This blog is part of EU-LISTCO, an innovative and timely project that investigates the challenges facing Europe’s foreign policy. A consortium of fourteen leading research institutions and universities aims to identify risks connected to areas of limited statehood and contested orders—and the EU’s ability to respond.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s whopping victory in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election over incumbent Petro Poroshenko—by 73 percent of the vote to 24 percent in the second-round runoff—has surprised many Ukrainian intellectuals who failed to predict such a stunning margin of victory.
Zelenskiy’s presidency is already becoming symbolic of today’s Ukraine. It is an interesting phenomenon that reflects the state of the country’s political and security institutions. The electoral result is producing an impact not only on Ukraine but also on the EU’s Eastern neighborhood more broadly, and beyond. Kyiv’s European partners should seize this opportunity to bolster their support for Ukrainians’ European aspirations.
Ukraine’s smooth if boring election testifies to the strength of the country’s democracy in spite of its de facto war with Russia. Zelenskiy’s victory is also exemplary of Ukraine’s resilience in three dimensions: institutional design, legitimacy, and trust.
First, despite the systemic chaos from the 2013–2014 Euromaidan antigovernment protests and Russia’s continuing hybrid aggression since 2014, Ukraine has rebuilt some vital institutions of statehood, such as the armed forces, modeled on Euro-Atlantic standards.
Second, the presidential election was legitimate. Even though there were serious worries about the election taking place in a crisis driven by contestation, the police and security forces did a remarkable job in maintaining public order. But of course, because Ukraine is not an authoritarian state, the police would have had neither the capacity nor the will to deal with mass protests in the case of a fraudulent vote.
Third, despite efforts by Poroshenko’s campaign to present Zelenskiy as a pro-Russian candidate, many experts characterized Zelenskiy’s victory as a counter-establishment win. It reflected Ukrainians’ very low levels of trust in established political parties and all state institutions except the military, border guards, and the emergency services. For many voters, the issues of the rule of law and social justice were the underlying motives for voting.
Even more remarkable was Zelenskiy’s win in light of the use of disruptive technologies, which are a source of both opportunities and threats to Ukraine’s and Europe’s security. His campaign focused on two main pillars: criticism of the incumbent president through references to high-level corruption in the defense industry; and massive visual messaging tailored to audiences with diverse political beliefs.
As a result, many voters who in the first round of the election opted for more traditional politicians, for example former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko or even pro-Russian Yuriy Boyko, gave their votes to Zelenskiy in the runoff. The digital strategists on Zelenskiy’s campaign used AI algorithms to segment and target voters through precision advertising on Instagram, YouTube, and other media. This allowed him to mobilize many voters, especially younger ones, who were traditionally not politically active.
Moreover, some of Zelenskiy’s messaging was inclusive: it universally addressed the issues of living standards, justice, corruption, and the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Political philosopher Mykhaylo Minakov noted that despite seeming to hold overwhelmingly populist views, Zelenskiy in fact had unifying messages for Ukrainian voters.
After the preliminary election results were announced, Zelenskiy’s first message was, “to all the post-Soviet states: look at us—everything is possible!” Reacting to a provocative move by the Kremlin to issue Russian passports to all residents of the occupied areas in Donbas, Zelenskiy eloquently challenged Russia’s authoritarian regime, saying, “A Russian passport actually means . . . the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest [and] the right not to have free and competitive elections.”
Zelenskiy’s victory and political messaging are challenging not only for Russia but also for the European and even the global political order. A debate is ongoing between proponents of the Western values-based liberal institutional order and the neorealists who reduce the international order to the pleasure of great powers and believe Ukraine’s place is in Russia’s backyard.
In fact, what we are seeing today is probably not one linear international order but a complex, multidimensional system of orders influenced by peoples, states, and communities that are being contested, adapting, and evolving. The uncertainty of this global order increases security risks. The management of those risks is the task not only of great powers but also of smaller states, experts, and civic organizations that have the technology to make a political and security impact.
The challenge before Zelenskiy’s team, which has already confirmed Ukraine’s constitutional goal of achieving EU and NATO membership, is to manage Ukraine’s statehood while speeding up institution-building processes.
New to politics, Zelenskiy will also have to manage poverty and national diversity as well as the web of oligarchs who will be demanding prizes. Oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy is believed to have been among Zelenskiy’s influences. Meanwhile, Poroshenko and other powerful political factions will be fighting to have more control and weaken Zelenskiy’s rule and Ukraine’s hybrid parliamentary-presidential system, in which the president’s powers are quite limited.
There is also the war in Donbas. A soldier is killed in action there every few days, while the Kremlin threatens Ukraine politically. The EU plays the role of transformative external actor for Ukraine, but many businesses and politicians, inclined to nationalist, isolationist, and populist agendas in the West, would prefer reaching an accommodation with Russia over supporting Ukraine’s democratic aspirations. What’s more, too many influential political players in the EU consider Ukraine not a European country and potential EU member but a part of Europe’s borderlands.
It is not yet clear how long Zelenskiy’s presidency will last. Yet, it may be a chance for Europe to affirm its values of democracy, human rights, peace, and solidarity by staying the course in supporting Ukraine’s emergence into a European state.
Maksym Bugriy is a lead researcher on the EU-LISTCO project with the Ukrainian Institute for Public Policy, a think tank. EU-LISTCO investigates the challenges posed to European foreign policy by identifying risks connected to areas of limited statehood.