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13 May, 2019  ▪  Roman Malko

Under two presidents

How current and the next state leaders use the timeout

The second round of the presidential election turned into a cold shower on the head of Ukrainian society. Standing at the edge of an abyss into which they will now have to leap, Ukrainians are somewhat subdued now, because they’re not so sure if they’ll be able to fly off as they dreamed or will end up crashing. Moreover, they haven’t had to live under two presidents for quite some time now: the incumbent who is slowly coming to the end of his term and the newly-elected one who still doesn’t have the power. Moreover, it won’t be possible to get rid of him, either. After the inauguration, a new epoch starts. Some may already be regretting their choice, others’ nerves are frazzled with hopelessness, and others are still wildly celebrating victory. Yet, all those who care even a little about what will happen down the road are amusing themselves playing “let’s compare,” compelled to weigh today’s steps of both key players, looking at them for some kind of logic and signs that they can decipher and explain as they may. It all looks like a lot like reading tea leaves, but it’s interesting.

Running a bit ahead, it’s noteworthy that, compared to his opponent, Petro Poroshenko has stronger positions – which is quite understandable. He has plenty of skills and experience, which certainly cannot be said of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and, most importantly, he knows what he wants. Zelenskiy comes across more like a naughty schoolboy who has suddenly been pushed on stage to represent the whole school and is trying, as usual, to hide behind the backs of other smarter classmates. But he can no longer get away with this kind of trickery. He keeps looking around with frightened eyes, looking for signs of support, ears pricked back, catching hints from the room around him, but his being unbearably runs into reality and the thought that the joke has gone on too long and things are getting scary. This can even be seen in photographs taken when Zelenskiy shows up in person and has to talk with real people. There’s nothing strange that his first, albeit unofficial visit as newly-elected president was not to the voters who elected him, not to the officials with whom he will have to work, and not even to the foreign leaders of partner countries for closer acquaintance, but to a Turkish resort, where he absolutely needed to rest and be in the family circle.

This gesture of the good family man is worth respect and understanding, although a fairly convincing version is that the vacation was only a cover for a private presentation of the new president to his main sponsors and business colleagues. In any case, this entire story somehow doesn’t fit at all with building up the serial image that was so carefully advertised to voters – and leads to some serious second thoughts. While the president is still working out the terms of his employment, his retinue is busy generating real chaos in the minds of Ze supporters, rejecting the possibility that just about all of those things they faithfully believed in, in the breaks between episodes of the Holoborodko serial and voting, might actually come to pass.

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To be fair, it’s important to note that Zelenskiy almost immediately managed to smooth out the rougher edges of misunderstanding and, possibly, to do things that no one expected of him. He wrote in Facebook what the Chornobyl tragedy had taught Ukrainians, he disappointed Kremlin propagandists by sending them off, and he was able to explain to Putin that, other than a border, Ukraine and Russia had nothing in common.

And after that he began a round of visits to get to know people. He met with religious leaders and with the VR speaker, and talked to representatives of the parliamentary factions. This pro-activeness after the prolonged playing dead during the election campaign is truly impressive, but this, too, has an explanation. Having made it to the big league and the top seat in the land, the player, whether he wants to or not, will draw universal attention to himself. People will want to get to know him, assuring him that they will be of use. Ultimately, he himself understands that he doesn’t have a lot of time to establish himself without stepping on too many toes.

To avoid an awkward and very untheatrical break, the Ze-team is hoping to get the inauguration scheduled as soon as possible to meet the timeframe within which the legislature can be dismissed and a snap election called, in the hope – opinion polls give reasons for optimism here – to gain a majority in the new Rada, meaning an obedient Cabinet. If elections take place at the regular scheduled time, this fall, it will be critical that Zelenskiy’s political capital is not frittered away before October. There’s very little room at all for maneuvering, so every single step has to be carefully planned and pushed, and his messages have to be pushed, too, while the Rada and voters haven’t started forming a real anti-Ze coalition.

Meanwhile, what is still-President Petro Poroshenko doing all this time? He’s still doing his presidential job and doing so both creatively and with zest. Receiving thanks, thanking others, awarding military divisions honorary names. Promising to return soon. There’s no longer any reason for him to be stressed, but it’s still too early to relax. The remaining time in his term is worth using not just for symbolic gestures and he seems to understand that. So he goes to night-time services at various churches on Easter Sunday; he visits Lviv to thank voters for their support, as they gave him the biggest proportion of the vote; he promises to sign into effect the law on language; he honors fallen heroes and meets with students; he awards titles and honors, appoints new judges, and talks with foreign leaders; and he confirms the members of delegations to participate in court hearings in Ukraine’s suits against the Russian Federation regarding Ukrainian sailors who were taken prisoner. Yet again, he travels to the front, not just to meet with soldiers, but to honor the dead, to award a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature from Avdiyivka the title “Merited Teacher of Ukraine,” and also to pass on to his successor, from the front, the duty to care about building up the army: because “a strong army will defend Ukraine, no matter what.”

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The most interesting thing, though, is an active shuffling of personnel whose underlying logic isn’t always apparent. Why would he dismiss people at the last moment is something that can be guessed, but what’s the point of appointing new people such as judges, diplomats and members of the NSC to the vacated places is not clear at all. Is he expecting that the new president won’t bother with them for awhile because he’ll be short-staffed anyway? Have there been some amicable agreements, either directly or through international intermediaries? Anything is possible. But that’s not the main point. In fact, the main question that is bothering many in Ukraine, and beyond, is what can be done so that when power is transferred, the country won’t fall apart. And maybe this is an answer worth looking for. If there is one, of course.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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