Ukrainians elected a comedian and now they’re finally smiling

Ukrainians elected a comedian and now they’re finally smiling
Volodymyr Zelensky holds up a mace, the Ukrainian symbol of power, at his inauguration ceremony in Kiev last May. A few months later, the former TV star’s new political party won an absolute majority.

Volodymyr Zelensky’s promises to eradicate corruption and revive the economy have renewed optimism in the country after years of strife and the threat of Russian encroachment, says Carl Bildt.

Suddenly, Ukrainians are more optimistic about their futures than the citizens of most other countries are about theirs.

That will come as a surprise to many, given Ukraine’s manifold challenges. And yet it is justified by the country’s political trajectory.

For the first two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was one of the most poorly governed of the successor states.

Whereas Russia initially underwent liberal economic reforms and has long benefitted from high oil and gas prices, and the Baltic states were admitted to the EU in 2004, Ukraine was left behind.

Neighbouring Poland’s per capita GDP is now almost five times higher than Ukraine’s, even though the two started post-communist life on the same economic footing.

Although Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution revealed a popular yearning for change, it ended in internal disputes and disappointment.

By the time the country’s long-held desire for closer alignment with the EU had begun to materialise politically, a newly ambitious Russia had re-emerged to challenge Ukraine’s shift to the West.

Ukraine’s financial situation was a disaster. Endemic corruption and the absence of serious reform had disqualified it from receiving help from the International Monetary Fund or from Western governments, leaving then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, heavily dependent on the Kremlin (probably much more so than he would have wished).

In late 2013, Yanukovych acceded to Russian demands that he scuttle Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement (along with its promise of a deep and comprehensive free trade area).

Ukrainians exploded in anger, and the Yanukovych regime responded with violence, killing 100 people in the streets of Kiev. But, failing to stop the protests, Yanukovych fled to Russia, which intervened militarily.

By the spring of 2014, Ukraine was in limbo. Russia had occupied and annexed Crimea, backed and recognised two breakaway areas in the eastern Donbas region, and was conducting a thinly disguised operation to carve off Ukraine’s southern regions for incorporation into a ‘New Russia’ (Novorossyia). The country’s survival was in question.

But Ukraine staged a remarkable recovery. In May 2014, Petro Poroshenko won the presidency in an electoral landslide that was unprecedented in the country’s short democratic history.

Ukraine started to fight back, and Russian president Vladimir Putin was forced to deploy Russian forces intoUkraine’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

A ceasefire and political process, outlined in the Minsk Protocol that September, served as a face-saver for Putin and his misbegotten Ukraine project, though the conflict remains unresolved. According to United Nationsestimates, the fighting has claimed some 13,000 lives and forced millions of people to flee.

The latest chapter in Ukraine’s saga started early this year, when Volodymyr Zelensky, a popular comedian with no political experience, clinched a surprise victory in the presidential election. And in parliamentary elections a few months later, his new political party won an absolute majority. When it comes to pursuing difficult reforms, Zelensky and his team are better positioned than any other government in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.

Zelensky’s election reflects a deep-seated yearning for radical change. His campaign focused on corruption, economic malaise, and the ongoing conflict in the east, and it is these issues that will loom large during his presidency.

Although Ukraine has adopted more far-reaching reforms than any other European country in recent years, voters want more, and they have come to believe that Zelensky and his young team are the ones who can deliver it.

Zelensky has outlined a (still-vague) programme of radical policies to expand the size of the Ukrainian economy by 40% in the coming years. This will require a substantial increase in foreign investment, which will not be forthcoming until the judiciary is clean and efficient.

A vigorous crackdown on corruption is a key prerequisite for economic growth.

One particularly promising economic proposal would expand private ownership of land, to encourage competition and innovation in agriculture.

As home to one-third of the planet’s super-fertile ‘black earth’, Ukraine has already surpassed Russia as the world’s top grain exporter, and is the EU’s third-largest food supplier, after the US and Brazil. It could accomplish much more with growth-enhancing reforms in place.

Zelensky and his team are benefitting from strong tailwinds, for now. But Ukraine’s future will depend on how well they use their political honeymoon to implement difficult reforms.

Headwinds will inevitably arrive. But the initial signs are encouraging. Ukrainians are not wrong to be optimistic.

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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