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Ukraine’s Presidential Election and Beyond

Updated: May 4, 2019

“Social and Territorial Changes in Ukraine and the 2019 Presidential Election” was one of the concluding panels of the 2019 ASN Conference on Thursday, May 2nd. Moderated by Valerii Kuchinsky (Columbia U, US), the participants included Sergiy Kudelia (Baylor U, US); Paul D’Anieri (UC Riverside, US); Adrian Karatnycky (Atlantic Council, US); Viktoriya Sereda (HURI Harvard U, US); and Oxana Shevel (Tufts U, US).

“Cautious optimism expresses the future” were the words used to describe the panel on Ukraine’s social and territorial changes associated with the 2019 presidential election by the chair, Valerii Kuchinsky. Unanimously, it was clear that Petro Poroshenko had to go - his inability to dismantle the Ukrainian oligarch run government system, to uphold the rule of law and to establish a transparent administration tipped the hat to Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory. Likewise, Sergiy Zudelia presented that in the past four years, discontent with the direction in which the country was going increased to 70%, about the same percentage of votes that went towards Zelensky in the presidential race. To compliment Poroshenko’s disapproval, Zudelia narrowed down the drivers to Zelensky’s win to fatigue with the political class, Zelenski’s success in youth mobilization and most importantly, 1+1 airtime that provided for time to scrutinize Poroshenko.

Nevertheless, Adrian Karatnycky brought forward that 1+1 television was undeniably a force of influence in the elections, but that it could similarly influence the new government. Cautious optimism was employed by Karatnycky when he confirmed the potential of Zelensky as an independent leader, while still recognizing the oligarch media dominance on the Ukrainian population. Indeed, constraints that Zelenski will face were illustrated by Paul D’Anieri, specifically in regards to foreign policy. Media, mobilization, corruption and gas were all credited as internal barriers to Zelensky, on top of foreign factors, namely Russia’s cooperation with Ukraine. Here, yet another positive vision of Ukraine was employed as D’Anieri pointed out that Zelensky is widely liked in Russia.

That is not to say however that Zelensky automatically trades off support from Ukrainian nationals for that of Russia sympathizers. Viktoriya Sereda emphasized that while language still has the potential to mobilize people, Zelensky’s bilingual electoral campaign was not built on identity issues but on inclusive messages. To end off the panel on an optimistic but yet cautious note, Oxana Shevel introduced for the first time to many attendees Ukraine’s new language law which stipulates that all services in relation to the state must be provided in Ukrainian. While this policy paves the way to new debates on democratic rights, more controversies arise as well and to quote one of the opening phrases of the panel, “is Zelensky the right choice? Only time will tell”.

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