Politics of disenchantment
Voting for a comedian as president is an act of sheer desperation, writes Eddie Ford
As readers will know, last month saw the election of an actor and comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, as president of Ukraine. This has a certain poetry to it, as his most famous role is playing a history teacher who almost accidentally becomes the president in the television series, Servant of the people - which is also the name of his political ‘party’, only founded in March last year.
There were 39 candidates on the ballot paper for the first round of the two-round voting system. Of course, due to the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia and then the effective occupation-cum-secession of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of the country, 12% of eligible voters were unable to participate in the presidential election - even if they wanted to, which is debatable. In the first round, Zelensky got 30.24% whilst the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, received 15.95% and, as predicted, Zelensky won the second round between with 73.22% in a landslide victory.
Of course, it is easy to laugh at the election of a comedian who has no political experience. But hang on, what about Britain’s most important ally, Donald John Trump? Before he became president he never held any political office. Indeed, he appeared to have had no particular political loyalty. He registered as a Republican in 1987, switched to Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 1999, the Democratic Party in 2001, and then back to the Republican Party in 2009 - making donations to both the main parties along the way. Always hedge your bets. Having said that, by definition all billionaires have to be a political operator of some sort - there is no other way to do business.
But, returning to Zelensky, what is especially interesting about him, apart from his acting abilities, is the fact that his first language is Russian - he has spoken publicly about his efforts to improve his Ukrainian - and he is Jewish. This must be of some sort of significance, given that there are open fascists in the Ukrainian government - which does not appear to bother many people in the west. In fact, one of the very first acts of the new Kiev government in 2014 after the enthusiastically western-backed orange-brown Maidan ‘revolution’ was to appoint six members of far-right and fascist groups to the most senior positions in the new cabinet. They also stripped Russian of its official language status and outlawed the Communist Party of Ukraine.
Perhaps telling you all you need to know about the current state of Ukrainian politics, parliament tried unsuccessfully in December to confer the posthumous award of ‘Hero of Ukraine’ to Stepan Bandera for a second time. An attempt to do this in January 2010 by the outgoing president, Viktor Yushchenko, was annulled by the incoming and broadly pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych. Bandera was a virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Polish Nazi collaborator and his organisation was largely responsible for the Volhynian genocide between 1943 and 1945 - the goal being to purge all “non-Ukrainians” from a future Ukrainian state.1 Nice guy to have as a national hero.
It is obvious that Zelensky’s election had far more to do with a complete and understandable disenchantment of the Ukrainian people with the ‘political elite’ rather than any particular support for his programme - which was distinctly thin and unelaborated. Did you know that corruption is bad? During the campaign, Zelensky said that he supported the free distribution of medical cannabis, free abortion and the legalisation of prostitution and gambling.
So maybe you can classify him as some kind of liberal? Then again, perhaps not. He had previously supported both the Maidan movement in 2013-14 and the Ukrainian army during the ongoing armed conflict (despite last month’s latest ceasefire) in Donbass with the strongly Russian-backed separatist forces. Zelensky also thinks that Ukraine should become a member of the European Union and Nato, but only after referendums are held. Indeed, he is very keen on referendums for just about everything - promising that his first bill on “people’s power” will provide a greater role for them.
When it comes to Bandera, Zelensky has said that he was “a hero for a certain part of Ukrainians, and this is a normal and cool thing” - after all, he was “one of those who defended the freedom of Ukraine”. This, of course, is a view upheld by a large section of the establishment. But, on the other hand, Zelensky wondered if it was “quite right” to give so many streets and bridges with the “same name”.
However, the main reason why so many supported a TV entertainer with very little by way of politics was precisely because he has no political experience - therefore is not yet corrupt or up to his neck in dodgy deals. Yet it is equally clear that oligarchs and others will be thinking that this is a wonderful chance to get their snouts even deeper in the trough - such a political novice will have to rely on ‘influential people’, won’t he? Alarm has already been expressed about his close relationship with the billionaire oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who is the second or third richest person in the country. Kolomoyskyi, it just so happens, owns 70% of the company whose TV channel airs Servant of the people - and three years ago he and his business partner were accused of defrauding Ukraine’s largest bank of billions of dollars (although the case was eventually dropped ). One thing it is safe to say is that corruption will not go away and, as quickly as people became enamoured with Volodymyr Zelensky, they will just as quickly become disillusioned. Economic and political realities are not about to change just because the country has a new president, however bright and shiny he might seem.
Zelensky or no Zelensky, Ukrainian nationalism and rampant anti-Russian chauvinism is still on the rise. For example, in January the Orthodox Church of Ukraine formally split from the Russian Orthodox church. Naturally Russia was outraged - the Ukrainian church having been under the Moscow patriarchate since 1686.
Then, under Zelensky’s watch, parliament on April 25 passed a new law by a 278-38 majority decreeing that 90% of TV and film content must be in Ukrainian, while Ukrainian-language printed media and books must make up at least 50% of the total output. The law also stipulates that Ukrainian must be used for signs, letters and in adverts, as well as by all public servants. When passed, the vote was met with cheers, as politicians snapped selfies and shouted “Glory to Ukraine” before breaking into a rendition of the country’s national anthem. This bill was first championed by ex-president Poroshenko, who had campaigned on an aggressively patriotic platform, proclaiming his support for the army, the newly independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the never-ending glories of the Ukrainian language.
All this despite the fact that, according to the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, 28.1% of Ukrainians speak Russian with their families, 15.8% speak only Russian, while 24.9% speak Russian and Ukrainian in equal proportion. Needless to say, in the east and south-east of the country the native language for the majority is Russian, and we now have a president whose Ukrainian is less than perfect. In other words, Ukraine has a mixed population. The new language law sends out the unmistakable message that Russian-speakers are second-class citizens, and Zelensky has conspicuously avoided speaking out against it.
Then there is the rather absurd ‘passport war’. Vladimir Putin has offered all Ukrainians a Russian passport. Whatever the motive, it cannot be denied that this will matter for people, whether in terms of work or visiting relatives. But Zelensky mocked the move as providing “the right to be arrested” and in return - or retaliation? - offered any Russian a Ukrainian passport, which in reality is a bit of a joke. Frankly, who on earth wants a Ukrainian passport?
The truth is, we are dealing with a state that quite recently has had part of its territory annexed. For all of the dreams of the Banderites, the country has been truncated and humiliated.
The condition of today’s Ukraine needs to be illustrated using the language of statistics. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a huge decline in living standards. Life expectancy in Russia plummeted downwards at a horrendous rate - for men at one stage it went down from around 72 to 54. According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2018 Russian gross domestic product per person worked out at $11,327 per year (compared to the highest ranked country - Luxemburg - where it was $114,234.2
However, if you think that is bad, then just take a look at Ukraine - at the moment its figure is $2,963, making Russia almost look rich. But at its lowest between 1991 and 1992 it was an appalling $1,686, almost putting the country at the level of Indonesia, India or Pakistan. In January 2014 average real wages were about 75% of their level from the year before3 and during 2015 they fell by a further 18.5%. Unemployment rose from 7.2% at the end of 2013 to 9.1% two years later. At the same time, Ukraine’s population has been decreasing ever since it declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.4 By the end of 2016, Ukraine’s population had decreased by about 9.5 million from its 1993 peak of over 52 million - even bearing in mind the loss of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, that is an enormous drop.
In other words, considering Ukraine in terms of its productivity, industries and people, it has been thrown into devastating poverty - reduced in status from a second-world country in terms of social services, education, housing and so on, to a poor third-world country on the European continent (albeit not on the same level as sub-Saharan Africa). This terrible misery goes a long way to explaining why Ukrainians - desperate for any way out - elected a comedian as president. But what will happen when they get fed up with Zelensky - which will almost certainly be sooner rather than later?