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President Zelensky is an international star. At home, it’s more complicated

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Regular presidential elections should have taken place in Ukraine this month. 

But on day one of Russia’s full-scale invasion of our country, Ukraine’s government introduced martial law, under which presidential, parliamentary, and local elections are all suspended. Instead of getting to vote, my peers and I are stuck with a president we did not vote for, but whose image has changed drastically since February 24, 2022. 

Has Ukraine’s democracy become another victim of war?

Though our country’s democracy has roots dating back to practices instituted by the ancient Greeks who arrived to the territory of today’s Ukraine in the sixth century BCE, its modern instantiation of democratic rule is still in the making. 

In May 2014, I stood in a queue outside a school in a post-industrial residential Kyiv neighborhood on the left bank of the Dnipro River. Inside were voting booths for the presidential election, which had been announced several months after the previous president fled the country. I remember the mood well: there was a consensus in the air that we needed to have a fast, transparent election. 

The president who had fled, Viktor Yanukovych, had won office in a 2010 run-off election in which the opposition claimed there was systematic vote fraud. In office, Yanukovych had gone against the wish of most Ukrainians by declining to join the European Union. Instead, in 2013, he had announced intentions to join the Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union. This would have made Ukraine economically dependent on its imperial neighbor. 

In November 2013, hundreds of people, mostly students and activists, gathered at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv to protest his decision. The protests swelled. On the last day of November, police brutally beat protestors, and the next day, even more people came to the square, turning it into a protest camp with stages, broadcasting facilites, first aid posts, and self-defense units. It was the largest amount of people to ever gather there. In February, when police attacked, violent clashes sparked and killed 100 protestors, known as the Heavenly Hundred. 

Their actions made history. This was the Revolution of Dignity, the moment when Ukrainian society resolutely separated itself from Russia. The country wanted change. The elections that followed were supposed to provide it.

Those elections resulted in the victory of Petro Poroshenko, an old-school politician- businessman. There was no runoff: He won the first round with more than 50% of the vote. This was the second time that this had happened. The first was in 1991, when Leonid Kravchuk got 61% at the elections held simultaneously with the referendum for Ukrainian independence. (90% of the populace voted in favor of independence.) 

Thinking about 1991 and 2014, I ask myself: Do these decisive victories demonstrate that Ukrainian society has an ability to mobilize quickly again in times of radical transformation? Such major upheavals seem to happen here every 10 years—and we’re living in one now. What happens next? Can we keep hold of the democracy we’ve made?

Looking back to 2014 with hindsight, I can see that Poroshenko seemed to be the best-equipped candidate to lead the country: He was a diplomat by education, had experience in state finance and was a businessman, which meant—at that time—that he had a lot to lose. Russian troops were in the country then, as now. Crimea, as well as parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east of the country, were already occupied by Russia. And back then, many Ukrainians volunteered to go fight on the newly formed frontline. 

In 2014, the starting war was a reason to hold elections. Sensing the upcoming turmoil, everyone wanted to at least secure the names of those who would govern the country in the near future. Parliamentary elections were held that year, too, and with them the process of government formation began. It was bumpy and imperfect, but fueled by an eagerness for a democratic transformation. 

Ukrainian voters value the ability to bring about regular changes of power. Winning one election—even if, like Poroshenko, you win on a wave of post-revolutionary adrenaline—does not guarantee that you’ll remain in your comfy chair for longer than one term. 

With Poroshenko, this was the case. In 2019, he lost by nearly a 50% margin to an ambitious, young candidate who had appeared straight from show business. You may know him: Volodymyr Zelensky.

The majority of my generational and political bubble, people between 30 and 40 years old who had devoted our most energetic years to secure post-Maidan transformations, did not vote for Zelensky. We took his promises to fight the corruption and nepotism of the country with skepticism. They mirrored too much his onscreen alter ego in the popular TV series Servant of the People, a history teacher who becomes president after a passionate anti-corruption rant that goes viral. Our universe of “highbrow” intellectual and political culture clashed with “lowbrow” TV that apparently had broken into the real world.

Under the banner of an ambitious effort for “efficiency,” Zelensky and the head of his administration gradually concentrated political power in the executive office even before the full-scale war started in 2022. Because the majority of seats in parliament are held by Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People (yes, it’s named after his TV show), his office had the backing to initiate a number of reforms, many of which were criticized by civil society institutions. 

After Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s resistance catapulted Zelensky to heroism. He gained the stardom he had once wanted from show biz. It wasn’t undeserved: Skeptics from 2019, including me, were touched and proud on February 25, 2022, when he released a video from Bankova Street proving that he hadn’t left the country and was going to stay and fight.

But two years later, our adrenaline and feelings of pride have waned. Society needs more than just powerful speeches that finish with “Glory to Ukraine!” The dilemma that many journalists initially faced in 2022—whether or not to criticize the country’s governing figures in wartime—has been resolved, and not in the leaders’ favor. Journalists have brought back their anti-corruption investigations, while citizens are holding some civil demonstrations, even despite their prohibition under martial law.

Despite this, most Ukrainians don’t feel an urgent need to hold elections. In a country of 43 million, 6 million have fled the country, 4 million are internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands are serving in the army. Almost 20% of Ukrainian territory is currently occupied by Russia and significantly more is being constantly shelled. Elections, at least on the national level, don’t feel crucial at the moment. 

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With two revolutions in the last 20 years behind us, we are instead strengthening our skills of maintaining democracy by challenging our leaders. Though we are fans of fast political changes that resemble spectacular sprints, we’ve come to a moment at which we need to learn how to run a marathon. 

What does that look like? This means fighting against unjust governmental decisions in courts, organizing advocacy campaigns for the rightful legislation, monitoring (via NGOs) all spheres of social and political life, and taking action when something is not right. It also means planning for the future by adopting the laws necessary to enter the European Union.

Our president may be an international star with multiple Time magazine covers, but he still must serve his people. We are not voting this spring, but we will not miss a chance to remind him of that.

Daria Badior is a critic, journalist and editor based in Kyiv, Ukraine. She co-curates the Kyiv Critics’ Week films festival and is writing a book about the post-Maidan generation of culture-makers. This was written for Zócalo Public Square.

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