Ukraine’s own Manchurian candidate

Ukraine’s own Manchurian candidate

The Ukrainian actor and comedian who is leading the opinion polls ahead of this month’s presidential election has played down his lack of political know-how, claiming that – if elected – he has a real chance to be the catalyst for change. In an interview held after filming wrapped on the latest episode of the satirical comedy series in which he stars, Volodymyr Zelensky admitted he was aware of the criticism levelled at him for his leadership ambitions but believes his inexperience is no barrier to success.

It’s the ultimate example of life imitating art for Zelensky, whose exposure to politics is strictly limited to his role as history-teacher-turned-president in the TV hit “Servant of the People”. There’s little doubt that Zelensky has injected drama into the race, which was expected to be contested between two political heavyweights: incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The latest opinion polls show Zelensky commanding 25 percent of the vote.

Tapping into a mood of disillusionment with traditional politics

Zelensky’s statement can be interpreted as an attempt to appear more statesmanlike as election day (March 31) approaches. The actor, has, in effect, become Ukraine’s very own Manchurian candidate, tapping into popular discontent without offering much in return except prime-time charisma. It’s no coincidence that Zelensky has campaigned so successfully as an outsider on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption ticket.

But although Zelensky’s popularity has risen sharply in recent weeks, it’s impossible to know at this stage just how stable his support base will turn out to be, especially given the vagueness of his policies. Zelensky would be hard pressed to deliver a more detailed manifesto should he progress to the second round of voting.

In any case, he will certainly face questions over his ability to spearhead reforms in Ukraine – notably those required under the new agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF approved a new $3.9 billion loan last December, subject to an understanding that the government continues with a package of structural reforms designed to reduce inflation and shore up the financial sector, while keeping a lid on public debt. Presiding over its implementation is a big task for a political amateur.

Crashing the political scene

However, it is precisely this lack of credentials that plays into Zelensky’s hands, as he is considered untainted by the often-chaotic Ukrainian politics unlike his competitors. For his part, Poroshenko has had to manoeuvre an exceptionally difficult international environment as Russian aggression against Ukraine continues. Still, economic growth is predicted to be around 2.6 percent, while that of the EU, another major player in the region, is expected to slow to a crawling 1.7 percent.

Other candidates have already had multiple turns in the spotlight and are now seen as divisive, first and foremost Yulia Tymoshenko. Although she can claim credit for her role in ending a punishing gas dispute with Russia in 2009, she is seen as a spent force. At a time when Ukraine has decidedly moved to strengthen its ties to the EU, her pro-European credentials have come increasingly under scrutiny as she vehemently opposes EU involvement in Ukraine’s gas pipeline management, and a number of social reforms promoted by the IMF and Western governments. Tymoshenko’s opaque funding and lack of clearly defined program add to the scepticism surrounding her run.

Not as clear cut as it seems

It is no wonder then that Zelensky has positioned himself as clean cut and trustworthy with the public. However, even that “Mr Clean” image has flaws. In particular, the actor’s murky connections to expat billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky are a cause for concern, to the extent that some observers have cautioned he may be a Kolomoisky plant.

Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Kolomoisky owns the television station that made Zelensky a star. It’s rumoured that he has called on his private army to bring pressure to bear on his political nemesis President Poroshenko. He’s also embroiled in a spat over the ownership of Ukraine’s largest bank – PrivatBank – which was nationalised and bailed out after accusations that Kolomoisky and fellow oligarch Gennadiy Boholyubov, defrauded the institution to the tune of billions of dollars. Zelensky denies any impropriety over his ties to Kolomoisky and rebuts suggestions that his production company, Kvartal 95, earns money from Russia, all the while the sources of his campaign funding remain unclear.

A dangerous gamble for Ukraine’s future

Were Zelenksy to win the office, the consequences could be dire. If he turned out to be in Kolomoisky’s pocket, Zelensky could end up being highly malleable to the oligarch’s wishes when in office and subject to pressure if he pushes back– hardly a basis for trust and a far cry from the independent free-spirit image he cultivates in his campaign.  The absence of a coherent manifesto additionally creates a vacuum that many conflicting interests will be vying to fill, promising crippling chaos when decisions need to be taken.

Recent Ukrainian history charts the damaging rise of populism. Zelensky’s guy-next-door image is superficially seductive but lacks the substance needed to provide a real alternative. In fact, if Kolomoisky ends up calling the shots, it’s likely that public trust in political office would be dealt a devastating blow.

It remains to be seen whether Zelensky’s popularity on the hustings will morph into real election results. So far, the presidential hopeful’s ratings owe more to his acting talent than his political agility. His interactive, crowdsourcing approach is harvesting support via social networks while his competitors are relying on traditional campaigns. But Zelensky’s success hinges on his ability to convince people that he’s no joke – it’s up to the voters to see through the performance and re-write the script.

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