Maturity test: What will happen to Ukraine and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the future?

Challenging the assumptions: the dependency on Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people

Writing about “post-war” at the moment is a thankless task and, as many would say, unnecessary. The fighting is still ongoing, and the enemy continues to throw waves of their “cannon fodder” at the positions of Ukrainian forces, killing innocent civilians with missile strikes. However, it is still worth considering the future, even hypothetically. Especially when there are occasional strange and sometimes provocative statements about it. As an example, the assertion of the head of the sociological group Rating, Oleksiy Antypovych, that if Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not serve a second presidential term, it will be a complete catastrophe for Ukraine.

Such a statement provokes a series of direct and indirect considerations. Firstly, framing the question in the style of “this country will simply collapse if he [Volodymyr Zelenskyy – ed.] doesn’t run for election” is a blatant disrespect for the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who defend the homeland with weapons in hand, as well as the millions of others who contribute to the victory over Russia in their own ways. If it weren’t for the Ukrainians’ readiness to defend themselves steadfastly, no amount of even the most eloquent speeches in the spirit of Churchill would have saved the president. This is precisely the dependency: Zelenskyy exists thanks to the Ukrainians, and not the Ukrainians and Ukraine exist thanks to Zelenskyy.

Secondly, Antypovych’s statement resembles the groundwork being laid by the Office of the President regarding future post-war elections, which it obviously contemplates. It is currently difficult to imagine who could hypothetically compete with the incumbent president, whose popularity ratings during the full-scale invasion would surpass even his “stellar time” in 2019. However, one day the war will end. And when the external threat at least temporarily recedes from the top of the agenda, everything will change.

A banal yet still striking example is Winston Churchill, who led the nation during the darkest moment in British history and led it to victory over Nazism. However, immediately after Germany’s surrender, the conservative party led by Churchill suffered a resounding defeat in the parliamentary elections. This occurred despite Churchill’s high personal reputation.

After the war, entirely different factors will come to the forefront than those that contribute to popularity during battle. Overcoming socio-economic challenges, material and spiritual reconstruction of society, and people’s desire to live peacefully and with dignity — those who give Ukrainians the greatest hope for such a development will become the favorites in electoral races. Whether Volodymyr Zelensky will be that person is far from certain.

See also: Fate of the “grain corridor”: can Russia withdraw from the agreement?

There are both objective and subjective reasons for this. Returning to “normalcy” after a large-scale war is never easy or quick. There will be difficulties that even the most talented politicians cannot avoid. And the realities of electoral democracy are such that most people prefer not to delve too deeply into the essence of the problems — who or what is the main culprit — and will gladly elect a “new face.” Petro Poroshenko (Ukrainian businessman and politician who served as the fifth president of Ukraine from 2014 to 2019) will not let you lie.

The potential “successor” operation and anticipated electoral considerations

It seems that due to this threat, another notable phrase was uttered in Antypovych’s interview: “If Volodymyr Zelenskyy is considering not running for a second presidential term, then a successor should be prepared already because the suddenness of this issue can cause catastrophic social consequences.” In other words, if the president’s ratings, for various reasons, do not offer high chances of re-election, a “preferred” candidate should be ready, allowing for cosmetic personnel changes while preserving the current ruling team.

During the times of independence, there was already an attempt to implement the “successor” operation when Leonid Kuchma tried to “transfer power” to Viktor Yanukovych through electoral violations and falsifications. The result was the Orange Revolution and the failure of Kuchma’s plan.

Antypovych is not the first one recently to test the electoral ground with the style of “if not us (Zelenskyy), then no one.” In combination with the concentration of enormous powers and assets in the hands of state institutions in the realities of martial law, concerns arise that someone in Bankova Street — and it’s not necessarily the president himself — may succumb to the temptation to utilize this newly formed Hobbes’s Leviathan for the purpose of retaining power in the future.

Russian aggression is a test of Ukraine’s viability as a state and of Ukrainians as a nation and society. Over the course of eight years, from February 2014 to February 2022, we have faced this challenge with difficulties and mistakes but managed to cope. The full-scale invasion has raised the stakes even higher, but Ukraine and Ukrainians have every chance to succeed in this regard. However, our trials do not end there.

Maturing as a society: recognizing roles and avoiding usurpation

What will happen to the country and society after the war, whether Ukrainians will finally be able to “return home” to Europe, not only culturally and mentally but also organizationally (through NATO and/or EU membership), will depend on the ability of both ordinary citizens and politicians in power to successfully pass the final test — preventing the usurpation of power under the slogans of “difficult times” and “if not us, then who?”

This will be a maturity test. In recent years, Ukrainian society has significantly matured, realizing many important things, including the value of its own state and that this state is primarily the Ukrainian people themselves, not politicians and bureaucrats. At the same time, no matter how difficult it may be for opponents to admit, over the past year, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has matured as a statesman. He is no longer the naive “new face” that spoke of seeking peace in Putin’s eyes and spread obvious and dangerous falsehoods. The full-scale war has changed Ukrainians, and it has also changed the person who was destined to lead the country in this critical time.

See also: “Ukraine’s losses will amount to trillions of dollars” —  economist on the consequences of the war

But have the president and his entourage matured enough to understand their society? Can they avoid a doomed attempt at usurpation? Can they finally forget the principle of “everything to friends, and the law to enemies” and stop twisting and bending laws at their discretion, demonstrating blatant voluntarism on many issues? Huge doubts creep in at this point. One reason is that many questions and problems, such as those in personnel policy, for example, are still not explained or commented on by the authorities, as if Ukrainians are whimsical and clueless children. And President Zelenskyy’s recent flirtatious “I won’t say” in response to a question about the tasks of Ukraine’s new ambassador to China, Pavlo Riabikin (mind you, a public servant acting on behalf of and at the expense of citizens), is not an isolated incident but rather a pattern.

Evaluating Zelenskyy’s Presidency: from wartime leader to normal conditions

Many people admire Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the president during wartime, but at the same time, they forget about numerous problems that Zelenskyy faced as the president under normal conditions. Inconsistency and chaos, pressure on political opponents, gradual destruction of important cultural institutions either through funding cuts (Ukrainian Book Institute and Ukrainian Cultural Foundation) or through deliberate destruction and sabotage (Dovzhenko Center), a love of “showing off” and corrupt projects like “grand construction”— the list can go on. Ultimately, Zelenskyy is not only defined by the appointment of Oksen Lysovyi as Minister of Education and Science, which brings certain positive hopes, but also by his dreadful predecessor, Shkliar, or any other equally significant destroyer, such as the Minister of Culture Tkachenko.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy may remain president for a second term if that is the desire of the majority of Ukrainian citizens on the hypothetical day of the elections. However, it should not be achieved through usurpation or the “successor” operation or any other manipulations that are thrown and will be thrown into the information space. Preventing such a scenario is the potential final (at least for a certain period) test of maturity for Ukrainians as a society. If society fully recognizes its role not only in defending the state during critical moments but also in its deliberate daily functioning of it, then there will be no insurmountable threats before that society. In that case, it doesn’t matter whether Ukrainians decide to mature for another five years under the leadership of Volodymyr Zelenskyy or leave him behind as an important transitional stage to move towards a post-war future with new leaders. We may not even suspect the names of those leaders yet.

Originally posted on Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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