Enter: Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Candidate Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of an exit poll in a presidential election in Kiev

Read this interview in German.

Political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy swept President Poroshenko from office with over 73 per cent of the vote – how do you explain that?

We can explain Zelenskiy’s high approval ratings by the high disapproval rating of the incumbent president who disappointed the Ukrainian people, especially on social issues and in the sluggish fight against corruption. In addition, citizens cite the ongoing war in the east of the country as their biggest concern. Zelenskiy managed to address these weaknesses and to score points with the electorate on the basis of very few promises – an unusual phenomenon for Ukrainian politics.

Poroshenko even raised the issue of his challenger’s asymmetric election campaign, twice took a blood tests in front of running cameras, and debated him in the Kiev Olympic Stadium in front of 22,000 people. Although this debate resulted in vicious insults, it shows the liveliness of Ukrainian democracy and an openness to political debate – something that’s unimaginable in many other countries in the region.

But Zelenskiy’s success has other reasons too: the comedian, who also enjoys popularity beyond Ukraine, simply fulfilled the desire for a fresh face. He benefits from the failure of the post-Euromaidan civil society forces to consolidate in political parties and to find even a suitable candidate. It’s astonishing to realise that despite the war, the majority of Ukrainians are open to a political experiment.

How’s this election perceived in Russia?

Russia has some rethinking to do, too. The narrative of “fascist Ukraine” is hardly convincing in view of a Russian-speaking president of Jewish descent from the southeast. Prime Minister Medvedev’s reaction was modestly favourable: he hopes for good cooperation, but he was realistic.

According to Kremlin spokesman Peskov, it’s still too early for any congratulations from Putin, as Zelenskiy has to be judged by his actions. This shows that even the Russian leadership seems to have difficulty with Zelenskiy’s asymmetry, as this character simply doesn’t fit into the script. Over the long term, it will likely be difficult to portray Zelenskiy, who is also very popular in Russia, as merely a clown and puppet of the oligarchs.

What do Zelenskiy’s foreign and security policy ideas look like?

He’s in favour of a ceasefire and ready to negotiate with Russia on the issue of Donbass and Crimea. He’s abiding by the Minsk Agreements, but wants to expand the Normandy format to includes the US and the UK. He also intends to resume the pension payment for people in the occupied territories, so that they no longer have to risk their lives by travelling across the line of contact. Generally, he wants to show people in the East that Kiev has not forgotten them.

Zelenskiy would not give up Crimea and would make every effort to campaign for its return. But, due to the conditions of realpolitik, doesn’t promise to be able to actually do so. He and his team stand for European integration and a consistent continuation of the course taken under Poroshenko. However, a NATO accession would have to be preceded by a…

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