Olga Onuch and Henry Hale Describe the Zelensky Effect

Olga Onuch and Henry Hale

Olga Onuch is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester. Henry E. Hale is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. They are the authors of a new book called The Zelensky Effect.

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I just want to say that I don’t think Zelensky has changed Ukraine. He amplified it. He mirrored what was already there in his time as an actor and comedian. He tried to show the realities and positions of ordinary Ukrainians as they saw them themselves and he then amplifies that and emphasizes that as a Ukrainian.

Olga Onuch

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:44
  • The Maidan and the Independence Generation – 2:59
  • Zelensky’s Origins – 9:19
  • The Zelensky Effect – 23:05
  • The Future of Ukraine – 33:11

Podcast Transcript

It’s been almost a year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion against Ukraine. In the first few months Russia seized significant Ukrainian territory. However, the tide began to turn and the momentum now clearly favors Ukraine. Many credit their President Volodymyr Zelensky for his leadership during a time of crisis, but this assessment fails to appreciate the resolve of everyday Ukrainian citizens. 

Still, Zelensky has marked a change in Ukrainian politics. Olga Onuch and Henry Hale call this The Zelensky Effect. They argue Zelensky has not so much changed Ukraine as amplified and intensified how they already saw themselves. Olga is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester. Henry E. Hale is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. Together they are the authors of a new book called The Zelensky Effect.

I wanted to talk to Olga and Henry, because they explain why Ukraine has rallied around democracy. This conversation fills in many gaps about Zelensky, but also explains how he is representative of an even larger generation of Ukrainians. It gives me the impression the Zelensky effect will survive long after Zelensky is gone from its politics. 

Now if you like this podcast, please tell your friends and neighbors over the Holidays. This is an independent podcast so I’m relying on the support of listeners like you. If you’d like to help financially, you can make a one-time donation at democracyparadox.com or a monthly contribution at Patreon. You can also email me at jkempf@democracyparadox.com. But for now this is my conversation with Olga Onuch and Henry Hale…


Olga Onuch and Henry Hale, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Henry Hale

Thank you.

Olga Onuch

Thank you for having us.


So, Olya and Henry, I really enjoyed your recent book, The Zelensky Effect. Over the past year or so, I’ve been learning a lot more about Volodymyr Zelensky. I’ve been trying to play catch up because when I first learned that he won the presidency in Ukraine, I wasn’t really sure how to make of it. I understood that he was a comic. I understood that he played a president on television. It seemed very surreal to me and since Russia invaded Ukraine, I’ve been learning a lot more and been finding that he was very different than my initial just kind of gut reaction when I learned that he was president in this country.

I think your book really kind of helped me understand who he was in a way that even after everything that I’ve learned, helped fill a lot of puzzle pieces for me to help explain who he was and who Ukraine is as well. But I think that a lot of the story begins outside of Zelensky. It begins with the Ukrainian people and I think to understand what’s going on right now, we need to start with the Revolution of Dignity and what happened at the Maidan. So, why don’t we start there? Olya, I know that you actually talked to a lot of people at the Maidan protests. Can you just kind of explain to us what the protest was like? What were the protestors like and what it was like to actually be there?

Olga Onuch

So, I mean, this was a cross cleavage, cross class coalition in the streets. That was the most interesting thing about the Euromaidan. Of course, it’s also called by some folks, including the Ukrainian president himself as the Revolution of Dignity, although that term was never used until the very tail end in the aftermath of the protest. You know, you had this really odd, diverse cross-section of society on the Maidan. So, you had a lot of elderly people who were retired and just had time on their hands, quite frankly, to stay outside all day and didn’t need to go to work on those particular protest days. Then you had students mobilizing as well.

But what I found most interesting in the survey that we conducted of the protest on the Maidan was that there was a small, but nonetheless, significant portion of folks who never voted for the Liberal Democrats, pro-European parties, and so forth. You also had folks who voted for Yanukovych, the president at the time, in the 2010 elections. So, I think the most interesting thing that occurred in 2013-14 is you had this diversity developing on the streets, not only in Kyiv, but also across the whole country. In fact, what most people don’t talk about is that from that very first night, November 21st, you had incidents of protest in Odessa, in Kharkiv, and in Donetsk.

Actually, a small group of people were there and ready to protest in Donetsk and also in Crimea that first weekend as well as across other cities around the country. So, it was a little bit different to previous protest events in that you really had participation across the regions and across a diverse cross cleavage coalition of Ukrainian citizens.


So, Henry, one of the things that I got from the book was that this was a generational shift in a lot of ways. The way that Ukrainians reacted to events in their country during the protests in Maidan. You kind of link it together and describe that generational shift, that new generation that was up and coming, as the independence generation. Can you explain a little bit about how they differed from their parents and the previous generations?

Henry Hale

Well, the crucial difference, I think, is just that these were people who came of age with an independent Ukraine. There was always a Ukraine within the Soviet Union, so people within the USSR still had attachment to the idea of Ukraine. One of the points that we make in the book is that many older generations including in eastern parts of Ukraine had strong dissident traditions and strong attachments to Ukraine. We talk about how with the 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence, majorities in every single region of Ukraine including Crimea, voted for independence.

So, our argument is not that the independence generation so much is somehow super special and super unique and having any special attachment to Ukrainian identity except to the extent that this was the generation for which an independent Ukraine was all they knew. They’ll have some memory as children of Ukrainian independence and that, for example, is a very important moment for them. But the independence generation is Zelensky’s generation, so part of the way that we organize the book and try to tell the story of Ukraine is first of all through a telling of the general political social history of Ukraine. Still, we tell the story partly through the experiences of this independence generation of which Zelensky was an important part and then we talk about Zelensky himself.

But the independence generation is diverse. Another way we talk about it is how some became more active than others. Zelensky himself had a relatively low profile in the Euromaidan protests, for example, in the mobilization there, whereas others were very active already back in the Orange Revolution. The rockstar Vakarchuk, for example. So, I think the independence generation is important and it forms the backbone of Ukraine’s leadership now. Zelensky’s election largely reflects its rise and it is a generation really very much steeped in an independent Ukraine. But we are not saying that it’s the only generation that’s attached to Ukraine. It’s important now because of its special experiences and the fact that it’s in power.


I found it interesting how you connected this rise of the independence generation to the Zelensky story and how the evolution of this generation coming into their own, if you will, as both people and as adults coincided with Zelensky’s own rise in terms of his career development of a person as he figured out who he was and positioned himself to one day become President of Ukraine. In the book you write, “Volodymyr Zelensky is a Ukrainian every person in a way few others could or, crucially, dared to be.”  I feel like that sense of who he was started long before he entered politics. Did either of you ever see Zelensky in his role as a performer? Were you following him long before he actually entered politics formally?

Olga Onuch

Well, obviously I saw him on television sometimes. This wasn’t particularly my cup of tea and it certainly wasn’t the cup of tea of my friends to be perfectly honest. Yet when it became clear that not only was he a candidate, but that he was likely to win because we were collecting data at the time. I did this really deep dive on the really strong urging of a wonderful, very well-known journalist, Nataliya Gunenyuk. She’s like, Olya, you’re going to have to now look at every one of these concerts and you’re going to have to look at Servant of the People because you’re missing a piece of the story. And she was, my goodness, she was right.

I have revisited all of that with Henry over this period of time now in writing the book, but my goodness was she right. Millions of Ukrainians were exposed to this political satire that he was so famous for. They were exposed to this repeatedly and consistently over time. So, they had a different understanding than the smaller group of individuals in Ukraine that were not exposed to it or regularly watching it.


How did his background and career really prepare him for the presidency? Because you actually make the case that his background as a comic, as a satirist, as an executive within media actually gave him a good background for developing him as a leader and for understanding how to communicate with Ukrainians as well as a number of different things. It’s a very unconventional background. It’s a very unconventional career. How does the background and career before he enters politics actually create a real connection that allows him to transition into the presidency, not seamlessly, but in a way that actually helps him today?

Henry Hale

One of the things we try to show in the book is that his interest in politics is not something that was totally new. In fact, he talks about how, originally, he wanted to be a diplomat when he was a child, when he was a teenager. So, actually when he went to law school, he studied international economics and law. So, he had this political interest, but clearly his entertainment career took off. His entertainment career took off primarily through a Soviet era phenomenon known as the Club of the Funny and Quick-Witted. There are different translations of it, but it’s kind of a unique program. I’m stretched to try to think of any analog, certainly in the United States. Maybe there’s some in the UK. I’m sure Olga can think about are other places.

But one of the things that it does prioritize is the ability to communicate effectively. I mean, you have to sing and you have to dance. You tell jokes and you do skits and you do funny things, but you’re also supposed to answer very quickly and wittily to pointed questions. So, I think these were all environments in which he really honed a lot of his skills. Then as his career took off, it also brought him into contact with a lot of people. I mean, he worked for six years in Moscow, but then came back to Ukraine because he said he didn’t really like it in Moscow. Then very important to our story is that he became one of Ukraine’s top media managers. A general producer for the top-rated television network in Ukraine.

So, this was a big political job. Anyone who knows anything about Ukrainian politics knows that that was very, very challenging. He writes about wrestling with pressures coming from above to manipulate the news politically. His response basically was that, well, he kind of sidestepped that issue and delegated the responsibility to somebody else for that. Instead, he thought that his own programming through humor would tell the real story at the same time that the regime under Viktor Yanukovych was telling a fake story about what was going on. So, he clearly wrestled with these things. But our point is that these are big, managerial political jobs and his political commentary is very sharp. Critics will say it’s oversimplified.

Of course, it’s oversimplified. All political speech is oversimplified. The great communicators have a way of building things and boiling things down to their essence in a way that really resonates with ordinary people. So, through all of this, we see him refining a certain message, especially after 2014, which hits on the themes that he continues to use today. These include a sense of civic duty, the idea that Ukrainians need to take responsibility for their own lives, a European orientation for Ukraine, and a vision for Ukraine and Ukrainianness, what it means to be Ukrainian. That it doesn’t hinge on religion or a particular ethnic background like who your parents were, where you were born, what language you speak, but it has to do with the attachment to Ukraine itself. That’s all you need. A lot of his programming career is building up this message and reinforcing it.


What struck me in the book was how professional his career really was. Because when we think of other actors who’ve entered politics, they oftentimes take decades before they rise to something like a presidency or even to become something like a governor. When we think of an American like Ronald Reagan who transitioned from acting to politics it took him decades before he ended up becoming president. Zelensky, on the other hand, was able to make that transition much quicker. But I think it was very important how he emphasized that he had a much more professional career than many people had recognized or realized in terms of being somebody who was an executive within media.

You had a story where there was a reporter who was talking to him at like 11:00 AM in the morning and had joked about the fact that they had likely woken him up and gotten him out of bed. Zelensky was very startled by that because the reporter was acting as if he was just a media star, like he was a Matthew McConaughey or one of these actors who takes their life very unprofessionally and is just a wild adventurer. But Zelensky really thought of himself as someone who was an executive, somebody who was actually a businessman first and who was almost an actor second. How did that identity, how did that professional background really kind of shape him and give him the tools that he needed to be able to transition into the presidency?

Olga Onuch

Yes, in that particular interview that you mentioned, I think it’s annoyance when he hears, oh, it must be early in the morning. There’s a video of it. You can see Zelensky’s annoyance. It’s visible. He makes a joke about it. He’s obviously professional, but it’s very clear. Then he corrected him. ‘I’m a producer.’ He was running a small media empire with his Studio Khartal, with being a producer for 1+1 and then later for Inter. But quite frankly, even very early on when he joined the comedic troop, he was noted to be a good organizer, coordinator, and manager and director even at that stage. So, he clearly had some natural instincts for leading, managing and assembling a group of people that work well together.

Now, did he do that in the same way when he became president? I think that’s a different story. Different complications come into effect, but nonetheless, I think that ability to hone in on what might have been, quite frankly, natural skills that he had and developed that in his career. I think both Henry and I (we’ve talked about this) are really surprised by how little there is, be it op-eds or serious research about his time as general producer in Inter and how infrequently that was mentioned. There might be a component to this that his political opponents, both during the campaign and then in its aftermath, tried to play that down. That he’s just a joker. He’s just a comedian without this degree, without these professional skills, without this experience.

I always thought you could not stay in serious positions of power without being a very good manager of a variety of different people and elites and knowing who to speak to and when.

Henry Hale

His political potential wasn’t completely newly recognized with the presidential campaign. As early as 2014, he was invited by Petro Poroshenko, the president who was elected that year, to join his parliamentary block in a leading post on his party list in a run for Parliament. He reportedly declined that. Then there are other reports as well that people were urging him to run for parliament in different by-elections. So, this was an idea that was out there at least among the inside political circles. People recognized that this was a serious political guy who could get votes and then there’s some indication we find that he actually was thinking along these lines for a while. So, he clearly had some idea of his political potential. He decided not to run at that point and then later decided that 2019 was the year to do it.

So, it wasn’t completely out of the blue. It wasn’t an instant phenomenon, an instant transition, from sort of just a pure entertainment sector person to politics. But again, we don’t know exactly when he decided to pursue the presidency. There is some indication that he may have had this idea all along when planning his Servant of the People, television program. The big famous one that we can all watch now on Netflix which started airing in 2015. This may have been at least an idea in the back of his head.

Olga Onuch

Especially that third season, that third season to us in our analyses of everything we know about Zelensky, all the things we’ve read about him, really, that third season then is replicated in his campaign. So, that third season very much seems to be his campaigning season.


Well, let’s get into that then. In the book, you actually write “by playing a fictional president in a world made up by the candidate and a production team of his supporters, who were also running his campaign, Zelensky was able to create scenarios designed to display precisely the kind of president he wanted people to think he would be.” What kind of president did Zelensky want people to think that he would be?

Olga Onuch

So, I think he wanted to underscore that he would be a president. That comes from the lived experience of ordinary citizens. So, that character after his divorce is forced to live with his parents in a certain type of flat. They have certain economic difficulties. You know, they have to take out credits for very simple purchases like microwaves and televisions and this sort of thing. Life was a little bit of a struggle.

He had a very deep understanding not only of the struggles that ordinary citizens go through, but also their contribution to corruption networks by paying bribes to get things done or using personal ties. If your auntie has a certain job, then you might get that job. Not only those things, but also that deep and profound attachment to the Ukrainian state and to civic duty regardless of the ethnic background or language that Ukrainians speak.

For a broad cross section of Ukrainians that is the truth. They are attached to the state regardless of the language they speak, regardless of their ethnic background. For some, it’s a very important thing, but for the broad majority, it’s this above all that is then connected to their civic duty to defend their Ukrainian democracy. So, that is the sort of thing that he frontloaded in the character of Goloborodko for who he would be as president.

Henry Hale

Just one other thing I would mention is that even though the show is often characterized as just purely a Russian speaking show. In fact, both Ukrainian and Russian figure in it. I mean, his own language that he works in primarily as the virtual president in the show is Russian. But he speaks Ukrainian fluently in the show and uses it at different times as well. The different characters switch back and forth between Russian and Ukrainian. So, it’s also in that way creating a sense of what sort of president he might be where the language that you use isn’t so important. What’s most important is your loyalty and the duty you have before your country, which is unquestionably Ukraine.


So, both of you have emphasized that the show tried to transcend the divisions between Ukrainians and tries to lean into this sense of Ukrainian identity rather than ethnic or regional or even linguistic identities. I think that comes back to the main theme of the book, which is called The Zelensky Effect. Why don’t we just kind of explain this concept that you talk about? Olya, what is the Zelensky effect?

Olga Onuch

So, it’s not a theme in the show. But it’s a theme in all of the speeches that Zelensky gives as President. Zelensky’s presidency is consistently producing this idea that we must stand united. The things that unite us are greater than the things that divide us. We all have a duty to act. We all have a duty to do things better. When he says we are all president, he means that all Ukrainians have the responsibility of doing the things that need to be done in order for Ukraine to be democratic, EU bound, and in order for corruption to stop. He repeatedly talks about these things in his speeches as president and obviously he talks about these things today as we’ve been watching him especially those of us who aren’t in Ukraine and for international audiences watching the wartime speeches.

The Zelensky effect is two things. On the one hand, it is this civic-minded society where repeatedly ordinary citizens rise up collectively against authoritarian leaders or against individuals who are backsliding the country into authoritarianism. They do so in the nineties. They do so in the 2000s. They do it in 2004 with the Orange Revolution and then in 2013-14, with the Revolution of Dignity. They continue to do this. This is a society that is engaged and this is a society that also welcomes different types of Ukrainians to that political story over time. That increasingly people of different backgrounds come to take central roles in Ukrainian politics. This is not something in this society that starts in 1991. As Henry and I write in the book, this is something that was present in Ukrainian society for quite some time.

Dissidents who may or may not have been Ukrainian speakers or may or may not have been from different parts of the country also wrote treatises that were civic in a sense. They talked about Ukrainian civicness and the most famous, or one of the most famous, of these examples is Ivan Dzyuba who doesn’t speak Ukrainian until his twenties and writes one of the most famous treaties against Russian chauvinism. He actually delivers this to the Communist Party thinking that they will be pleased to hear his criticism. But he’s just one example of many. So that’s one side that he is the product. Zelensky is the product of this society. In order to even start to try to understand Zelensky, you need to understand the society that he comes from.

On the flip side, after 2019, the importance of his discourses, the importance of his message does rally ordinary citizens. We talk in the book about how different types of ordinary Ukrainians rally around the civic idea of the state, around democracy, around the European trajectory of Ukraine or whatnot at different points in time. There were, of course, some people still in 2019 that did not see themselves as part of this group of winners that were democracy-European bound. But through his speeches, through his party’s engagement, through his actions, some of these individuals also came to rally around these ideals.

So, these people from the southeast of the country who previously did not see themselves as part of this civic group came to do so. They came to actually support democracy more. They came to support EU and NATO accession more. The thing that correlates with this is having voted for Sluha Narodu, the president’s party. Now, that’s incredible. That is the Zelensky effect on the other side of the coin. So, you can’t understand him if you don’t understand the society he comes from. But he also had this effect of rallying even more Ukrainians to that society ideal.


So, Jessica Pisano a few months back wrote an interesting article called “How Zelensky Changed Ukraine” in the Journal of Democracy. I’m not going to ask you about the essay specifically, but the title itself, really speaks to me the idea that Zelensky himself is changing Ukraine. But when you describe the Zelensky effect, it doesn’t quite sound like Zelensky came in as this oversized personality that just forced Ukraine to change. Like you said, he’s a product of his environment as much as he is somebody who’s influencing his environment. To what extent would you say then that Zelensky himself actually changed Ukraine?

Henry Hale

I think that under his presidency you do see more and more people coming around to a Euro-Atlantic orientation to support for democracy. We see this sense of civic duty consolidated in many ways. Of course, he has served as a great unifier in many ways for many parts of Ukraine. I think also one way in which he has had a big impact is that he has really stood up for this civic vision of Ukraine in a way that other politicians haven’t really done, at least not effectively.

Previous politicians in Ukraine have tended, at least over the course of their presidency and we argue sometimes for political motivations tried to strike tones of identity division, thinking that if things aren’t going right with the battle with corruption or with the economy that we can at least salvage the votes from a part of the country if we emphasize the importance of language or identity politics. On the other side of the political spectrum, they cast their lot with Russia. So, that’s often how Ukraine is portrayed and understood in the West is through these lenses as a country torn between Russia and a more nationalist version of the West.

So, our argument is that this has never actually been the case that throughout the country you could find two extreme polls in public opinion. In fact, there’s a large middle ground of people who have this primarily civic vision for Ukraine. So, what he did was to articulate that in a very forceful way and bring that boldly to center stage in Ukrainian politics. That was a key reason why we argue in 2019 he won the biggest election victory that has been won in Ukrainian political history. It was the biggest margin of victory in a runoff. Just a huge victory over his opponent, Petro Poroshenko. So, I think that is one area where he’s transformed Ukraine is just giving voice to and accentuating the importance of this civic vision of Ukraine in Ukrainian politics as a vision in its own right alongside these other narratives.

But at the same time, we nuanced that by saying he didn’t invent this. He didn’t just come up with it and convince everybody of it and he’s this transformer of Ukraine. No. He tapped into it and amplified it through his leadership. So, that’s something that he was doing already through his entertainment work. I think this is the big reason why this just really took off and led to so much interest in his political candidacy. As president, he’s continued to strike those same themes often in surprising ways where people expected him to go the more traditional route during his presidency.

For example, films have been banned that he’s been in. Some people thought that his own personal interest might lead him to reverse those types of policies. But, in fact, he’s stuck with it trying to deemphasize these issues related to the cultural divides that so many politicians have resorted to in Ukraine in the past while usually losing. So, he has this genius that’s been able to both reflect what a large majority position thinks in Ukraine, but also amplify it through his presidency and now that’s exactly the right note to hit in wartime.

Olga Onuch

I just want to say that I don’t think Zelensky has changed Ukraine. I think I want to underscore what Henry already said. He amplified it. He mirrored what was already there in his time as an actor and comedian. He tried to show the realities and positions of ordinary Ukrainians as they saw them themselves and he then amplifies that and emphasizes that as a Ukrainian. Our colleague, Olexiy Haran, professor Harran in Ukraine actually said that Zelensky, by staying put in Kyiv and not fleeing when the tanks were rolling in and the bombs were falling, was doing what any good Ukrainian would do. I think in that he is right that Zelensky is much more of a product of the Ukraine that existed. So, his amplifying of it is a thing that we are seeing in his politics.

But he was very brave and different, as Henry said, for choosing to do so. But I don’t think he changed Ukraine and I think many Ukrainians would find that really, really offensive, quite frankly. I think they’re okay with taking credit for making Zelensky the man he is today, but I think they would be a little bit annoyed to hear that before him they weren’t of this mite and bravery. I think they see themselves as the ones who made Zelensky, not the other way around.


I definitely got that message from the book too. That you felt that Zelensky didn’t so much change Ukraine as, like you say, to amplify it and to represent who Ukrainians already were. But he has changed Ukrainian politics. I think that that is clear and Zelensky did it through an unconventional path. I can’t imagine the next president coming through the same exact path that Volodymyr Zelensky did through comedy, through media. It’s going to be a different type of leader that follows him. How will Zelensky’s example influence future Ukrainian leaders? Are they going to revert back to old form? Does he mark a clear break and a change in Ukrainian politics going forward?

Henry Hale

It’s a hard question to answer, because the full-on invasion of February 24th just changes so much in Ukrainian politics. At the same time, our book shows that a lot of these debates will continue. There’s overwhelming support for Zelensky now and everybody’s agreed at a minimum that he needs to be backed as the leader of Ukraine, because first and foremost, the Russian aggression needs to be not just fended off, but defeated decisively. That said, there are a lot of people who are not happy. By a lot, I mean, we estimate maybe a quarter of the population. Something like that. We talk about most of them as part of a 25-percenter group, which is about the percentage of people that voted for Zelensky’s opponent in the 2019 election.

You know they are not happy, really, that he’s the leader. They don’t think he’s doing a great job. They think he made a lot of mistakes prior to February 24th and their attitude is that we need to set aside our differences now to defeat Russia. But after the war, when time comes for rebuilding, we’re a democracy and we’re going to have it out. We’ll have big political discussions. So, in the conclusion of the book, one of the things that we talk about is some concerns for where Ukrainian politics could go just because war traumatizes society. But it can also provide great unity. So, our hope is that the unity that comes out of this, especially if it’s a victorious unity, will wind up being something that Zelensky or whoever succeeds him… We have to remember Churchill was voted out by the British right after winning World War II.

So, we don’t know what’ll happen with Zelensky, but it could provide a great opportunity in this moment of victory to do a lot of the things that he’s been calling on that Ukrainians want to actually rid the country of corruption now that it’s officially on track towards EU membership. So, making a lot of the reforms that need to be made to consolidate that. But at the same time, kind of underneath, we see in this 25-percenter rhetoric that even as they defer to Zelensky now, for the most part, a different vision for Ukraine. One that is more oriented towards ascribing a greater importance for the particular language, particular religion, to what Ukraine should be.

Again, it’s complicated. It doesn’t mean they necessarily think that the country is only for these people. But at a minimum what they think is that Ukraine needs to solidly reinforce these elements. These see them as kind of cultural walls against potential Russian influence. So, that’s a prevailing view. Actually, a lot of people now increasingly support that kind of process. Our colleague, Volodymyr Kulyk, has talked about a shedding of Russianness in Ukraine. A lot of people see that as a walling off against Russia. So, I think one possibility is that what we’ll see in the future in Ukraine would be a competition between people who see this more ethnocentric, ethnocultural vision of Ukraine as the future for Ukraine versus people who have this more civic vision of Ukraine which is associated with Zelensky.

It could go in different directions among other things. We’re also concerned about the possibility that wartime power… I mean, power corrupts, right? That’s one of the great maxims of all time. Right now, our assessment is that Zelensky has been a big proponent of democracy. But one hopes that too much power, too much support doesn’t go to his head and he starts finding excuses not to leave the presidency. Before you know it you get threats to democracy. So, I think we can understand Ukraine’s political future without thinking about how the war is influencing it and that’s going to interact with Zelensky s message.

But also with these alternative divisions in Ukraine, I guess our hope would be that the political divisions that occur will be more normal ones that characterize any democracy over policy views. Parliamentary versus presidential regimes. What economic reforms are needed?

Olga Onuch

We can’t predict what they’re going to do, but based on our understanding and assessment and analysis over the last X number of years of the last 30 years of Ukrainian independent political history, we can say what they shouldn’t do. They shouldn’t divide the country along ethnolinguistic lines or seek to polarize the country along these lines. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t support certain cultural rights or support and promote Ukrainian language in different ways, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of minority languages or ethnic groups. Why? Because it’s not really aligned with liberal democratic aims. It’s also not the thing that wins over the median voter. I think we will have a situation where some folks try to resort to these lines that they’ve used in the past.

In fact, I think those are getting escalated in the wartime context. But I think that would only polarize and divide Ukraine in some way that would not help it pass different policies. I think it’s far more interesting when his political opponents are criticizing Zelensky along other policy lines such as media freedoms and under the current war context, how to manage the necessity to control the flow of information, but then still make sure to maintain independent media or those opponents who criticize how certain shadowy figures from past administrations are finding their way back into policy positions. Individuals that may have been associated with Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. So, along policy lines, along the lines of past corrupt figures, filtering it back in.

If politicians criticize in the future, should Zelensky run for these reasons, and that’s where the battleground is, then we will, I think, have a very interesting political debate in Ukraine and a truly democratic one. But if folks double down on identity politics, I doubt that that will breed positive change in Ukraine and certainly not the context that Ukraine needs to help it rebuild after what is a hugely traumatizing, obviously tragic war for the whole of Ukraine.

And quite frankly, the people at the front lines are not only the soldiers from all across Ukraine, but the front lines are those southeastern parts of the country. I don’t think any individual from those parts of the country when we are at peace will be able to accept in any way someone telling them they’re not good enough Ukrainians, just because they speak Russian when they lived through the horrors that they lived through across the Southeast. They might come to speaking Ukrainian on their own. But if a political candidate in a presidential race tries to highlight that they’re not good enough, I cannot see that at all working to get their vote or quite frankly, get the vote of those in Kyiv or elsewhere.


Well, Henry and Olya, thank you so much for joining me today. Let me plug the book one more time. It’s called The Zelensky Effect. It’s a really great read. I think it really explains a lot about politics in Ukraine. Gives a lot of background on Zelensky himself, but really kind of helps explain what’s going on in this country beyond just the conflict. Also, Olya has a recent article in the Journal of Democracy called “Why Ukrainians Are Rallying Around Democracy” and that’s definitely a must read. Thank you so much both for writing those and thank you so much for joining me today.

Olga Onuch

Thank you so much.

Henry Hale

Thank you.

Key Links

The Zelensky Effect by Olga Onuch and Henry E. Hale

Why Ukrainians Are Rallying Around Democracy” by Olga Onuch in the Journal of Democracy

Learn more about Olga Onuch

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Jessica Pisano on How Zelenskyy Changed Ukraine

Lucan Way on Ukraine. Democracy in Hard Places.

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