After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, for a long time the Western world has only been interested in the main heir of the Soviet power—Russia. But since 2014, when dissatisfaction with the authorities caused massive protests in Kiev, Ukraine, the world’s attention has been drawn to Russia’s closest neighbour.
For a long time the processes that have taken place in Russia have been repeated to a greater or lesser extent in almost every former Soviet country. In most cases, the fragile democracies could not cope with the difficulties of the transition period, which generally led to the emergence of large-scale corruption systems that penetrate deep into the state structures. To date, the latter is the most deleterious feature of most of post-Soviet countries and Ukraine in particular.
On the other hand, Ukraine has always been slightly out of the picture. There has never been a single party that firmly held power in its hands and whose authority was not challenged by other political blocs. Although president Viktor Yanukovych (2010–2014) had very close relations with the Russian president Vladimir Putin, he failed to resist the people’s discontent in 2014. In response to the Ukrainian government’s suspension of negotiations over Ukraine’s association with the European Union, mass street demonstrations took place demanding Yanukovych to resign. Eventually, his loyalty to Putin earned him a hurried flight out of the country.
However, despite having gotten rid of the pro-Kremlin president, Ukraine could not get rid of the corrupt power of the oligarchs. The inability of politicians to change the economic situation, the increase in taxes or the protracted civil war in the eastern regions backed by Russia were the main issues that concerned young Ukrainians before the elections in April 2019.
In the course of these elections, I interviewed more than 40 young people in the streets of Kiev on the situation in their homeland. Although there was no unanimity in many of the topics questioned, they have demonstrated a moving spirit of strong patriotism and faith in Ukraine’s future prosperity.
Almost each resident of Ukraine is bilingual. The Ukrainian language has been suppressed during Tsarist and Soviet times but nowadays, especially given tense relations with Russia, a gradual “Ukrainisation” has come into action. Nevertheless, it was never a cause of conflicts within the country. Despite the fact that Ukraine is virtually still divided into Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking parts, all respondents undoubtedly confirmed their Ukrainian nationality.
Furthermore, all interviewees spoke in favour of an unconditional return of Crimea to Ukraine, although no one expected any change under the current Russian establishment. Interestingly, the vast majority of those surveyed believe that the results of the 2014 Crimean referendum, the “legal basis” for the peninsula’s entry into Russia, has truly reflected the reality.
Yet all respondents agreed that Russia’s actions were illegal and that the loss of Crimea was unfair to Ukraine.
Kiev’s central district has become a place of ever-growing unrest during the winter of 2013/2014. Some of the respondents personally took part in those protests and shared their memories: “I was there myself, waving the flag, shouting slogans, helping people. I was overwhelmed by the spirit of hope and freedom. But then it ended. There were shootings and it was scary.”
Only one-third of the respondents expressed their support for the recently elected president Volodymyr Zelensky. As a showman and comedian who has never been in politics before, he is a very popular figure known for criticising the political elite of Ukraine. After his nomination on New Year’s Eve 2018, he soon became the leader of the election race and now a leader of the country with an outstanding margin of more than 73 percent of votes.
Zelensky’s lack of experience is the main reason for his low popularity among young people. They criticise the TV drama he starred in, “The Servant of the People,” which became an ideal campaign to run for a president: “It’s one thing to be a president on screen, but it’s quite another to be one in real life,” three students summed up their thoughts.
Only those who unconditionally supported Zelensky put their hopes in these elections: “Yes, he is without experience and not a politician. But this is a good thing. He is outside of the system and his team will help him manage the country. Above all, he is not involved in corruption. We’re tired of hearing the same faces repeating the same words. Nothing changes with them. They are doing well, their kids study abroad, they have expensive cars and live in private houses. They have forgotten about the ordinary people’s problems.”
Of course, Zelensky is most likely guided by a populist agenda. He has repeatedly stressed that there should not be a linguistic division of the population—both languages are equal parts of Ukrainian culture. But it is still unclear how exactly he is going to fight corruption.
Similarly, his plans to revive the economy are not a well-defined program. According to his supporters, his primary task is “to change the power.” According to Zelensky himself—to ensure peace in the country.
“Zelensky doesn’t see the whole picture. He’s aware of what is happening in the country, but doesn’t have enough knowledge to correct the situation. A lot of people don’t vote at all. I didn’t vote for Zelensky, although he won’t harm the country.”
Other doubts related to Zelensky concern his connection to the disgraced oligarch, Igor Kolomoysky, who owns the TV channel Kvartal 95 that broadcasts Zelensky’s show and conflicted with the former president Petro Poroshenko. As one interviewee stated “Of course they know each other, but I‘m not sure about the money. Whether he supports him financially or not, nobody can say.”
Be that as it may, the connection of the recently inaugurated president to the oligarch hardly worries Ukrainians since there is no proven evidence. Development of medicine, the economy, support of small and medium businesses and a decrease in taxes— that is what young Ukrainians desire.
At the moment, Zelensky initiated a number of radical reforms including the abolition of the deputy’s immunity and further announced the dissolution of parliament and early elections, which are to be held in July 2019. According to the most recent opinion polls, about one-quarter of the population is ready to vote for Zelensky’s party.
The people I have talked to would like to stay in the country despite all the difficulties that the country is experiencing at the moment: “I don‘t believe in my state or in social assistance right now. But I do not want to leave. I am Ukrainian, I want to live in my country. I want to be proud of it and raise my children here, not to run around the world in search of a better life.”
The time has come for Mr. Zelensky to prove that he can be a real president. The fate of Ukraine is now in his hands.