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Ukraine: The Third Revolution

“No promises, so no disappointments,” said Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky during the election campaign that made him the president last May. It was a daring, even cynical thing for a politician to say, but then he’s not a politician.

Zelensky is a television comedian who really doesn’t have much in the way of policies yet – but he does represent a fresh start for Ukraine, and that’s what voters wanted. After two non-violent popular revolutions in 2004 and 2014 that promised change, twice the country ended up back in the hands of the same old corrupt post-Soviet oligarchs. Zelensky didn’t need to make promises. He just needed to be different.

He hasn’t actually done much since he got elected, but that’s because he doesn’t have a majority in the Rada (parliament). In fact, he doesn’t have anybody in the Rada, because his party, Servant of the People, was only formed last year. So his first priority had to be a fresh election for a new parliament. It’s happening next Sunday.

Nobody expects Zelensky to get the astounding 73% victory that he got in the presidential election, but the public has become a good deal more positive about the future since his election. An opinion poll last week showed that optimism was up from 39% late last year to 71% now.

If Zelensky’s party doesn’t win an absolute majority in the Rada, it will at least get 45-48% of the vote. Then he just has to pick a coalition partner from among four smaller parties that will get 10% or less. The likeliest would be Holos, the new party founded by rock-star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk.

Yes, I know. Two showbiz figures, complete novices in politics, trying to run a country of 44 million people (which, by the way, is in a proxy war with Russia). What could possibly go wrong?

But if you are ready for generational turn-over, as Ukrainian voters obviously are, then by definition the politicians you back will be younger people – Zelensky is 41, and Vakarchuk is 44 – with little experience in politics.

They do have experience in other walks of life, though. Zelensky grew up in the mostly Russian-speaking steeltown of Krivoi Rog in the Ukrainian rustbelt, and managed to get a law degree before becoming a comedian and then building a successful TV production company.

Vakarchuk is not just a singer. He also has a doctorate in theoretical physics – and after the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 he actually sat as a deputy in the Rada for a short time before quitting in disgust at the corruption and infighting.

Most of the members of the new Rada will also be tyros. Vakarchuk’s party is so dedicated to changing the way things are done that it is not letting any member of the current parliament run on its list. Zelensky’s parliamentary list is more varied: about a one-third reformers, one-third people with personal or business ties to Zelensky – and one-third people with ties to Ihor Kolomoisky.

This is when the red lights start flashing, because Kolomoisky is a major oligarch who owns the TV channel that has been broadcasting Zelensky’s show, ‘Servant of the People’, for the past three years.

‘Servant of the People’ has a heart-warming plot in which Zelensky plays a high school teacher who is suddenly elevated to the presidency by the voters after his rant about the appalling state of Ukrainian politics, secretly taped by a student, goes viral.

Now Zelensky leads a real political party with that name, and he is living out the same miracle. Or is he just following a cunning strategy that he and Kolomoisky settled on around four years ago?

What did Kolomoisky stand to get out of it? Well, he was self-exiled in Israel because
of a huge business and legal dispute with Petro Poroshenko, another oligarch who was president at the time and might send him to jail. Kolomoisky could only go home if Poroshenko lost the next election.

But why would Zelensky play along with that? He was already very successful, and he could probably have sold that TV series to some other outlet. Did he just want to be president? And if so, did he really plan to do Kolomoisky’s bidding once he got the job?

Thinking too hard about this can drive you crazy. For example, Zelensky has just appointed Andriy Bohdan, once Kolomoisky’s lawyer, to the key job of head of administration in the president’s office. That’s pretty suspicious.

However, Bohdan has also served as lawyer to almost every other oligarch in the country, and he probably knows where all the bodies are buried. That would be very useful if Zelensky really plans to go after them all, which he must do if he intends to change the way the country is run. You can argue it both ways with equal plausibility.

Right or wrong, however, most Ukrainians currently believe that Zelensky is the real thing – and actually, so do I. Of course, I have been wrong a couple of times in the past.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 9. (“Nobody…now”; and “They…infighhting”)

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

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”)

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”)

Orthodoxy: the New Great Schism

6 January 2019

If you live long enough, almost anything is possible. It is now possible, for example, to hear the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, describe a former KGB agent and avowed atheist as a “miracle of God”.

The miracle in question, Vladimir Putin, made his career in the Soviet secret police before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which meant he had to be a member of the Communist Party. As a loyal Communist, he had to struggle against the evil influence of religion, the ‘opium of the people’, and as an ambitious careerist he did just that.

But the regime changed in 1991, and Putin had to carve out a new political career in a post-Communist Russia. So he got religion, or at least pretended to, and made an alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. That’s why he is now warning that there may be bloodshed if the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is allowed to break away from the Moscow patriarchate.

The president of Russia got the best education the Soviet state could provide, and his private opinion about the Russian Orthodox Church is probably not far from that of Pussy Riot (although they would agree on little else). But the Church has always served the interests of the Russian state if it is allowed to, and as the embodiment of the Russian state Putin feels obliged to return the favour.

What has upset Patriarch Kirill and his colleagues is that last weekend Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople granted a ‘tomos of autocephaly’ to Metropolitan Epiphanius of the newly formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Which probably needs a bit of translation.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is the head – or rather, the ‘first among equals’ – among the heads of the various national Orthodox Christian churches. ‘Constantinople’, actually now Istanbul, is still the headquarters of Orthodox Christianity although it has been under Muslim control for over 500 years.

The Ukrainians had asked Patriarch Bartholomew if they could have their own church back, and after due consideration he decided that they should. The tomos of autocephaly (independence) was the document that contained his decision. He was just putting things back the way they were.

Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, was the first capital of the Russian state, and naturally the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church as well. But Kiev was destroyed in the Mongol invasion of 1240, and for centuries afterwards the new centres of Russian civilisation were in the forests far to north.

In 1686, when Muslim slave-raiders from Crimea were still operating regularly in the vicinity of Kiev, the patriarch in Constantinople officially transferred the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church from Kiev to Moscow. All that’s really happening now is that Kiev is getting its own patriarch back.

The people who live in this area now are called Ukrainians, speaking a language somewhat different from Russian. Normal Orthodox rules say that each national group is entitled to its own national church, so what’s the problem? Politics, of course.

For three centuries after 1686, Ukraine was part of the Russia empire and its successor, the Soviet Union. It was the Russian Orthodox Church that made the religious decisions for everybody, and received the revenues from the 12,000 Orthodox parishes in Ukraine. But since Ukrainian independence in 1991, all that has been in question.

The question became more urgent with Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine since then. Moscow wanted to keep control of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, since it was a way to influence Ukrainian opinion in Russia’s favour. But for the same reason, it was a priority for Ukrainian nationalists to expel the Russian influence.

Ukraine won, and Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, thanked Patriarch Bartholomew last weekend “for the courage to make this historic decision….Finally, God sent us the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.” (Is Poroshenko really a believer? Maybe, but he’s certainly running for re-election in March.)

Putin and Poroshenko are both using religion for their own purposes, but Bartholomew just did what was right. That has a cost: the Russian Orthodox Church accounts for almost half of the 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world, and the hierarchy in Moscow has now broken off relations with the patriarchate in Constantinople. This is a schism that may take a long time to heal.

But Pussy Riot should have the final word. As they said in their famous ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2012 (for which two of them did serious jail-time):

The Church praises rotten leaders

The march of the cross consists of black limousines

Patriarch Kirill believes in Putin,

Would be better, the bastard, if he believed in God!

Virgin birth-Giver of God, drive away Putin!

Drive away Putin, drive away Putin!
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 15. (“The people…course”; and “But Pussy…Putin”)