Tuesday, April 23, 2019

‘Look at Us: Everything is Possible’ – Zelensky’s Existential Challenge to Putinism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 23 – Whatever policies he adopts or concessions he makes, Vladimir Zelensky has so challenged Vladimir Putin’s vision of the world that he already has turned the Kremlin leader into his mortal enemy, someone who will do everything to ensure that Zelensky fails and thus cannot be a model for Russians or other post-Soviet nations, Igor Eidman says.

            According to the Russian sociologist, Putin’s autocracy rests on the conviction in the population that there is no possibility of change. “’There’s no alternative to Putin. If no Putin, then who?” are the chief motive behind support of the powers that be and voting for the current president” (facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=2350443235018642&id=100001589654713).

            But if what Zelensky has achieved in Ukraine is possible, then change is possible not only there but in Russia and the other post-Soviet states. “Someone can come in place of Putin, and nothing horrible will happen. In this situation, any bright young politician can knock off the old.” That sends fears through the Kremlin and the other autocratic regimes in the region.

            Consequently, Eidman continues, “now all the efforts of the Kremlin will be directed to assure that in Ukraine ‘again nothing will be achieved.” And that almost certainly means that Putin will do everything he can to “destabilize the situation and discredit the new Ukrainian authorities,” however much he welcomed the loss of Petro Poroshenko.

            Zelensky’s words, although not much attended to in the West, are echoing through the Russian Federation – see for example, the article in Kazan’s Business-Gazeta headlined ‘Look at us, everything is possible! How Zelensky will deal with a ‘Putin’’ rating?” (business-gazeta.ru/article/421811).

            But even more significant is a commentary by Petr Akopov in Vzglyad which asks whether Zelenskys “will appear in other countries of the former USSR” including explicitly the Russian Federation (vz.ru/politics/2019/4/22/974522.html). That is a new and even more troubling worry for the Putin-style verticals than any “color” revolution.

            Akopov stresses that Zelensky’s declaration about everything being possible has “attracted the greatest attention both in Russia and in other republics – and it is understandable why that should be the case.”  Someone who seemed to come out of nowhere won and without the obvious support of any foreign forces.

            Just as was the case 15 years ago with Yushchenko, Zelensky will become “a kind of ‘role model’ for the entire post-Soviet space,” and those who oppose change will thus work hard to ensure that he fails in anything he tries to do lest others adopt his model and promote change in a system committed to unchanging stability.

            In fact, of course, what Zelensky has achieved is less remarkable in Ukraine that it would be elsewhere, Akopov says. Ukraine has often changed presidents. He is the sixth over the last 27 years. Other countries like Russia or Belarus or Kazakhstan have had far fewer – and those in power have made sure that there wasn’t a change.

            Moreover, Zelensky is a new president; but the oligarchs in Ukraine remain very much in place, Akopov says.  And Moscow can be counted on to use them against the new president, however much Zelensky may think he can act on his own.  And Moscow will stress that Kyiv’s drive toward Europe and away from Russia have cost it Crimea, the Donbass and more.

            As  a result, Akopov says, Zelensky and his “everything is possible” notion won’t be that infectious, although the fact that the Moscow commentator is discussing this phenomenon suggests that he may be protesting too much – precisely because at some level he fears he is wrong and that what Zelensky has done, others in Russia and elsewhere could replicate.   

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