By Owei Lakemfa
UKRAINIANS who went to the polls last Sunday and elected the 41-year-old comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, as President over the billionaire incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, are not looking forward to comic shows. The state of their beloved country is not even tragi-comic; it is a tragedy. But having sought solution through professional politicians like former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and being disappointed; and having looked up to otherwise serious-minded business moguls like Poroshenko and found comedy, in desperation, they turned to a professional comedian, hoping for serious results that will extricate their country from its present quagmire.
Ukraine, having unwisely become a pawn in the East-West politics, losing part of its territory, including the Crimea, bogged down with civil war, a fractious politics and a clueless band of politicians in Kiev, needed a new direction. Three-time World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Vitali Klitscko, had stepped into the political ring, but the best he could do was end up as Mayor of Kiev. However, as the Ukrainian National Anthem proclaims: “The glory and the will of Ukraine has not yet died”, so they turned to a political virgin. Zelensky’s only claim to political experience is acting the part of an ordinary school teacher in a television series, Servant of the People, who somehow becomes the country’s President and goes on to fight corruption and a hopeless political class.
With the country in near comatose, he heeded calls to turn his comic drama into a reality show on the country’s stage. Fiction began to turn to reality. He lacked a serious programme or manifesto, but promised to perform better than the professional politicians. He simply named his political party after his show: Servant of the People. He had nothing to lose, but fame to gain, and the Ukrainian voters who wanted anybody but the old guard, in the first round, gave him 30.4 per cent of the votes while Poroshenko had 16 per cent and Tymoshenko, 14.2 per cent.
A hapless political system watched as Zelensky trounced President Poroshenko in the April 21 rerun, taking 73.22 per cent of the votes, leaving Poroshenko with 24.45 per cent. In defeat, the outgoing President is trying to chart a path of failure for Zelensky. He told the president-elect that he must ensure that his programmes “will be in line with the national interests of Ukraine and that will bring us closer to the European Union and NATO”.
Who told Poroshenko that bringing Ukraine under the European Union and NATO are in the country’s national interest? That programme, which he has pursued in his five years as President, did not win him re-election. More importantly, it was partly the attempt to impose NATO and the EU on the country that led to the on-going civil war and break away of the Crimea. In contrast, Ukraine’s national interest is first to bring the civil war to an end and reconcile the country. This will require seeing through the “Normandy Format”, a four-nation: Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France peace process to reconcile the country.
Africans say a man who allows his head to be used to crack coconut, will not partake of the feast; this was what Ukraine did by allowing herself to be used as a pawn in the EU/NATO Post-Cold War politics with Russia. Ukraine which gained independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR, had opted for Western Democracy which is supposed to be periodic elections based on majority rule.
The country’s present crisis began in 2004 when Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician from Eastern Ukraine, won the presidential run-off elections. But mass protests erupted in Western Ukraine against his victory, and the elections were aborted. In the new elections, the pro-West candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, was declared winner.
Six years later, Yanukovych again won, and this time was sworn in. But in 2014, there were again protests against him, this time for refusing to sign a trade deal with the EU, the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement. During these protests mainly in Western Ukraine, called the Euromaidan Protests, the Yanukovych government was overthrown. For Eastern Ukraine, the coup was unacceptable and it decided to secede. The first part that successfully did so was the Crimea in March, 2014 while the other parts took up arms one month later in what has become the Ukrainian Civil War. Some 13,000 lives have been lost in that war.
The incident that has elicited the greatest controversy in this war, was the July 17, 2014 downing of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, MH17, during the Battle of Shakhtarsk. The Boeing 777-200ER aircraft was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew. All 298 persons were killed. It is uncertain why the Ukrainian Government gave clearance to the aircraft to fly over a war zone. It is also unclear whether the rebels knew the aircraft overflying the battle field was a commercial one and not an Ukrainian military aircraft. Both sides traded blames, and continued with their war.
Poroshenko whose government authorised the flight of the Malaysian Airline over the war zone, had come into office on June 7, 2014. He promised to end the civil war, but actually added petrol to the raging flames. In May 2015, he appointed the former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Odessa, perhaps to spite Russia. Saakashvili had led little Georgia in the August 7-12, 2008 quixotic war with Russia. On November 7, 2016, Saakashvili resigned, accusing Poroschenko of personally promoting corruption in Odessa and the country. On July 26, 2017, Poroshenkho retaliated by stripping Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship, rendering him stateless.
In another drama, this time, quite bizarre, Poroshenko got personally involved in the May 29, 2018 fake assassination of Ukrainian-based Russian dissident journalist, Arkady Babchenko. Twenty four hours later, the Poroshenko government told an enraged world that the ‘assassination’ was fake, and meant as a propaganda stunt against Russia.
In November, 2018, the Poroshenkho government sent a tug boat, the Yani Kapu, and two gunboats, the Nikopol and the Berdyansk, to breach the Russian maritime defences in the Crimea. When the Ukrainian sailors were rounded up, Poroshenko declared a state of emergency in his country. It is unclear what such childish actions were meant to achieve: push NATO into a military confrontation with Russia?
Poroshenko lived under the illusion that he was perpetually at war with Russia. He asked: “Who is my opponent? I am not ashamed to say it openly – this opponent is Putin.” But in reality, his opponent turned out to be an Ukrainian comedian. Zelensky has the opportunity of bringing peace to his country, fighting entrenched corruption, rebuilding the economy in the interest of the poor and running a government centred on Ukraine’s national interests.