Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian, performs during an event in Brovary, Ukraine, on Friday, March 29, 2019. Ukraine votes on Sunday in the first round of its presidential election. Photographer: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg
Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to exclude Ukraine's oligarchs from national politics © Bloomberg

With 73 per cent of the vote, Volodymyr Zelensky, a television comedian and producer, obtained a monster score in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election on April 21.

His resounding victory is a rejection of everything that his opponent, sitting president Petro Poroshenko, stands for in the eyes of many voters: a political-economic system where rich businessmen and corrupt politicians and officials still pull the strings.

Mr Zelensky, who will be sworn in by early June, finds himself in exactly the same position as the character he plays in the TV series, Servant of the People, that made him so hugely popular.

Mr Zelensky the actor plays a history teacher whose rants against the corrupt system are put online by his students, making him hugely popular and landing him in the presidency. All alone, with just a small group of friends, he takes on the mighty system, and wins.

Now the actor himself has been elected president in real life, and is also basically alone. Mr Zelensky does not have a political party that can back him in parliament, nor can he rely on support from the corrupt political-economic system (allegedly nefarious links with oligarch Igor Kolomoisky have yet to be proved). He has just a small group of personal advisers. Moreover, the competences of Ukraine’s president are limited to foreign affairs, defence, the public prosecutor’s office and the security services.

The forces opposing him are enormous. Ukraine’s economy is still dominated by a group of super-rich businessmen including Dmytro Firtash, Rinat Akhmetov, Victor Pinchuk, Mr Kolomoisky and, yes, Mr Poroshenko. Their dominant economic position gives them great influence in parliament, in the courts and in the media, where they own practically all the TV channels.

While Mr Zelensky has been light on the detail of policy proposals, he has been clear about his intention to make the fight against corruption his top priority, beefing up the anti-corruption agencies, and to remove the oligarchs from the political process. The oligarchs will do all they can to counter the new president’s plans.

The interests of the Ukrainian people and the EU run parallel: to develop Ukraine into a stable, prosperous democratic society governed by the rule of law. So it is also in the EU’s interest that Mr Zelensky succeeds. In the past few years the EU has let Mr Poroshenko get away too easily with doing his own thing.

It chose not to put strict conditions on the huge assistance the EU itself provides in both technical and financial support, even when it became clear that Ukrainian authorities were actively frustrating reforms. It must not repeat this mistake with Mr Zelensky.

The EU would do best to proceed along two tracks. It should actively support Mr Zelensky in priority policy areas, such as a definitive clean-up of the corrupt courts, the public prosecutor’s office and the self-willed and arbitrary internal security service.

It should also support the reform of electoral law, so that the parliament to be elected in October will represent the true wishes of the people and not those of the oligarchs; the introduction of an effective competition authority to break the oligarchs’ monopolies; and the promotion of foreign investment, so urgently needed for the modernisation of the economy and to secure its growth.

At the same time, the EU must not hesitate to take effective measures against influential Ukrainians who actively work against reform. The introduction of sanctions and the reintroduction of a visa requirement should not be ruled out.

After the broken promises of the Orange revolution of 2004 and the Maidan Revolution of Dignity of 2014, there now exists with Mr Zelensky a true opportunity to carry through irreversible reforms that would lead Ukraine to stable, democratic rule of law. Europe cannot ignore its historical duty.

Willem Aldershoff is an independent analyst of international relations and a former head of unit at the European Commission

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