The disastrous presidency of Petro Poroshenko has resulted in him losing the presidential election to comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, by 73 percent to 24 percent. The almost-50 percent margin of victory was the most-lopsided second round in Ukrainian history. The only Ukrainian province where Poroshenko won was the nationalist bastion of Lviv.
Poroshenko had initially swept to power in 2014 in the aftermath of Euromaidan and in the midst of the civil war in the Donbas. Poroshenko’s main election promise was ending the civil war, which he did not fulfil. To add fuel to the fire, his most recent corruption scandal exposed just one of the ways in which he has personally enriched himself during the war, through giving shady military contracts to his own companies.
Poroshenko came to power on a wide coalition of Euromaidan-allied oligarchs, bureaucrats and backed by Western imperialism. As time went on, this coalition fell apart as fewer saw it as in their interests to be associated with the Poroshenko government. People favoured by NATO, such as Saakashvilli and Yatsenyuk, were also pushed out, and this coalition was splintered into many factions, leading up to 2019.
The Ukrainian working class experienced the worst economic and social degradation since the 1990s, when capitalism was restored to Ukraine. Rising prices due to inflation and devaluation of the currency, and closure of factories and destruction of the social security system served to make the lives Ukrainians more miserable with each passing year. And this is not even speaking of the terror experienced by the Donbas population.
Finally, in carving out his political support, Poroshenko tried his hand at reactionary Ukrainian nationalism of various shades. Far-right groups were allowed to grow under the Poroshenko regime, and even received considerable government legitimacy and support in many cases. He elevated historical figures such as Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera to the status of national heroes.
His rhetoric was based on scaremongering about plans by the Russian army to conquer Ukraine, blaming virtually every negative event on the influence of Russian covert forces and their “fifth-column elements” inside Ukraine. This came hand in hand with authoritarian attacks on opposition forces.
Notably, the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU) was effectively banned and scared away from participation. Faced with violence from fascist gangs, other left-wing organisations were forced underground. Additionally, the rights of Russian speakers came under attack from the government as well. All this culminated in Poroshenko becoming the worst-rated sitting Ukrainian president in history.
Illusions in Zelenskiy
Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s victory has been, first and foremost, a vote against the Poroshenko government by wide layers of society from all over the country. Part of Poroshenko’s campaign against Zelenskiy was the allegation that the latter was a “Russian agent”. It is highly significant that, despite the suffocating atmosphere of reactionary chauvinism that has been developed over the course of years, which has effectively become the state’s ideology, this did not hurt Zelenskiy’s popularity.
Secondly, Zelenskiy is not (yet!) tainted by having been involved Ukrainian politics, unlike other options like Yulia Tymoshenko or Yuriy Boyko. Zelenskiy is a comedian from the central Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih. He is popular for “Kvartal 95”, a sketch comedy show, and a sitcom named “Servant of the People” (the same as his party), where he plays an ordinary teacher and anti-corruption blogger who becomes president. But his political positions leading up to the election, including those expressed through his comedy, have been very vague.
The “anti-corruption” position is famous across the world as a way for politicians to disguise their actual politics, or the fact that they do not have any. And this is especially common among celebrities-turned-politicians, like fellow comic Bepe Grillo in Italy, Imran Khan in Pakistan, Donald Trump in the US, or former boxing champion and current Kiev mayor (and Poroshenko ally) Vitali Klitschko.
They make promises to crack down on corrupt officials or “drain the swamp”, which are popular slogans for certain sections of the masses who resent elites enriching themselves at their expense. Of course, the system that allows this in the first place is maintained, and very soon, the anti-corruption faction acquires some issues of their own. And in all the cases mentioned above, they cynically came to power allied with the most corrupt capitalist monsters in their respective countries.
Zelenskiy’s appeal as a celebrity is also important as it allows him to be seen by some sections of the workers as an outsider who will serve the people’s interest rather than his own. Of course, we cannot exclude that some artist or celebrity figure may take progressive positions under the pressure of an organised working-class movement. This is not currently the case in Ukraine, and any “political vacuum”, if it exists, will be filled by the pressure of the oligarchic elite who control the media, and thereby the artists’ livelihoods. This has been the case, not only with Klitschko, but also popular singers like Ruslana and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk.
Reality of Zelenskiy
We cannot begin to speak about what a Zelenskiy’s presidency means without considering his main backer, and the owner of channel 1+1, which runs Zelenskiy’s shows. Billionaire Ihor Kolomoiski is one of the richest and most ruthless oligarchs in Ukraine, referred to by lawyer and political blogger, Tetiana Montian, as Ukraine’s most infamous “corporate raider”. He is the founder of PrivatBank and owns a large part of Ukraine’s metal-working industry, energy industry and almost all of its airlines. He is closely linked with fellow billionaire Gennady Bogolyubov.
Kolomoisky is known for a number of seizures of state assets, including operations where he was able to sue the Ukrainian government for millions. One of his calling cards in the past 20 years has been using his own army of thugs in supporting various hostile takeovers, from factories to state energy companies. His alliance with the Euromaidan coalition led to him being appointed governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Among the numerous armed groups of men who formed the backbone of Euromaidan, Kolomoiski saw an opportunity to bolster the ranks of his private security forces.
He is the principal funder of the far-right organisations who came out of the events, including Right Sector - who torched the KPU offices in Kiev - and the openly neo-Nazi Azov battalion, now organised as the Nats Korpus political party. In 2015, his thugs seized the HQ of the partially state-owned oil company UkrTransNafta, which led to his falling out with Poroshenko and dismissal as governor, as well as the state nationalisation of PrivatBank.
Kolomoiski has massive grievances with Poroshenko, but he is very similar and just as ruthless in his pursuit of enriching himself above all else. Furthermore, his companies have profited from war contracts like Poroshenko and he has absolutely no reservations about using neo-Nazi thugs in achieving his aims.
Zelenskiy has been claiming to be “his own man”, but it would be very naive to think that Kolomoiski is not the main person behind the scenes, along with a number of other influential oligarchs. His campaign team includes experienced but less-known political operatives who were previously loyal to Poroshenko, Yanukovich and pro-western NGOs. This indicates that Zelenskiy has the support of other sections of the oligarchy, who saw the Poroshenko government at a dead end.
Building on “Poroshenko’s Successes”
In the days leading up to and after Zelenskiy’s win, he started to increasingly reveal that his plans were not so different from those of his predecessor, saying that he wanted to build on the “successes” of the previous government. He further stated that the “decommunisation” (laws banning communist symbols and ideology) was a good thing, stated his intention to continue with the reforms currently being imposed and said that the path for Ukraine is more World Bank and IMF loans, which can only mean more austerity.
On the question of the civil war, his advisor Dmitry Razumkov has backtracked on initial suggestions that the civil war would be ended, suggesting that it would not be so simple. With regards to Russia, he has shown similar posturing to that of his predecessor in the last few days. And it is because he is openly representing such a continuation of the old regime that people like current Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman and former PM Yulia Tymoshenko have openly stated their desire to work with the new president.
It is understandable for ordinary workers to have illusions in literally anyone who replaces Poroshenko, but Marxists cannot harbour such illusions. The Zelenskiy government still represents the same oligarch class that brought Poroshenko and everyone before him to power, and who have enriched themselves by sucking the blood of the people of Ukraine from the fall of the USSR to the present day.
Zelenskiy will be given a certain grace period. But this will not be the same as Poroshenko got. The state of the economy means people are closer to the brink and more fatigued from the civil war. The state of global capitalism will only exacerbate this situation, as will the plunder that Kolomoiski and Zelenskiy’s other backers will perpetuate. Given this material situation, right-wing nationalism and war hysteria will not have the same effect they once did. The question is, at what point will the working class finally be in a position to take independent action? We may soon find out.