Zelensky’s Victory and Poroshenko’s Defeat Offer Three Unwelcome Lessons for Ukraine, Tsipko Says

Mariyinsky Palace file photo, adapted from image at cia.gov

(Paul Goble – Window on Eurasia – Staunton, May 15, 2019)

Aleksandr Tsipko, one of the most senior and thoughtful Soviet-Russian commentators, argues that the victory of Vladimir Zelensky and even more the defeat of Petro Poroshenko in the recent Ukrainian presidential elections offers three important but unwelcome lessons about and for Ukraine.

Maidan Square in Kiev, UkraineThe first, he writes in Nezavisimaya gazeta, is that ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians may be against Moscow because of its aggression but they do not share the Ukrainian nationalism opposition to Russians and Russia as such. By acting if the this were otherwise, Poroshenko lost almost all their votes (ng.ru/ideas/2019-05-15/5_7573_ideas1.html).

Poroshenko’s promotion of the Russian language at the expense of Russian offended them and his achievement of Ukrainian autocephaly and his work to create a Ukrainian army and state, two key Ukrainian nationalist goals of more than a century standing did not impress them, Tsipko continues.

Ethnic Russians in Ukraine were thus united in their opposition to Poroshenko’s promotion of the Ukrainian language at the expense of Russian and they were anything but impressed by his achievement of Ukrainian autocephaly and his obsession with the construction of a Ukrainian army and state.

“Today, when we analyze the causes of the defeat of the ideology of the second Maidan, which Petro Poroshenko embodied, we must not forget that in 1991, the overwhelming part of the population chose not an independent Ukraine but only independence from the empty shelves in the stores of Moscow.”

Since then, Tsipko suggests, “a Ukrainian nation state is not yet a value not only for Russian-speaking Ukrainians but even for most ethnic Ukrainians, except for those in Lviv Oblast.” If people read the election returns, they will understand that “Ukraine can be preserved as an integral state only” if both Ukrainian and Russian languages are allowed to be used.

Map of Ukraine, Including Crimea, and Neighbors, Including RussiaSecond, he continues, the instinctive opposition against Russia that Ukrainian nationalists have long assumed is at the basis of Ukrainian identity is not as powerful as many had thought; and as a result, Poroshenko was not able to make use of opposition to Russia as the foundation for victory because Ukrainians have not become what Ukrainian nationalists expected.

“In the 1991 presidential election,” Tsipko recalls, “a quarter of the population of Ukraine voted for the nationalist dissident Vyacheslav Chornovil. Thirty years have passed, and in the 2019 presidential elections, the very same 25 percent voted for the nationalist Petro Poroshenko.”

What this means, the Russian commentator argues, is that “Ukrainian national identity has not broadened or deepened and that all of Poroshenko’s attempt to introduce in the consciousness of Ukrainians the values of the second Maidan have not led to anything.” His opponent displayed no Ukrainian conservatism or any conservatism at ll.

“In my view,” Tsipko says, “the unfinished quality of the new Ukrainian state born in the Beloveszhskaya agreements of 1991 is shown more by the indifference of the overwhelming majority of ethnic Ukrainians toward the values of language, faith and the army than the protest of Russian-speaking Ukraine against forced Ukrainianization.”

“For millions of ethnic Ukrainians who voted against Poroshenko, neither the heroics of the Maidan with its ‘heavenly hundred’ not the acquisition by the Orthodox Church of Ukraine of autocephaly, not he active spread of the influence in society of the national language is significant and important,” Tsipko says.

“This testifies,” he continues, “that in fact, the Ukrainian nation as something stable and integral doesn’t exist.” That is true not only among the population at large but also among political leaders who are more concerned with their individual agendas than with the nation. Otherwise, they would have united around Poroshenko in the second round.

Tsipko quotes with approval the observations of Ukrainian commentator Nikolay Veresen who argues that “the Ukrainian nation is a nation of suicides” because “only the suicidal could make a comic president.” This outcome, Veresen continues, points to “the growth of unpredictability in the change of those in power, the fate of a weak and not fully formed state.”

And third, Tsipko says, the Ukrainian elections suggests that poverty may play a role in the manifestation of national identity. When people are focused on survival, they are far less likely to think about big issues like national languages or church autocephaly. They want to know where their next meal is coming from.

“The tragedy of Petro Poroshenko,” Tsipko concludes, “consists in the following: he didn’t recognize that all he had done for his state, for the strengthening of its authority and for the national Ukrainian idea turned out to be if not alien then absolutely unimportant for the overwhelming part of the population of his country, for those who voted not so much for Zelensky as against Poroshenko.”