Five years after deadly street protests toppled Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed leader, voters have begun to offer their verdict on what’s happened since. A first round of presidential elections has left President Petro Poroshenko facing an April 21 runoff against the country’s most-watched comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a political novice. Weighed down by plunging popularity amid a geopolitical tug-of-war that has reignited Cold War tensions, polls suggest the incumbent will lose. A parliamentary election will follow in October, when the anti-establishment mood that’s fueled Zelenskiy’s rise is likely to persist.
1. Why is the 2014 revolution still an issue?
Ukrainians revolted with the aim of building a modern, transparent state whose fortunes were aligned westward with the European Union and no longer with Russia, its neighbor to the east. The split enraged Russia, which wants to maintain influence in its former stomping ground and discourage similar unrest at home. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, proclaiming a duty to defend the ethnic Russians who dominate the population there. Worse, in the eyes of many Ukrainians who longed for a transparent and accountable government, endemic corruption has endured.
2. Why is the president unpopular?
The demonstrators who dislodged Poroshenko’s Russian-backed predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, knew the post-revolution path wouldn’t be smooth and were ready to accept short-term economic pain and Russia’s ire. They wanted one thing above all: meaningful steps to lock up crooked bureaucrats. Under Poroshenko’s leadership, no senior official has been convicted, and Ukraine’s corruption ranking has only improved moderately. Transparency activists are routinely harassed, with one dying in an acid attack. The president is being blamed for this state of affairs. Being a billionaire whose name popped up in the Panama Papers hasn’t helped.
3. How’s he trying to win back voters?
By taking a more nationalist tone in his campaign messaging. Gone is the "Living in a new way" slogan that helped him to the presidency in 2014. In its place is "Army, language, faith," which hammers on three key themes -- the lingering conflict with Russian-backed fighters, Ukraine’s post-Soviet identity and the Poroshenko-backed establishment of a church independent of Russia.
4. What issues separate the two candidates?
Zelenskiy’s popularity is largely down to his lack of political baggage, though he’s begun to surround himself with established reformers. The comic has taken aim at Poroshenko over the persistent graft and financial hardship he’s overseen since taking power. But he isn’t immune to murky accusations himself, repeatedly denying political links to the billionaire whose TV channel airs his shows. Poroshenko, for his part, has hinted that he’ll try to co-opt Zelenskiy’s core backers by starting to court younger voters and highlighting his opponent’s inexperience. He’s so far targeted pensioners with a pre-election boost to monthly payments.
5. What would investors prefer?
Having watched emerging markets like Argentina and Turkey get clobberedlast year, the most important thing for Ukraine investors is that cooperation with the International Monetary Fund is maintained. Poroshenko kept aid flowing, albeit with delays, as he dragged his heels on reforms. While vague on the specifics of his policy agenda, Zelenskiy has said commitments under a $3.9 billion loan approved should be honored. With Ukraine frequently named among the most-vulnerable developing nations to potential financial stress, support from the Washington-based lender is key to avoiding a crisis.
6. Why is the world concerned about Ukraine’s election?
The West is invested in Ukraine’s success. On top of the IMF’s support, billions of dollars have flowed from the World Bank and the European Union, while the U.S. has provided loan guarantees and military aid. Russia, meanwhile, is intent on gradually undermining Ukraine’s economy. Any destabilizing outcome of the election would offer fodder for Putin’s notion that uprisings bring only chaos.