‘Even the most patriotic Russian can see that their rulers have been lying to them about Ukraine. They may also wonder why Ukrainians can choose their rulers freely and Russians cannot’
Volodymyr may be Vladimir’s downfall. The two names are in effect the same—whether in the former Ukrainian rendering, or the latter Russian, both mean “ruler of the world”. But the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as president of Ukraine is a nightmare for Vladimir Putin and his increasingly threadbare regime in Russia.
For a start, Ukraine had a real election, with lots of candidates and a wholly unpredictable outcome. Would the “gas princess” Yulia Tymoshenko, known for her blonde braids, vast fortune and crowd-pleasing politics make a comeback, the climax of a political career that has spanned jail and the prime minister’s office? Would the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko win re-election? The confectionery tycoon has attracted many brickbats for his failure to deal with corruption. But he does know how to run the country.
In the event, Zelensky won, trouncing Poroshenko by a three-to-one margin in the run-off. He was at first sight an alarmingly unlikely victor. The 41-year-old new president is famous for starring in a television satire, in which he plays a history teacher who is unexpectedly elected president after a rant against corruption goes viral on social media.
This makes Donald Trump’s career switch from reality TV to the White House seem rather tame. It is rather as if Peter Finch, who won an Oscar for his depiction of Howard Beale in Network (shouting “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”), won the US presidency. A gentler British analogy would be if the late Paul Eddington, who played Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister, had moved into Downing Street.
Stunning upsets are not a feature of Russia’s closely-controlled political system. Putin likes surprises, but not when they come from the voters. In particular, incumbent politicians in Russia do not lose elections. That would be careless. Poroshenko, to his credit, did not try to rig his way to victory. He lost fair and square.
The sign of free people making effective choices in a real election is bad enough. It demolishes the standard Kremlin propaganda narrative about Ukraine: that the country is a failed state with a sham democracy. In fact, Ukraine has fought Russia to a standstill. The economy, society and the political system all came under huge strain—but refused to buckle.
Worse (for Putin), Zelensky’s ethnic background is Russian-Jewish. Russian propaganda also maintains that Ukraine is run by a fascist junta that uses Nazi hoodlums to crush opposition. Apparently not. Even the most patriotic Russian can see that their rulers have been lying to them about Ukraine. They may also wonder why Ukrainians can choose their rulers freely and Russians cannot.
Having won a real election, Zelensky has a stronger mandate than Putin. He has a stronger message: the potent cocktail of freedom, legality and dignity, and treating integration with the outside world as an opportunity, not a threat. By contrast, the Putin regime offers its people stagnation, paranoia and isolation.
Most importantly, the former TV star is a far better communicator than the ex-KGB man in the Kremlin. Putin—in an apparent attempt to test his counterpart’s resolve—said he would speed the issue of Russian passports to Ukrainians. This tactic, known as passportizatsiya, is a standard part of the Russian playbook for destabilising neighbouring countries. First, enlist Russian citizens. Then claim the right to defend them.
But Zelensky’s reaction—issued in Ukrainian and Russian via Facebook—was impressive. He noted the less-than-tempting “rights” associated with Russian passports: to be arrested at a peaceful protest, to take part in rigged elections, to forget your human and civic rights.
Instead, he suggested, Russians should apply for Ukrainian passports. It was his country’s mission to provide protection, asylum and citizenship to all, particularly Russians, who want freedom.
That generous-spirited, symbolic offer marks a new tone. Poroshenko had lately favoured narrow, nationalist points rather than big civilisational ones.
Big questions surround Zelensky. He has no political experience or machine. He faces a recalcitrant parliament and a web of entrenched bureaucratic interests (often combined with corrupt business ones). Foreign and domestic problems will be piled on his desk. The Kremlin can increase economic and military pressure, and use its assets in Ukraine. Expectations are huge.
All the more reason, therefore, for us in the outside world to help Zelensky’s new administration in every way we can. We used to see Ukraine as a bastion against Kremlin imperialism. Now the prize is much greater. Success for Ukraine could herald the longed-for dawn of democracy and freedom in Russia too. “For your freedom and ours,” the noble old slogan of anti-Kremlin rebellion, coined by the Decembrists in 1831, is now written in glorious, blazing letters—in Ukrainian and in Russian.