Potential victory by Ukraine's 'Donald Trump' prompts uncertainty

Volodymyr Zelensky has run a substance-free campaign, using the internet and comedy to win over disaffected Ukrainians in his bid for the presidency. But with victory in Sunday's run-off election appearing imminent, many worry about the implications for Ukraine's security.

Political rookie poised to win Ukrainian presidency — and face Russia

Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy led the first round of voting in the presidential election last month. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

The very real prospect of a comedian being elected Ukraine's next president on Sunday is nothing to laugh at for many Ukrainians who dream of seeing lost territories restored and their country unified again.

They fear political neophyte Volodymyr Zelensky — whose only political experience is playing Ukraine's president in a TV show — is ill-equipped to handle a tough adversary like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"During the election, there was basically no room for the Crimea issue — Zelensky says absolutely nothing," said Sergii Mokreniuk, 40, who along with his wife and two children fled their home on the disputed Black Sea peninsula when Russia took over five years ago.

"There is no way to know where Crimea stands in Zelensky's politics."

Sergei and Elmaz Mokreniuk and their children fled their home in Crimea when Russia took over in 2014. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Canadian-born political analyst Mychailo Wynnyckyj agrees.

"Zelensky is not making any statements about foreign policy that are coherent — in other words, he's presenting himself as a negotiator, but he has no experience in negotiation."

The Kitchener, Ont., native is an associate professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and has lived in Ukraine for 17 years.

"Ukraine is about to elect a Donald Trump — that's the simplest way of putting it," Wynnyckyj told CBC News in an interview.

Wynnyckyj said voters appear poised to take a leap of faith on someone whose politics they know very little about, based only on his fame from being on TV.

"We have an equivalent to the phrase, 'Lock her up,' " a slogan Trump used repeatedly during his successful 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton for the U.S. presidency, he said. 

"It's called 'Lock them up' because he's supposedly fighting corruption, but at the end of the day he's not made it clear at all how he plans to do that," said Wynnyckyj.

The Mokreniuk family now lives in Kyiv and has protested Russia's occupation of Crimea. (Submitted by the Mokreniuk Family)

Zelensky, 41, racked up twice as many votes as President Petro Poroshenko in the first round of the election last month and polls suggest his standing has only improved since then.

In his TV show Servant of the People, once elected as president, Zelensky's character throws himself into the task of cleaning out political deadwood in the government and breaking down the deep connections between the politicians and the country's oligarchs, which is what many Ukrainians say needs to happen in real life.

The closely watched presidential contest has been notable for its many bizarre moments, such as both candidates undergoing public drug and alcohol tests and a boisterous debate Friday night in front of tens of thousands of duelling supporters at an outdoor football stadium.

Zelensky and Poroshenko took turns trading insults and questioning the other's fitness to lead the country.

"How did it turn out that Ukraine is the poorest country with the richest president?" Zelensky taunted Poroshenko, whose chocolate and candy empire has helped make him one of Ukraine's richest people.

Conflict epicentre

Ukraine has been at the epicentre of the West's conflict with Russia since 2014, when the country's pro-Russian president was overthrown in the Maidan uprisings. Soon afterward, Russian troops moved to take over strategic positions in the Crimean peninsula and pro-Russia leaders held a snap annexation vote, which most of the world considered illegal.

The Mokreniuks are among an estimated 30,000 Crimeans who chose to move to other parts of Ukraine rather than live under Russian rule.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attends a policy debate with Zelenskiy in Kyiv on April 19, 2019. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Sergii Mokreniuk organized protests and other anti-Russia demonstrations. In response, he said, he was followed by Russian security services. The tires on his car were slashed and, he said, he and his wife received death threats.

"We want to come back to Crimea, but we can't," he told CBC News during an interview at a transplanted Crimean restaurant in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. 

His wife, Elmaz, 35, is a Crimean Tatar — a Muslim ethnic group that has historically suffered under Russian rule.

Stalin ordered the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Tatars from Crimea in 1944 and most families weren't allowed to return for several generations until after Ukraine gained its independence in 1991.

"They deported my grandmothers and grandfathers — Russia did this," she said. "This is in [my] genetic memory."

Russian sailors march during the Navy Day parade in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea, on July 29, 2018. (Pavel Rebrov/Reuters)

Scarce details

Zelensky, 41, has given few interviews about his plans for governing Ukraine and instead relied mostly on social media commentaries, YouTube commercials and appearances at his comedy events to appeal to voters. He has amassed an impressive 3.5 million followers on Instagram.

In his limited statements on the future of Crimea and the breakaway regions of Donbass and Lughansk in eastern Ukraine, Zelensky has said only that he wants Russia to end its occupation.

The war involving Russian-backed separatists has claimed more than 11,000 lives and prompted more than two million people in the region to flee to Poland, Russia and other regions of Ukraine.

Zelensky has talked about involving the United States and Britain in any future discussions with Russia, but many in Ukraine's government appear to believe nothing will change as long as Putin is in charge in Moscow. 

"There's a lot of skepticism, certainly on my part, of whether the keys to peace are in Kyiv or Moscow," said Wynnyckyj, the political analyst. 

"Likely they are in Moscow, because it's not Kyiv that started this war."

Moscow has poured billions of dollars into Crimea in recent years to help win over the population to Russian rule, including building an expensive bridge to connect with the peninsula.

Worries over Zelensky

Sergii Mokreniuk, who supports Poroshenko, said he fears Russia would take advantage of a rookie president to increase its efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

"If Zelensky wins, I predict Russia's desire to attack Ukraine will greatly increase," he told CBC News. "I fear this scenario the most."

People walk past an election campaign poster with portraits of Ukrainian presidential candidate and President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kyiv on April 11, 2019. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Poroshenko, 53, has made closer ties with NATO — and eventual NATO membership — a key part of his plans for Ukraine's security.   

Wynnyckyj said the Ukrainian president should be given credit for rebuilding Ukraine's army and keeping the conflict in eastern Ukraine from spreading. 

However, Poroshenko's campaign for re-election has been weakened by near-constant allegations of bribery and corruption and by him being part of the oligarch class many Ukrainians feel needs to be tamed.

Canadian military instructors and Ukrainian servicemen take part in a military exercise in Yavoriv, Ukraine, on July 12, 2016. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

"People are dissatisfied with the economic situation," said Wynnyckyj. "The vote driver is domestic policy."

Allies could be nervous

However, Wynnyckyj said Ukraine's Western allies, particularly Canada, have reason to be nervous about the country's potential change in direction.

Canada has been at the forefront of many initiatives to improve democracy and fight corruption in Ukraine. Militarily, it's also an important partner in the NATO training mission outside Lvyv, which has helped improve the qualifications of more than 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers.

The concern, said Wynnyckyj, isn't that Ukraine will undergo a radical pivot towards Russia, but rather that a highly polarized electorate may turn on Zelensky if he's unable to deliver his promise of quickly improving the economy.

"Large urban centres are voting en mass for Poroshenko while rural areas are voting for Zelensky. Those people will become dissatisfied with him very shortly — and when that happens we have additional civil unrest.

"That's something that really worries me."

Tourists visit the Swallow's Nest castle near the Black Sea resort of Yalta, Crimea, on July 20, 2016. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

Sergii Mokreniuk now calls Ukraine's capital his home and works for its government as a senior official in its "Ministry of Temporary Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced People of Ukraine."

Among his duties is formulating the sanctions list of Russian officials involved in Crimea and foreign companies that conduct business there. After Ukraine's political leaders approve the list, it's circulated to other Western countries and helps determine which Russian individuals and entities face travel and business restrictions.

"We need to work hard every day if we want to live in Crimea again," he said.

And if Zelensky wins?

"Whoever is the president, I work for Ukraine, for Crimea and for Crimeans."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.