Sunday's landslide runoff election win in Ukraine by TV comic Volodymyr Zelenskiy over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko is being hailed by the entertainer's supporters as a fresh start for Europe’s poorest country.

But the 41-year-old’s critics, who dubbed him the “hologram candidate” during the campaign, say it remains unclear how he’ll end the war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, something he’s promised to do, and fear the last laugh could be on Ukrainians for entrusting the presidency to a man without government experience.

Nor is it clear how he’ll guide Ukraine to prosperity and free it of endemic corruption.  The entertainment-based campaign of the savvy showman-turned-candidate, which relied on his popular weekly TV show, Servant of the People, and Instagram to reach voters, provided few clues.  

All Zelenskiy has said when it comes to the long-running conflict in the east is that he won’t cede the territory seized by Moscow-directed separatists but is prepared to negotiate directly with Russia’s vastly more experienced leader, Vladimir Putin, who has been determined to keep Ukraine within Moscow’s sphere of influence.

A fresh face

Five years after the Euro-Maidan protests led to the ouster of a corrupt pro-Russian president who turned his back on Europe, Ukrainians yearned for a fresh face, say pollsters, hence Zelenskiy’s emphatic win. And they were willing to discount the risk of backing a political newbie with alleged ties to an oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, to get something new.  

“They had five years of Poroshenko, and want something (anything) different to that – and are willing to take a risk with Zelenskiy, and even with Kolomoisky potentially in tow. But it’s the fact that Zelenskiy himself is neither an oligarch nor a politician, which offers the prospect of something different,” noted academic and writer Timothy Ash on the eve of voting.

Zelenskiy, best known for his role in a TV series about a schoolteacher who vaults to the presidency on the wave of anti-corruption disgust, is untarnished (so far) by Ukrainian politics. And that was sufficient for many voters disillusioned with the oligarch-politician Poroshenko, who on Friday was jeered during a face-to-face debate with the comic, especially when Poroshenko warned his opponent wouldn’t be able to stand up to Putin. Zelenskiy attracted cheers for saying, “I am the result of your mistakes. I am a verdict on you.”

Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who played
FILE - Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who played the nation's president in a popular TV series, and is running for president in next month's election, is photographed on the set of a movie, in Kyiv, Feb. 6, 2019.

Zelenskiy launched his candidacy with a surprise New Year's Eve announcement and soon gained a strong following of hopeful voters. Unusually, he attracted support from all of Ukraine’s regions, but his strongest backing came from eastern and southern Ukraine, where many speak Russian. Zelenskiy was born in the southeast and speaks Russian. Poroshenko tried to use those facts to cast his challenger as a Putin pawn.

But fatigued by the war in the east that has left so far more than 13,000 people dead, most Ukrainians cared more about their daily economic struggle to make ends meet than foreign policy. They also felt let down, say analysts, by what they saw as the slow pace of change and reform under Poroshenko, especially in the effort to rid Ukraine of endemic corruption. Maidan had prompted high hopes, which for many Ukrainians remain frustratingly unfulfilled.

People stand on the street with a billboard depict
People stand on the street with a billboard depicting Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin looking at each other om the background, in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 17, 2019.

Focus of hopes

Now Zelenskiy is the focus of hopes, but playing the president on TV will be very different from doing the job for real and blurring make-believe and reality could prove dangerous. His mantra has been,“No promises, no disappointment.” His opponents say he has turned ignorance into a virtue.

Last week, he said, “I will do everything I can,” adding, “If I fail, I will leave.” But to do what exactly? His side-stepping of questions during the campaign and lack of detailed policy has meant that people voted for him for contradictory reasons. Some of his Russian-speaking supporters see him as the man who will restore ties with neighboring Russia; those voters more oriented to the West believe he will be the one who takes the country into NATO, advancing the aims of the Maidan revolt.

Some of his voters inevitably are going to be disappointed.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (C) gestures
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (C) gestures in front of his supporters as he waits for presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky for a debate before a high-stakes run-off vote at Olympiysky Stadium in Kyiv, April 14, 2019.

Zelinskiy’s election left many blinking in the Western diplomatic community. While voicing frustration with Poroshenko, and criticism of his efforts to move fast enough to curtail large-scale corruption, they say at least he was a known quantity. Western diplomats based in Kyiv have told VOA they don’t worry Zelinskiy has a secret anti-Western agenda.

And they argue the debate about whether Ukraine should look west or east toward Moscow appears to be over, at least for now. It is the first, they say, since the Soviet era that has not been dominated by fierce debate about whether Ukraine’s best prospects rest with the West or Russia. The inexperienced Zelinskiy, however, "could be tripped up by the shrewd guys running the Kremlin," a French diplomat told VOA.

From the perspective of Moscow, Zelinskiy must have been preferable to the hardline Poroshenko, according to many analysts. But Vladimir Frolov, a Russian political analyst, though, argues the Kremlin may have wished for a Poroshenko win but one that left the incumbent battered and diminished and ill-equipped to block pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians from securing control of Ukraine’s parliament in elections scheduled for later this year.

In an op-ed in the magazine Republic, Frolov says Zelinskiy’s election could well turn out to be a “mixed bag” for Moscow — and he predicts it won’t usher in any breakthroughs when it comes to the conflict in the east.

Spurning closer ties with Brussels in favor of Moscow sparked the street protests that ultimately led to the Maidan ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. It seems unlikely that Zelinskiy will want to go down that path, especially as he needs greater integration with the West, and greater assistance from the United States and western European states, to kickstart Ukraine’s economy.