Ukraine’s Zelensky has plenty of form, but little substance: Voters hoping for change risk being disappointed by the frontrunner comedian

Volodymyr Zelensky, the unexpected frontrunner in Ukraine's presidential elections, appears to be riding the same populist wave that has already delivered a string of electoral upsets elsewhere in the world, including Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency, writes David Clark for EU Today.

Indeed, the person Mr Zelensky most obviously resembles is Beppe Grillo, whose Five Star Movement broke the mould of Italian politics and now governs as part of a coalition in Rome.

Like Mr Grillo, Zelensky is a famous comedian who has harnessed his celebrity to the pursuit of political power on an explicitly anti-establishment platform.

That is where the similarities end. Populist movements such as Five Star and the UK Independence party owe their success to the fact that they began as grassroots insurgencies,patiently building their activist base and electoral strength over a period of years. Even Mr Trump benefited from the support of alt-right networks that had mostly grown from the bottom up via the internet.

By contrast, Mr Zelensky’s campaign is largely the product of power struggles and intrigues within the Ukrainian elite. He is a populist in form, but not in substance.

Mr Zelensky is notably dependent on the patronage of Igor Kolomoisky, the oligarch under investigation in Ukraine and the US on suspicion of corruption and money laundering. MrKolomoisky denies any wrongdoing.

Mr Kolomoisky’s 1+1 television channel broadcasts Mr Zelensky’s hit comedy series Servants of the People, which spawned the idea of a citizen president. It also gives blanket coverage to his real-life campaign. Andriy Bogdan, Mr Kolomoisky’s personal lawyer, acts as senior campaign adviser to Mr Zelensky.

The Ukrainian media has reported that Mr Zelensky travelled to Geneva and Tel Aviv — cities where Mr Kolomoisky has been living in exile — on 13 occasions in the past two years, often accompanied by Mr Bogdan. Both Mr Zelensky and Mr Kolomoisky deny they have any relationship beyond broadcasting.

Nevertheless, Mr Zelensky’s candidacy could be portrayed by cynics as an artifice of “political technology”, the curious mix of western public relations and Leninist manipulation practised in many post-Soviet states. It is known that several Ukrainian oligarchs considered the possibility of running a “clean skin” candidate for president. The idea was that a political novice, untainted by the past, would prove electable while remaining under their control. Most concluded that it was impractical. Could Mr Kolomoisky really be so bold as to actually try it?

Mr Kolomoisky’s motives in sponsoring Mr Zelensky would be unlikely to tally with the candidate’s declared goals. He isn’t interested in cleaning up Ukrainian politics or giving power to the people. He doesn’t want to overturn the oligarchic system that has done so much to hold Ukraine back over the past three decades, because he is part of it. He would want to dominate that system to his own personal advantage. Mr Kolomoisky’s priority is to escape the consequences of the collapse of PrivatBank, which he owned until 2016 and is suspected of helping to defraud to the tune of $5.5bn.

Mr Zelensky could — in theory — be a means towards those ends. He has no coherent programme beyond populist slogans and a preference for referendums. In the event that he

decided to pursue his own ideas in office, he would lack the resources needed to become a truly independent president. He has no political or campaigning infrastructure apart from that provided for him by others and might have to rely on Mr Kolomoisky for favourable media coverage. Without a parliamentary party of his own, Mr Zelensky might need Mr Kolomoisky and others to deliver the votes of friendly MPs to pass legislation and agree a budget.

Yet Mr Zelensky could end up as president all the same. Ukrainian voters have many reasons to be angry and disappointed. Although President Petro Poroshenko can be credited with stabilising an economy that stood on the brink of collapse and carrying out some badly needed reforms, the hopes of those who flooded the Maidan in 2014 have not been met. The pace of change has been too slow and corruption remains a huge problem. The appeal of a candidate calling for a break with the past is undeniable.

The problem is that instead of unblocking reform there is a very real risk that a Zelensky presidency could end up negating the limited progress that has already been made. MrPoroshenko’s move to nationalise PrivatBank, for example, was an important milestone in Ukraine’s financial recovery. Any attempt to reopen that decision would inevitably constitute a big step backwards.

Mr Zelensky has succeeded by running against the system. In reality, the forces around him represent some of the very worst elements of that system. Ukrainians hoping that his election would give them the change they crave risk being disappointed. Mr Poroshenko, for all his faults, has provided stable leadership and incremental reform. He won the presidency five years ago because, as a Ukrainian friend told me enthusiastically at the time, he was the best choice on offer. It may not be what many Ukrainians want to hear, but that may still be the case today.

David Clark is a senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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