Nicolai N. Petro
Nicolai Petro is Silvia-Chandley Professor of Peace and Nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine from 2013–14, and is the editor of Ukraine in Crisis (Routledge, 2017).
The new president must heal enormous social distrust if he doesn’t want to go the way of the previous administration.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s landslide presidential victory has recently been confirmed by an equally impressive victory for his party in the Ukrainian parliament. For the first time in the history of post-Soviet Ukraine, a single party now controls both the legislature and the executive branch.
This represents a tectonic shift in the Ukrainian political landscape. Weary of war and of the social tensions spawned by efforts to project a narrow form of Galician identity onto the entire nation, the country overwhelmingly rejected president Petro Poroshenko in favor of a complete unknown. This would seem to give him greater freedom to negotiate a resolution to the conflicts that plague Ukraine, but it is still far too early to tell whether this popular mandate for change can become actual policy.
As expected, Volodymyr Zelensky’s impromptu party, Servant of the People, triumphed in this week’s Ukrainian parliamentary elections. Every poll said it would; the only intrigue that remained was whether it would gain enough seats to rule on its own (it did); how well the late-surging, peace-with-Russia Opposition Platform would do (better than expected); and whether the fractured remnants of the Maidan coalition—Fatherland, European Solidarity, and Voice—would all make it into parliament (they did).
To appreciate how radical a change this is, we need to recall what the previous parliament looked like. When the freshly minted president Poroshenko called for snap parliamentary elections, just before heading to Minsk, Belarus, to meet with Vladimir Putin on August 27, 2014, he intended it to be a referendum on his decision to halt the military campaign and grant autonomy to the rebel-controlled regions.
But the parties that opposed the Minsk Accords (Popular Front, Fatherland, and the Radical Party) won more than 35 percent of the party-list vote, while the Poroshenko Bloc got fewer than 22 percent. The only other party to endorse the peace plan, the Opposition Bloc, barely got 10 percent of the national vote. These results effectively buried the peace process, and reflected the anger that Ukrainians felt toward Russia at the time. Five years later, however, the Popular Front is gone and the Radical Party failed to make it into parliament. Fatherland and the Petro Poroshenko Bloc (now renamed European Solidarity) each hover at around 8 percent of the popular vote, well behind the Opposition Platform, which calls for improving relations with Russia across the board.
What makes Zelensky’s election, and his party’s recent triumph in parliament, a true watershed is that it showed that candidates for national office need no longer kowtow to either the anti-Russian rhetoric of Western Ukraine, or the pro-Russian interests of the East and South. Five years of conflict seem to have spawned a war-weariness to which only Galicia, being farthest from the front, still seems immune. This has led noted Western Ukrainian historian Vasyl Rasevich to wonder if his country might be moving toward the marginalization of Galicia.
But healing the enormous social distrust that Poroshenko and the previous parliament have left behind will not be easy. To do so the state must first show that it has the capacity to restore what it has lost over the past five years, "the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence.”
Well-organized, partly government funded, and armed to the teeth, nationalist groups currently exert a much greater influence in Ukrainian politics than their paltry electoral results would suggest. Even as their leaders vie among themselves for dominance, whenever their common agenda of a "Ukraine Above All” is challenged, such groups have resorted to violence and intimidation, to which state authorities have often turned a blind eye.
So far, this pattern has continued under president Zelensky. The most recent examples are the threats to the journalists of television channel NewsOne for planning a live discussion between Russian and Ukrainian television audiences, and the shelling in Kiev of the television channel 112.ua for wanting to air Oliver Stone’s latest film, Revealing Ukraine. And just like his immediate predecessor, Zelensky has carefully avoided any direct criticism of these acts of violence against journalists. For Poroshenko, this policy of appeasement ultimately led to his disastrous defeat at the polls.
Can Zelensky do better? Not without a concerted effort to confront nationalist violence and its stranglehold on national debate. Expanding political discourse to allow for new policies and new ideas will require the removal of the ideological barriers to free expression that were part and parcel of the Poroshenko regime.
From the US government’s perspective, therefore, Ukraine will continue to be a disappointment, but American policy-makers have only themselves to blame for this. By blatantly siding with Poroshenko on the country’s most divisive political, religious, and cultural debates, US policy became totally identified with him, and widely resented as a form of "external administration.” We are now seeing the backlash in the rising support for neutrality rather than membership in NATO, in growing pro-Russian sympathies and popularity of the opposition parties willing to make peace with Russia, and in the doubts that Zelensky himself has recently expressed about whether Western politicians really have Ukraine’s best interests at heart, when they urge him not to negotiate directly with Putin.
The vast majority of Ukrainians are solidly behind their new president, for now, but he would do well to realize that if he becomes nothing more than Poroshenko-lite, his fall from grace is likely to be even more dramatic than his rise.