Russia hopes for thaw after Ukrainian comedian wins presidency

Officials in Moscow hope that Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s political inexperience may present an opportunity

FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine April 21, 2019./File Photo

A popular comedian with no political experience dispatched the incumbent candidate to win a landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential elections on Sunday, promising to reboot dialogue with Russia in the process.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy avoided giving serious interviews and or hosting policy discussions during his campaign. He swept to victory on Sunday taking 74 per cent of the vote. Petro Poroshenko, who was criticised for failing to tackle endemic corruption and resolving a conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east, conceded defeat early on.

After the results were announced on Sunday, Mr Zelenskiy – who formerly starred in a television show in which he played the president of Ukraine – said he would restart negotiations with Russia mediated by European countries. "I think that we will have personnel changes,” he told reporters. “In any case, we will continue in the direction of the Minsk [peace] talks and head towards concluding a ceasefire."

Kiev and Moscow have been locked in a bitter political dispute since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine five years ago. Since then authorities in Kiev have struggled to resolve the conflict with separatists backed by the Kremlin, which has claimed 13,000 lives.

The Minsk peace agreements were brokered in the capital of Belarus in 2015 with the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia imagining a special status for the breakaway regions in the east and amnesty for separatist fighters. The agreements were never fully implemented.

The outgoing president on Sunday evening praised the “free, fair, democratic and competitive elections,” but said the Kremlin was ultimately celebrating the result.

“They believe that with a new inexperienced Ukrainian president Ukraine could be quickly returned to Russia’s orbit of influence,” Mr Poroshenko wrote on Twitter.

The political conflict between Moscow and Kiev escalated last week when Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that Moscow would halt exports of coal, crude oil and oil products to Ukraine beginning in June.

However, on Monday morning, Mr Medvedev struck a conciliatory note by welcoming the opportunity to improve ties with Ukraine. He tweeted that Mr Zelenskiy is likely to continue Kiev’s criticism of Russia, but that “there is still a chance for Ukraine to improve its relations with Russia.”

“What will it take?” he wrote. “Honesty, and a pragmatic and responsible approach with due account for all the current political realities in Ukraine, primarily the developments in Ukraine's east.”

Writing in the Kommersant newspaper, Russia's former foreign minister Igor Ivanov echoed the prime minister's hope for rapprochement, arguing that Mr Zelenskiy's election presented an opportunity for dialogue. "The main thing," he wrote, "is to realise the value of the moment."

For some observers, Sunday’s results were ultimately a victory for democracy in a country were political transitions have rarely been smooth. Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, congratulated “Ukraine and Ukrainians” for hosting “fair elections, a rare thing on the territory of the former Soviet Union.”

During the campaign, pundits were quick to label Mr Zelenskiy a populist whose political rise was part of a trend of emerging far-right leaders in some European countries and the United States. However, after his victory on Sunday, some analysts were eager to challenge that portrayal.

“Zelenskiy’s victory is not populism,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow and chair of Russian Domestic Politics Programme at Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank. He described the comedian’s win as Ukraine’s “exit from the vicious circle of the former Soviet Union republics and the loss of the mobilising force of that conservative discourse: Faith, army, language.”

The Kremlin, on the other hand, may not appreciate this nuance, Russian political columnist Vladimir Frolov told The National. "Of course, they view him as a version of [US President Donald] Trump, a clueless simpleton to play and manipulate. But they will be disabused of that misapprehension after the first encounters," he predicted.

The Kremlin’s main concern is “Zelenskiy’s ability and political clout to settle the conflict in Donbass on Russia’s terms,” he said, referring to the region on Ukraine's eastern border held by Russian-backed separatists.

Mr Frolov said the Kremlin was most likely to dispatch Prime Minister Medvedev to engage Mr Zelensky, 41, because President Putin may be be uncomfortable given the new Ukrainian president’s youth and unknown stance on Russia. “Putin will try to hedge and see how it goes,” Mr Frolov said.

Ultimately, says Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Centre, “Zelenskiy’s victory is not victory for Kremlin. Expectations must be kept in check.”

However, like the former foreign minister and current prime minister, he noted that “opportunities need to be explored for lowering tensions in Donbass and starting meaningful dialogue."