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Ukraine: Nothing Left to Lose

Ukraine has a new president, and he’s a comedian! Oh, wait a minute, that’s not such a big deal. Guatemala was the first country to elect a comedian as president: Jimmy Morales, back in 2015. Although Morales turned sort of serious once he took office: he’s a right-wing nationalist who supports the death penalty and opposes abortion. Whereas Volodymyr Zelensky hasn’t turned.

Right through the presidential election campaign in Ukraine, Zelensky avoided speeches. Mostly he just toured the country with a comedy troupe, performed in skits, and did stand-up. And he’s not just a comedian, he’s a Jewish comedian, the very best kind. His style is south Ukrainian, sort of vaudeville, with a distinctive Jewish inflection, and people love it.

Congratulations to Ukraine, by the way, for having Jews as both president and prime minister (Volodymyr Groysman) at the same time, in the heart of traditionally anti-semitic Eastern Europe, and not even making a fuss about it. But what is Zelensky going to do for Ukraine now that he has been swept into office with a landslide majority (73 percent)? Nobody actually knows, and this may include Zelensky himself.

When Zelensky did offer more than jokes, in the short videos he released from time to time during the campaign, it still wasn’t policies. More like mood music, really.

“He’s from a family of Jewish Soviet intellectuals from a Russian-speaking industrial region [in eastern Ukraine],” Vyacheslav Likhachev of the National Minorities’ Rights Monitoring Group in Kyiv told the Haaretz newspaper. “He has repeatedly made fun of over-the-top [Ukrainian] national patriotic discourse.”

“Zelensky might make some symbolic gestures toward nationalist sentiment to fend off accusations that he’ll sell us out to Russia,” Likhachev continued, “but that seems unlikely to me. He probably realizes that it’ll be hard for him to win over the most nationalist-oriented part of society, so he’ll wash his hands of them so as not to alienate the majority.”

That will be a welcome change after five years of the pompous nationalist bilge of billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who won the presidency in 2014 after a popular revolt overthrew the pro-Russian stooge Viktor Yanukovych.

In a video Poroshenko released just before the sole presidential debate in Kiev’s huge Olympic Stadium last Friday, he tried to play the patriotic card: “There’s no room for jokes here. Being a president and supreme commander is not a game… it means being responsible for the people, for the country.” It would have sounded more persuasive if Poroshenko had done something about the corruption that has made oligarchs like him rich.

Zelensky’s response was lethal: “I’m not your opponent. I’m a verdict on you. I am the result of your mistakes.” And by a majority of almost three-to-one, Ukrainians voted to put their future in his hands. Although, to be frank, most of them doubt that he can really deliver the future of peace and prosperity that they hope for.

The only evidence they have of Zelensky’s dedication, honesty and wisdom is the television series he writes and stars in, ‘Servant of the People’. It’s a heart-warming story of a humble high-school history teacher whose rant about the dreadful state of the country is secretly recorded by his students, and goes viral when they upload it to You Tube. So he is elected president of Ukraine.

Zelensky is not a high-school teacher; he is a show-business millionaire with his own production company. He may be just as warm and sincere in person as Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, the former teacher and accidental president whom he plays in ‘Servant’. (It’s one of Ukraine’s most popular series, and is now nearing fifty episodes). Or he may not be.

Journalists are now working their way through all the box sets of ‘Servant of the People’, trying to glean some clues about what the new president has in mind. But that’s a thankless task, because a lot of the show is sheer fantasy (like the sequence where the frustrated Holoborodko machine-guns the entire parliament).

Ukrainian voters are not fools. They know they are buying a pig in an poke. But they calculate that things MIGHT change if Zelensky becomes president, whereas they certainly wouldn’t change if any of the usual suspects won the presidency. And things are certainly not good now.

Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe – far poorer than Russia. Millions of Ukrainians have left the country seeking work in Poland or Russia, and the low-intensity war against the Russian-backed separatists in the east drags on endlessly. No post-Soviet leader of Ukraine has made even a dent in the corrupt rule of the oligarchs. Indeed, most of them have been oligarchs themselves.

So why not vote for Zelensky? Most Ukrainians feel that they have nothing left to lose.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Zelensky…majority”; and “Journalists…parliament”)

Israeli Election and the West Bank

It shouldn’t have been a surprise when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Saturday, three days before the Israeli election, that he is going to annex all the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. After all, every other member of his Likud Party in the Israeli parliament (28 out of 29) had already said they wanted to do that. Yet it did come as a surprise..

Netanyahu had avoided saying it previously because as head of government his statement would have made it official policy, and according to international law annexing conquered territory is illegal. (Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 war, and has occupied it ever since.) The traditional Israeli policy has been to colonise as much of the territory as it can with Jewish settlers, but to insist that it was all open to negotiation in a peace settlement.

It never meant that, of course. Around 20% of the people in the West Bank and the adjacent parts of East Jerusalem, conquered at the same time, are now Jewish settlers (600,000 colonists among 2.4 million Palestinians), but they control 42% of the land. You don’t make that kind of investment if you’re really planning to give the land back to the Palestinians in the future.

But leaving the legal status of the Jewish settlements open actually enables them to go on expanding, whereas annexing the land the settlers now hold would implicitly recognise that the rest of the land really still belongs to the Palestinians, and stop the settlers from grabbing even more of it. Moreover, leaving the question open lets Israel’s Western allies and supporters ignore its actions.

Even Western media dodge the issue, using slippery formulas like the BBC’s famous line, which appears in almost every piece it does about the occupied territories: “The [Jewish] settlements are illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.” It is the exact legal and moral equivalent of saying that “Russia’s annexation of Crimea is illegal under international law, though Russia disputes this,” but in practice it lets the Israelis off the hook.

So why did Netanyahu change the policy now? The election, obviously. In response to a (probably planted) question from the audience at Saturday’s rally, he said: “You are asking whether we are moving on to the next stage – the answer is yes, we will move to the next stage. I am going to extend [Israeli] sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements.”

‘And the isolated settlements’ is an interesting phrase. Ariel Sharon’s famous exhortation in 1998 – “Everybody has to move; run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don’t grab will go to them” – had concrete effects.

‘Unauthorised’ Jewish settlements – often no more than a couple of trailers, a lot of razor wire, a small arsenal of weapons and an Israeli flag – sprang up on a lot of hilltops in the West Bank. If Netanyahu includes them and the roads that connect them in his ‘annexation’, it will be a final land grab that probably brings the portion of the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty above 50%.

Netanyahu is doing this now because his re-election campaign was running into a bit of trouble. He is under indictment on corruption charges, and his Likud party, which used to be seen as hard right, has ended up looking ‘soft right’ without ever changing its policies. It’s the centre of gravity in Israeli politics that has moved, with several right-wing parties following an ever harder line than Likud.

Likud will never form a government on its own; it would be doing well to win a quarter of the 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament). The country’s electoral system of proportional representation means all governments must be coalition governments, and Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners after the election are almost all further to the right than Likud.

To compete with them for votes during the election, and to draw them into a new coalition afterwards, requires Netanyahu to look ruthless and ultra-nationalist himself, and he has shown no reluctance to play that role. He also knows that his good friend Donald Trump will give him cover internationally when he annexes the West Bank.

Trump has already moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, an implicit endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Arab-majority east of the city after it was captured in the 1967 war. More recently he has formally recognised the illegal Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, a part of Syria also conquered in that war and now a territory where Israeli settlers make up half the population.

So would Trump also recognise an Israeli annexation of half the West Bank? Why not? Netanyahu might as well exploit Trump’s political strategy at home, which includes accusing the Democratic Party of being ‘anti-Semitic’, to get US approval of Israeli expansion while he is still in office. He might be gone in nineteen months.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“And the…50%”)

Ukraine Election

Unlike comedian Alec Baldwin, who is famous for his impersonation of President Trump on Saturday Night Live, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is famous for playing the anti-president, an accidental hero who sweeps into the presidency of Ukraine and cleans up all the corruption. He used to play it for laughs, and now he’s playing it for real.

Zelensky is now leading in the opinion polls for the Ukrainian election on Sunday with 25% of the vote, well ahead of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko (12%) and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (18%). (She’s the one who used to wear her hair in braids wound up around her head.)

The other third of the voters are currently divided between 36 other presidential candidates who will be eliminated in Sunday’s vote, which will also decide whether Poroshenko or Tymoshenko goes up against Zelensky in the two-person run-off three weeks later. Baldwin will never be the US president, but there’s a good chance that Zelensky will be the Ukrainian president.

What a heart-warming story, I hear you murmur. Humble comedian plays even humbler high-school history teacher Vasyl Holoborodko, whose classroom diatribe against the corruption of Ukrainian politics is secretly filmed by a student. It goes viral on the internet, and humble teacher is instantly elevated into the presidency by a grateful public.

The story gets even better. In real life, ‘Servant of the People’, the TV show about the teacher-turned-president, plays on the country’s biggest television channel, 1+1, and is a nationwide hit. Then the guy playing the teacher, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, decides that he has a chance of working the same miracle in real life. So he puts himself up for the presidency, and lo! The public agrees.

This is not art imitating life; it is life imitating art. But if you are a nasty old cynic who suspects the worst about people’s motives, then you are probably right, at least in this case. Zelensky is not just a simple comic who got lucky.

A little background. Ukraine is one of the less fortunate post-Soviet countries, with ageing heavy industries, few natural resources, and barely a third of Russia’s per capita income (in terms of purchasing power parity). It has been mired in a low-intensity war with Russian proxies in its eastern provinces for the past five years, and has lost Crimea to Russia for good.

You might think that, in these circumstances, political debate would concentrate on ending the war and raising popular living standards, but the war is barely mentioned and the main economic debate is about ‘corruption’.

That debate would make sense if it was really about cleaning up an extremely corrupt political system dominated by the ‘oligarchs’ (who also control most of the media). In practice, it is mainly a struggle between rival oligarchs, using accusations of corruption to target each other when in fact they are all corrupt almost by definition.

Poroshenko, a leading oligarch who won the election after the 2014 revolution, was at daggers drawn with Ihor Kolomoysky, the second-richest man in Ukraine, from the beginning of his presidency. In 2016 he nationalised Kolomoysky’s PrivatBank, the largest bank in the country, and Kolomoysky went into self-imposed exile in Israel while fighting Poroshenko’s actions in the courts and the media.

It was at this time that Kolomoysky and Volodymyr Zelensky, already a successful comedian with his own production company, began developing the TV series about the accidental president, and it went on air on Kolomoysky’s 1+1 channel two years ago. It was an instant runaway hit, and now Zelensky is the leading candidate for the real presidency.

Is Zelensky just a stalking horse behind which Kolomoysky can take control of Ukraine away from Poroshenko? Not necessarily. The two men may have a pragmatic alliance but their own separate agendas. But it is noteworthy that Zelensky showed up at Kolomoysky’s birthday party last year and was introduced as “our president”.

That large numbers of Ukrainians should fall for a fake maverick (who doesn’t even offer much in the way of concrete policies) is a measure of their disappointment with the status quo of rule by oligarchs behind a facade of democracy. Russia’s relative prosperity is mostly due to its oil, but it also owes much to the fact that Vladimir Putin has brought its oligarchs under control. In Ukraine, their rivalries still dominate everything.

There is not much reason to believe that Ukraine will finally turn the corner in this election and escape from the miseries and failures of its first three decades of independence. On the other hand, it’s not getting any worse either, and for the moment the war in the east seems encysted and confined. Hope dies last, and maybe Zelensky will surprise us.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“That…everything”)

Kim-Trump Summit 2019

On a scale of one to ten, what are the chances that the meeting between Chairman Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump in Vietnam on 27-28 February (or any subsequent meeting) will end with a clear and irreversible commitment to the ‘denuclearisation’ of North Korea? Zero.

What are the chances that this summit (plus lots of further negotiations) could substantially reduce the threat of war between the two participants in this week’s meeting in Hanoi, and also between the two states in the Korean peninsula? Quite good, actually.

Kim Jong-Un, and his father and grandfather before him, have devoted enormous time and money to providing North Korea with an effective nuclear deterrent against the United States, which requires the ability to strike the American homeland. He may make all sorts of other deals, but he will never give that up.

North Korea doesn’t need to match US nuclear capabilities – the ability to deliver only a few nuclear weapons on American soil would be a sufficient deterrent – but Kim will be well aware of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, heads of state who both died precisely because they didn’t have nuclear weapons.

There is no deal available that would protect North Korea from US nuclear weapons, since they can reach the North directly from the United States. No amount of local disarmament – the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, even the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from all of East Asia – could change that reality, and the United States is not planning to abolish its strategic nuclear deterrent.

The only safe road to the future, therefore, is a political deal that greatly reduces tensions between the two countries while acknowledging that a state of MUTUAL nuclear deterrence will henceforward prevail between them.

Mutual deterrence is what has now obtained for a long time between the United States and its two peer rivals, Russia and China. The huge asymmetry between the power of the US and North Korea does not lead to a different conclusion. Nuclear weapons are the great leveller: in practical terms, just a few are enough to deter, even if the other side has hundreds of times as many (which the United States does).

It’s going to be a long negotiating process, because few Americans are ready yet to accept that this is the logic of the situation. Many would even reject it on the grounds that Kim Jong-Un is crazy and might make a first strike against the United States, although there is no evidence to support that belief. Being a cruel dictator is not at all the same as being suicidal, and a nuclear attack on the United States would be suicide.

Trump almost certainly does not understand that the only successful outcome of this negotiation must be mutual deterrence. Indeed, most senior American officials, although far wiser and better informed than Trump, still do not accept that fact. But they will probably get there in the end, and the negotiations will lead them along the path.

That’s why Trump’s fulsome praise of the North Korean leader, however naive – “He wrote me beautiful letters and we fell in love” – is actually helpful. So is the vagueness on all the hard questions that marked the first Kim-Trump summit last June, and will doubtless mark this one as well.

Equally useful is South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s parallel initiative to get a North Korean-South Korean detente underway. Cross-border trade and travel, the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Park (where South Korean industries were producing goods using hundreds of thousands of North Korean workers), and direct meetings between Moon and Kim (three in the past year) all help to build confidence about a peaceful future.

A much better relationship, not unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament, is the right goal to aim for. The kind of concessions that could help include a gradual relaxation of the sanctions that stifle the North Korean economy and a formal peace treaty ending the 1950-53 Korean War, perhaps in return for very big cuts in North Korea’s huge conventional army (twice the size of South Korea’s, in a country with half the population).

Later on, there could be talks about permanently capping the number of North Korean nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles (which is still in the dozens, not the thousands), in return for withdrawing some or all of the US troops from South Korea. But leave that stuff for now and just work on confidence-building measures.

Holding this summit in Vietnam was a good move, since it will show Kim a country that has built a prosperous economy without ceasing to be a Communist-ruled dictatorship. He will be much more flexible if he believes (rightly or wrongly) that he can open up the North Korean economy without being overthrown.

And there’s no need to work on building up Donald Trump’s confidence.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“That’s…future”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.