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Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

NYUAD Students Speak on Ukrainian Elections

Fraught with controversies and political uncertainty, the Ukrainian elections moved away from traditional politics and rhetoric.

May 12, 2019

The Ukrainian election has attracted immense international attention this year. Ukraine, a former republic of the USSR and one of the largest countries in Eastern Europe, is currently rebuilding its own democratic system in an attempt to recover from a socialist past.
Ukrainian elections are often unpredictable and have previously led to revolutions in demands for transparency and democratic decisions from the people to the political elite. In 2004, the controversial victory of Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian candidate, catalyzed the Orange Revolution, a peaceful protest of civilians, which resulted in the re-election of Viktor Yushchenko, a candidate interested in the establishment of relations with Europe. This changed in 2010, with the election of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych who refused to accept the will of the majority of the people to cooperate with Western Europe. This, combined with attempts to exhaust protests through police force and special forces, escalating as far as shooting unarmed civilians with snipers, led to the Revolution Dignity of 2014 and Yanukovych’s subsequent escape to Russia. Petro Poroshenko, a businessman owning the most successful large-scale confectionery company, has been Ukraine’s fifth president since 2014 and is most known for the establishment of the independent orthodox church and a no-visa regime with the European Union.
In the current context, the 2019 elections are of paramount importance for Ukraine. With the need of defending territories in times of a hybrid war with Russia in the East of the country, the President now not only plays the role of a people’s servant, but also of the main lobbyist of Ukraine’s interests in terms of saving its territories and preserving its relations with the country’s main donors. As observed by a number of NYU Abu Dhabi students, this shift has clear implications for the recently elected comedian at the center of recent international attention on Ukrainian politics.
“This election is very unique for Ukraine by not only demonstrating that Ukrainians are tired of traditional political establishment, but also indicating the unity in pro-Western geopolitical preferences across the country,” said Oleksandra Plyska, Class of 2019.
President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky is a well-known Ukrainian comedian who founded several popular TV shows, owns a TV channel, and had also recently released a Netflix TV series "Servant of the People", where he plays the role of a simple man, a history teacher, who accidentally becomes president. With the great support of the middle and working class in Ukraine due to his popularity on television, as well as the added advantage of being a politically neutral figure not noticed in political scandals, Zelensky successfully started his political career by registering a political party. Later on New Year's Eve, he announced his intention to run for president on one of the main channels in Ukraine, just at the time when most of the country usually gathers to hear current president’s speech.
Zelensky has mostly been criticized for his connections with Igor Kolomoisky, one of the richest businessmen in Ukraine, whose TV channel supported Volodymyr during the presidential campaign, and criticized the presidency of Petro Poroshenko. Specifically, the channel accused Poroshenko of illegal enrichment and even claimed that he had killed his own brother.
A successful political campaign, built on opposition to the status quo and not burdened by expression of clear geopolitical interests, has gained support from both the pro-East and pro-West population. Many NYUAD students from Ukraine closely followed the elections.
“Zelinsky's marketing campaign was nothing like any election Eastern Europe, he has his own Instagram account... a Telegram channel, all, with millions of followers,” said Heorhy Skovorodnikov, Class of 2021.
“Whereas ex-president used old slogans and sentiments, making people trust him less than they already were. I think Ukrainians were looking for something new, something quite different,” Skovorodnikov added.
On April 10, 2019, with 73.22 percent of the vote, Volodymyr Zelensky won the elections and became the sixth President of Ukraine since the restoration of Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Interestingly, Poroshenko was massively supported abroad, receiving 54.73 percent of the votes of all Ukrainians who voted abroad. We asked Ukrainians on campus about their thoughts on the results of the elections and their views on the future of the presidency of Zelensky.
Plyska proposed that some Ukrainians might have chosen to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo by choosing to vote for Zelensky.
“The disappointment of people about slow-paced reforms of Poroshenko and prevalence of corruption across public sectors in the country facilitated the advancement of Zelensky as a candidate.”
“Additionally, he implemented strategically successful appeals to both Eastern and Western Ukrainians by speaking both languages during his campaign and by being very flexible and adjustable about his campaign promises,” Plyska added.
It is quite hard to evaluate Zelensky before the inauguration, but many Ukrainians are hopeful about his term.
“I expect him to be on the firm position against Russia, and to clear up the corruption,” said Skovorodnikov.
“[I expect the development of] reforms as well a technological development, a focus on the regulations for businesses and working on conflict resolution on the East of the country”
Plyska had a less clear idea of what the Zelensky administration might entail.
“Predicting the exact policy approaches is difficult, as they would heavily depend on the professionals he [Zelensky] picks as his team,” said Plyska.
“In either case, I accept and respect the choice of Ukrainians and hope for effective systematic transformations in the government.”
Zelensky, following the announcement results of the exit poll, said “While I am still not officially president, I can say as a citizen of Ukraine. I can say to all post-Soviet countries: look at us — everything is possible!”
Regardless whether it was for Poroshenko or Zelensky, people were able to cast their vote and choose a candidate whom they considered worthy. The most important factor of these elections was not the candidate, but the transparency and fairness of the elections itself. Time will show, whether Zelensky is worthy to be the servant of the people, but what we can celebrate today is the victory of democracy, by which everything is possible as long as the nation is able to make its choice.
Anna Pustovoit is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
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