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[Leonid Bershidsky] A comedian‘s triumph is a test for benevolent populism

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has achieved something none of his predecessors managed: Winning a parliamentary majority, obviating the need to form a coalition. Whether he knows how to capitalize on this unprecedented victory will be evident from his next steps.

According to preliminary results from Sunday’s snap election, Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People grouping looks set to not only win 122 seats under the party list system, but a further 125 seats under the first-past-the-post system, giving him control of the country’s 450-seat legislature. That will liberate him from the horse-trading over government jobs that usually follows elections in Ukraine.

It’s an extraordinary result, all the more so given that many of the year-old party’s candidates were political novices running against well-known local politicians and celebrities.

Sick and tired of post-Soviet governance -- a mix of paternalism, corrupt self-interest and Potemkin village-building -- Ukrainians have handed their ex-comedian president a unique mandate that could be used to achieve two much-needed breakthroughs: An economic one, based on privatization and deregulation, and an end to the war in the east.

Action on the first depends on Zelenskiy’s cabinet picks, especially on the next prime minister. Immediately after the vote, the president said that he favors a technocratic government rather than a politicized one.

Candidates include Andriy Kobolyev, who runs the state oil and gas company; Yuriy Vitrenko, another executive from the same firm; Vladyslav Rashkovan, an alternate executive director at the International Monetary Fund; and two former ministers under former President Petro Poroshenko who later became Zelenskiy’s earliest backers: Former Economics Minister Aivaras Abromavicius and former Finance Minister Oleksandr Danilyuk.

Among this lineup, Rashkovan and Vitrenko appear to best fit Zelenskiy’s description of an ideal candidate, “An economic guru and a new face.” While the others are well-known public figures, these two have kept a relatively low profile.

Melinda Haring, the well-informed Ukraine specialist at the Atlantic Council, recently spent some time with all the candidates and liked Vitrenko, calling him “gregarious and charming.” She pointed out, however, that both his and Kobolev’s expertise is in energy. Rashkovan has a broader understanding of what needs to happen in the Ukrainian economy.

Right before Sunday’s election, he published a column that can be seen as his pitch for the top job. In it, he called for broad deregulation:

“Everything private business can do should be left to private business. The state should not get in the way, no matter how much it wants to help.”

That, plus a focus on increasing labor productivity and stimulating domestic demand, should lift Ukraine’s growth to between 4 percent and 7 percent a year, according to Rashkovan. His libertarian agenda should appeal to Zelenskiy, who has often spoken disparagingly of government regulation, Ukrainian-style.

The president, however, is prone to improvisation; he could still spring a surprise. But whoever he picks should be acceptable to foreign investors and Ukraine’s institutional lenders, including the IMF, which is still to decide whether to release a further $2 billion of loans to the country.

To make any economic headway, though, Zelenskiy will need to move fast on reforming Ukraine’s woefully corrupt justice system. He has the legislative firepower, and overhauling the judiciary will be one of the top tests of his ability to lead, not just win elections.

Ending the war in the east will be an even tougher proposition than reviving the economy. Before the election, Zelenskiy tried to take the first step, initiating an “all for all” prisoner exchange with Russia. He even placed his first call to Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss it -- against the advice of Ukraine’s Western allies, he claims. For now, though, those talks have hit a dead end because the two sides can’t agree who should be exchanged and who should be released unconditionally.

Putin is unlikely to feel like helping Zelenskiy as long as the Ukrainian president sticks to his predecessor’s implacable policy of calling Russia an aggressor and leading his country into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That’s a problem for the novice Ukrainian leader: Any sign of retreat would give rise to popular protests. But then, with his majority, Zelenskiy has some latitude to bargain with Putin. He could, for example, soften Ukraine’s language law to raise the status of Russian, widely spoken in the country’s south and east, to facilitate a more constructive dialogue with Moscow. Zelenskiy has supported milder language laws on numerous occasions.

Going beyond a prisoner exchange and a resumption of communications with the Kremlin will be difficult, however. Most Ukrainians want closer ties with the EU than with Russia. A populist president can’t ignore this, no matter how much power he has. Moscow, for its part, wants rapprochement on its terms: It won’t end its support for the unrecognized separatist “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine without some kind of veto on Ukraine’s key foreign policy decisions.

Zelenskiy owes his near-monopoly on power to voters’ hopes that he can end the war. So far, however, the president hasn’t come up with anything resembling a realistic plan. His best bet would be to engage Putin, regardless of what comes of it, and simultaneously work on releasing Ukraine’s economic potential. If the economy improves, and if the millions who have left the country to look for work in Europe start to return, Zelenskiy will likely be forgiven for failing to resolve the semi-frozen conflict with Russia.

Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. -- Ed.