose to fame thanks to the popular television comedy, Servants of the People (Sluga Naroda) where he plays a History teacher whose angry rant against corruption unexpectedly elevates him to the top: as the president of Ukraine, where he is the incorruptible “Servant of the People”. It is an unfortunate reflection for any country, that a president who is not corrupt is considered primetime comedy.
Zelensky also does not speak fluent Ukrainian (!). Russian is his first language and his comedy is in Russian as well. He is now taking Ukrainian language classes and vows to use Ukrainian as president. In Ukraine, nationalist spirits are high and the “language question” is controversial, being at war with Russia. His landslide victory over the incumbent President Petro Poroshenko that includes the Ukrainian-dominated Western part is improbable to say the least. In which other country could this happen?
There are rumours that Zelensky is a puppet controlled by the Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who aids the Zelensky campaign. This includes financing, legal support and ensuring positive coverage on the Ukrainian 1+1 TV channel he owns, the same TV channel that broadcasts Servants of the People. This laid the ground for Zelensky’s breakthrough.
Initially a winner after the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, Kolomoyskyi became Governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Then he fell from grace. Kolomoyskyi was fired by President Petro Poroshenko. He owned PrivatBank, but lost a fortune when it was nationalised by Poroshenko. This makes Poroshenko his archenemy, and he wants revenge. He made full use of his 1+1 channel, which alleges, among other things, that Poroshenko killed his own brother.
Kolomoyskyi’s profile is further in murky territory due to his dealings in Crimea, where he brought Russia to court. A criminal case was then brought against him by Russia, accusing him of organized murder and illegal warfare (!). The outcome is unknown. What we do know is that in his office he keeps a living, five-meter-long shark that he feeds during meetings to intimidate visitors.
The surrealism of Ukrainian politics is certainly not limited to Zelensky and his benefactor. The candidate who initially led the polls was “Gas Princess” Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister, a fiery woman and an oligarch who made a fortune on gas. She was called “The Only Man In Ukrainian Politics” which says a lot about Tymoshenko, and about views on gender in Ukraine. She has a track record that certainly earns her reputation, yet always shows a very feminine appearance in public and she is famous for her braids, a contradiction that is no doubt intentional.
Then there is incumbent President, “Chocolate King” Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch who made a fortune on chocolate and sweets, who won the presidency in 2014 after Euromaidan. However, he became unpopular and knew that re-election would be difficult, having fallen behind Yulia V. Tymoshenko in the polls. Dirty tricks and “political technology” were needed.
So one day, construction worker Yuri V. Tymoshenko showed up on the list of presidential candidates. The mission: confuse voters at the ballot box. This Tymoshenko promised to fight corruption and, when interviewed by the media, made sure to heap praise on Poroshenko. For good measure, Fake Tymoshenko is now a volunteer soldier (a vote-winner in Ukraine) and is always seen in military uniform.
Fake Tymoshenko was then offered five million hryvnia in bribe to drop out of the race. However, while paying someone to run in an election is legal, paying someone NOT to run is illegal. The two individuals bribing Fake Tymoshenko were arrested. Fake Tymoshenko received 120,000 votes in the election, though in the end Poroshenko didn’t need this diversion to beat Real Tymoshenko.
Attention should further turn to the former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled (to Russia) during the Euromaidan revolution. Corrupt politicians stealing money in post-Soviet states are nothing unusual, and Yanukovych was no exception, stealing up to 100 billion dollars (!) within his few years in office.
His legacy includes a grand residence, Mezhyhirya. The residence, situated in a large private park that needs over 1,000 workers to maintain it, cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Here we have a zoo, a dairy farm, an exotic car showroom, a horse racetrack, a Finnish sauna, warm and cold water ponds (to include a diverse selection of fishes), a golf course, a guest mansion (dubbed “Putin House”), elaborate teahouses, a landing pad for his helicopter, a large wooden boat, a Japanese garden, etc.
Not to mention the main spectacle: Yanukovych’s six-storey house, decorated with such luxuries as real dead crocodile skin, golden toilets, royal carpets, chandeliers and a king-size bedroom with air pumped in from pipes in the forest to ensure the freshest air. Wood, gold, and marbles are everywhere.
He also had a modest (by presidential standards) house that he showed to the public as his real place of residence, so that journalists could capture on camera and people get to see that he lives (relatively) like a normal president.
The Mezhyhirya Residence is today a museum open for tourists, located an hour away from Kiev. The residence is so big that it is impossible to walk through the place in one whole day. My own visit to Mezhyhirya confirms most of what international media captured: a sad example of where public money goes to in one of the most underdeveloped countries in Europe.
All these anecdotes are just a few of many. They paint a tragic picture of Ukrainian politics, gripped by oligarchy, corruption, dirty tricks and populism. Twice in ten years, the Ukrainian people have taken to the streets and forced regime change in the hope of a better future (2004 Orange Revolution and 2014 Euromaidan), but long-term results have been modest.
The future from here is unknown, whether the new President Zelensky will fulfill people’s hopes remain a question mark. He may be a liberal reformer, or an oligarch’s puppet, or a president muddling through with status quo.
What happens next, no one can predict.
Nick Nguyen studies Russian and Political Science at Stockholm University. His main interests include Russia and Eastern Europe, EU diplomacy and Eastern Partnership. He is involved in all things and projects in foreign affairs.
Photos provided by Nick Nguyen.