At the inauguration: Enthusiasm and scepticism for Ukraine’s new president

May 21, 2019

On a sunny day in Kyiv, I happen to witness how thousands of people gather in the Mariyinskyi park for an unusual, well-guarded, press-covered meeting around the blue baroque palace. Some come with placards, some dressed in blue-and-yellow flags, some have their own passionate story to tell to all who will hear it. Most are delighted to applaud the new president of Ukraine, 41-year old Volodymyr Zelenskyi, who made his entrée onto the political scene by gaining an impressive 73.22% of votes cast in last month’s second round of elections. They believe he can make a change and start to get rid of endemic corruption that over the past months has again led to some high-profile scandals, notably in the extra-sensitive defence sphere.

Guided by gut feeling

There are also many, mainly highly educated and active citizens who are not happy at all with the outcome of the elections. They see a vulgar populist, backed by a big business tycoon; a former comic and actor with no political experience, to whom they don’t entrust to head their country, even more in a context of an ongoing war. The disgust experienced at his different way of approaching campaigning and politics, perceived as highly populist and opportunistic, is comparable to the dismal expressed by many Americans after Trump’s election. The way the crowd celebrates the in-crowd of his “Servant of the People”-party – employees and team members of his comedy production business – indeed shows some of what has led people to vote for the man: disappointment with established politics and a gut feeling that this may be better.

Alies in the audience

Like it or not, fact is that this man won the elections and, in a widely watched ceremony, is sworn in as the new head of state. The sixth one in 28 years of independence – and apart from Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after the Maydan uprisings, all former presidents are seated in the benches of parliament to witness the ceremony. A warm applause for the foreign guests, especially the four presidents present: from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia; three of them women, all of them from countries that live with the reality of trying to build a democracy while dealing with threat or aggression from the country that ruled the union they once were all part of: Russia.

Reckless and radical?

President Zelenskyi’s inauguration speech is going viral soon after. It’s being called everything from reckless and ridiculous to “one of the best inauguration speeches ever”. Under the motto that “Ukrainians don’t like words, but deeds”, Zelenskyi makes a few bold moves, requesting the head of security services, the prosecutor-general, and the minister of defence – all involved in recent rumours about corruption – to be dismissed and announcing to dissolve parliament and call for early elections. If this is wise remains to be seen: it reeks of opportunistic populism and can easily become a recipe for political instability.

Reagan and collective responsibility

The other parallel with American politics, an actor-who-became-president, didn’t escape the new president (or his speechwriters), and the quote chosen nicely reflects what many Ukrainians think: “The government doesn’t solve our problems; the government is our problem”. This comes with an appeal to the responsibility that every citizen bears for the country and what it will become, as “we are all presidents”. And a request to the politicians present not to hang portraits of the new president in their offices. A president is not an icon. “Hang pictures of your children instead, and each time you make a decision, look them in the eyes.”

War and what comes after

A few points give ground for hope for those working for peace and inclusion. Speaking in his clearly-not-native Ukrainian, Zelenskyi twice switches to Russian. Once to let the neighbouring state’s leadership (not represented among the guests) know that he is willing to open the dialogue to put an end to the war in Donbas. With the addition that he is ready to do anything to end the bloodshed, including putting his political career at stake. That sounds bold – but ending a war started by someone else may well require the kind of bold steps that mean political suicide for the leader committing them, and here is at least a declared preparedness to take that blow. Even when the condition that all prisoners be released first seriously reduces the likeliness of that dialogue.

A second phrase in Russian addresses the (mainly Russian-speaking) people in Donbas themselves. After talk about territories which “were always ours” (hm…), he shifts the focus from territory to people and on losing them: “Over these years, the authorities have done nothing to make them feel Ukrainians”.

Focussing on people and their needs over territory is an important part of a peacebuilding strategy as PAX sees it (with the experience of unsuccessful focus on territory in other conflicts in the region and elsewhere in mind). These statements will not be easy to live up to, and what is really going to be done remains to be seen. But at least there’s something to fall back on and refer to. You will hear from us and from our partners, Mr. President.

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