That’s a La-da Change

It may not be flattering to compare a country to a car, but it’s hard to resist the symbolism the Lada holds when it comes to the Ukraine and her people.

A low-key, reliable car, with easy-to-replace parts, which takes-a-licking-and-keeps-on-ticking.  AsWikipedia put it, the keys to the Lada’s “…success were: competitive price, reliability, simple DIY-friendly mechanics and unpretentious functionality.” 

One of the many (many, many, many) Ladas I saw and snapped a pic of

On Easter Sunday, at least insofar as the ‘western calendar’ has it, a TV comedian was voted-in to the Presidency of this country of 42 million people. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyi is a man who rose to fame on the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars, and more recently has had a star turn on a TV show where an anti-corruption-crusading viral video vaults a school teacher into the Presidency of the country. 

Zelenskyi entered the Presidential race via TV announcement on New Year’s Eve, then continued to tour the country rotating between paid performances and free campaign rallies. 

The crush of pre-election polls following the first round of voting on March 31st, and he now goes from launching the third season of his hit show Servant of the People – literally playing the President on TV – and walks straight from the Green room into the House with Chimaeras (I kid you not, the Ukrainian President actually lives in a building of this name).

The House of Chimaeras

In winning the run-off, this Gen X thespian bested his opponent, the incumbent Petro Poroshenko (a Ukrainian Willy Wonka, whose oligarch-status is owed primarily to the Candy empire he built on his name “Roshen”).  Poroshenko has been in politics since 1998, serving as Foreign Minister and in a variety of other positions and portfolios, while running his many and sprawling family enterprises (which were reportedly put into blind trusts, although allegations of links remained during his tenure as President).

The Kyiv flagship of the Roshen chain

Poroshenko has been President since 2014, following the Maidan revolution that sent the Russian-stooge Victor Yanukovych packing to exile in Russia (and recently convicted in Ukrainian courts, in absentia, for high treason, with estimates of the embezzlement he and his cronies conducted ranging from $5 to $100 billion, with the General Prosecutor most recently pegging the number at about $40 billion USD). 

The main ‘house’ itself

Map of the grounds of Mezhyhirya

Yanukovych‘s former Mansion and abode, Mezhyhirya – now turned into a National Park – is a totem to corruption that is disgustingly cool to visit. See above a couple of photos from my visit earlier this month, not including photos of: the 18-hole golf course, Zoo, Helipad, Aviary, Antique Car Museum, Dining Hall, Fire Pit, Riverboat, Pony rides, etc, that were all a part of his living arrangements while President from 2010-14.

Although elected on a wave of ‘change’ in post-revolutionary times, Poroshenko seems to have traded in the mantle of change-maker for a reputation this time-out as the definition of “the problem”.

Embroiled in corruption scandals of his own it seems citizens have hardened in their belief that all those experienced or earnest politicians are ‘on the take’, so why not give the Comedian-who-plays-the-President a chance to take the reins? 

An online teaser for the show Servant of the People

This country literally buffers Europe from the Russian behemoth, and continues to fight against military aggression from its former politburo-in-chief in the Eastern Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, which border on Russia and are tied into the many issues surrounding the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula.

The fact that a free and fair election was conducted in this environment, and on this scale, is fairly remarkable.

The first round of voting, on March 31, had 39 candidates on the ballot, only 7 of whom got 1% or more of the vote. Some of them were “technical candidates” (what some might call ‘Kamikaze’ candidates in North America), with identical last names to certain front-runners.

Zelenskyi emerged victorious with 73.2% of votes cast in the second round/run-off, according to Ukrainian NGO OPORA’s parallel vote tabulation.  A resounding victory by any democratic standard.

The challenges confronting him, and the country, are legion. 

The average Ukrainian’s wage at this time last year was ~$430 CAD (~$323 USD).  If you lived in the capital city Kyiv, that average was $684 CAD ($513 USD) a month, where the cost of living is also higher.  In the rural areas, though it could vary widely, wages could be as low as $326 CAD ($245 USD) in the southwest of the country. A retiree/pensioner could make as little as $73 CAD ($55 USD) a month.Annual household income has dropped after the Maidan revolution of 2013-14 by more than 60%. It stands today at approximately the levels of 2005 by some estimates.  And it’s not that these wages are being spread across a greater population.  The population has been in decline since ~1994, and now stands around the level it was in the late 1960s.

Zelenskyi tapped into the frustration, with slogans like ‘We can’t wait another five years’ (the length of a presidential term).

And the downward pressures on wages are only one challenge.

Energy costs have spiraled for the average Ukrainian, in part as a result of IMF-imposed conditions on loans the country began to draw-on in the Fall of 2018, which now eat-up to half the comparatively-meagre incomes the country’s citizens live on in many cases.

Disappointment, disenfranchisement and other forms of disillusionment since the focal-point of the Maidan revolution in Independence Square in Kyiv in 2013-14 are legion, and the challenges many – from the tug of Europe, to the grip of Russia…and this is only the Presidential election.  The Parliamentary elections for the Verkhovna Rada will take place in October 2019.

Fittingly, this office building is on the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kyiv.

Corruption is still a central facet of many citizens’ view of how politics gets done, how people get rich, and how they are left on the sidelines.

During my time as an election observer both in the Fall of 2014, and during the first-round of the Presidential election in March 2019, I heard both hope and notes of resigned cynicism from many of the ‘ordinary’ Ukrainians I encountered.

My STO partner and I visiting a prison polling station on March 31st.

Ukraine remains in large measure a post-Soviet country, with all the scars – economic, social and otherwise – that were inflicted during and after that time.

There’s no question – leaders and leadership are important.  And now the Ukraine has a TV showman as its new frontman, a far stretch from how many Ukrainians view themselves.

This election resulted in the Lada swapping drivers.  It will be interesting to see what direction is charted (on the country’s notoriously pot-holey roads, and beyond) from here.

Maidan Square.