The day of judgement in the Ukrainian presidential election is almost upon us. This is not just a contest between two political contenders and their supporters, representing different backgrounds, styles, and constituencies, or even visions, but something more fundamental.
It is a clash between the old and the new. Between traditional Ukraine, in the political sense, of the last thirty years, as represented by incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, an establishment figure, and between modernity, represented by political newcomer, showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The frontrunner is a young, successful Russophone showman, with a novel approach to politics, projecting his appeal and winning power. He is a product of the post-Revolution of Dignity Ukraine and the inchoate modern political nation that has been crystallizing during a time of war with Russia in the east and the country’s simultaneous determined movement westward.
The election is not about Ukraine’s orientation, east or west. That issue has been decided. Neither Poroshenko nor Zelenskiy have questioned this. It is mainly about the way in which the country has been managed, or rather mismanaged during the last five years, and whether a change, not only at the top, but of the system as such, is needed.
The massive level of dissatisfaction with Poroshenko expressed in the first round of voting, and the fact that subsequent opinion polls show Zelenskiy maintaining a huge lead, indicate that the incumbent president, whatever successes he may claim during the last five years, has discredited himself.
The strong disappointment with Poroshenko and his record also demonstrates a desire to return to the unfinished business left over from the EuroMaidan and the Revolution of Dignity – that is, renewing and intensifying efforts to complete the stalled democratic transformation and modernization of the country.
The election is also about the kind of Ukraine that its people want to live in, not just the quality and standard of living, but a sense of fair play and security. But the election is also about the evolving sense of modern Ukrainian national identity and the values associated with it.
Is being Ukrainian still primarily about speaking the Ukrainian language, practicing its religion, and accepting the traditional historical narrative? Or is it about identity shifting more toward greater loyalty to the country and Ukrainian state in which for a major portion of the largely bilingual population core ethnic factors are respected but no longer predominant?
In conditions of war with Russia, what will bolster the unity of the country and support the accelerated reform, modernization, and economic growth that the country needs so badly if it is to hold its own?
The need to protect and guarantee the national attributes of Ukrainian statehood, such as Ukrainian as the state language, the gradual “Ukrainization” of education and official life, and the replacement of the old Soviet and Russian imperial historical schemes, have been key elements in the Ukrainian state building project, albeit subject to manipulation for political ends.
But the transformation of the country into a successful modern European democracy is a more urgent task. Only the successful completion of this systemic overhaul will restore domestic and external confidence, attract investment, stimulate economic growth, allow the country’s massive debts to be paid off, and reverse the serious hemorrhaging of population. It is also vital for Ukraine to be able stand up to its aggressive northern neighbor and continue its integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, as well as for revitalizing “Ukrainization” efforts.
But here strong differences are evident in the different emphases and priorities advanced, or implied, by the two camps. While denying involvement in corrupt schemes and behind the scenes conservation of the status quo, Poroshenko has continued to play on nationalistic feeling, depicting Zelenskiy not only as unqualified for the post of president, but also as a tool of the Kremlin.
Zelenskiy, on the other hand, has challenged not only the leadership of the country but the way in which the state and society operate even while his program remains vague and his core team unannounced. He has risen to prominence through satirizing the existing system. The comic actor is not joking when he says that the show cannot go on.
Poroshenko now insists that with a few adjustments in response to the angry public mood there can be more of the same and has continued to appeal to national feeling. But this is risky, and ultimately an irresponsible tactic which encourages polarization.
The mobilization of leading patriotic intellectual and cultural figures, depicted as the nation’s “moral authorities” in support of Poroshenko, has been disconcerting. Instead of remaining above the fray and offering wisdom and guidance in a discreet and tactful manner, they have demonstrated shortsighted partisanship, in effect echoing the beleaguered president’s mantra that the nation is in peril.
While suggesting that Zelenskiy is a threat to Ukraine’s security and cultural values, they have not applied any “conditionality” to supporting Poroshenko’s re-election. On what terms would they want to see him continue in office? To simply play the role of a patriot as they understand it, or as a discredited figure being offered a chance to rehabilitate himself on the basis of a new implicit social contract with the nation, complete with checks, balances, and the close monitoring of his actions?
Similarly, the role of church leaders, Ukrainian Orthodox, Ukrainian Greek Catholic, and even Evangelicals, has also fallen short in a state which proclaims the separation of church and state. They have implicitly endorsed the incumbent president, evidently putting politics above religious concerns. Stressing that Ukrainian patriotism should be the primary criterion for their faithful when voting, they have been conspicuously silent about corruption, and other forms of wrongdoing connected with any Christian notions of sin.
We are not living in Soviet times, when cultural figures and religious leaders were called on by the state to render homage in return for official recognition, privileges, and awards.
What message does this send to the public, whether they be believers or not, and especially young people? Theft, mendacity, and duplicity can be overlooked as long as you are a Ukrainian patriot. Hence, the current political battle is also over the question of what it is to be a Ukrainian at this moment of truth in the nation’s history.
Bohdan Nahaylo is a British-Ukrainian journalist and veteran Ukraine watcher based in Kyiv, Ukraine.