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In Ukraine, could a comedian’s landslide victory help reset relations with Russia?

Fed up with ongoing corruption, poverty and war, Ukrainians have elected a political newcomer to be their next president. Comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy defeated incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a landslide. Can Zelenskiy's unconventional background and fresh perspective reset a tense relationship with Russia? Nick Schifrin talks to the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Matthew Rojansky.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A political earthquake took place in Ukraine this weekend. The country is fighting the only active war in Europe against Russian-backed separatists. It is struggling with corruption and with poverty.

    On Sunday, an electorate, sick of the status quo, voted overwhelmingly for a political satirist to be its next president.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last night in Kiev, Volodymyr Zelensky celebrated victory like any other politician. But if all the world's a stage, his act is unique.

  • Volodymyr Zelensky (through translator):

    There will be no pathetic speeches. I just want to say, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The 41-year-old is a comedian whose only experience as a politician is playing one on TV. He portrayed a teacher who accidentally becomes Ukraine's president after criticizing the government. His character is so fed up with corruption, he shoots the entire Parliament.

    And now he's promising life will imitate art. He pledges to strip politicians and judges of immunity and overhaul law enforcement. In a debate that looked more like a rock concert, he promised to overturn a system that's long been run by rich oligarchs.

  • Volodymyr Zelensky (through translator):

    I am not a politician. I am not a politician at all. I am just a person, an ordinary person who has come to break the system.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The system was already broken five years ago, when the Ukrainian revolution overthrew a corrupt and pro-Russian president. But the hopes of those days have largely been unfulfilled. Ukraine is Europe's second poorest and most corrupt country. Voters lost faith in President Petro Poroshenko, who last night accepted defeat and urged unity.

  • Petro Poroshenko (through translator):

    I personally and my entire team is ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with the president in all his decisions that benefit Ukraine's national interests.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of Ukraine's most important interests is ending the war in Eastern Ukraine. On and off for five years, Russian-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops. And late last year, Russia rammed a Ukrainian ship in international waters, and detained Ukrainian sailors.

    Zelensky vows to maintain Ukrainian sovereignty, as he told "PBS NewsHour Weekend" special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky during a TV taping.

  • Volodymyr Zelensky (through translator):

    We will do everything to make sure that Vladimir Putin never ends up at the helm of our country. No one has a real answer how to stop Putin. All we can do is continue talks to achieve a cease-fire.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that's a position the U.S. supports.

  • Kurt Volker:

    Well, I think what he's said about the conflict and about his approach is exactly right so far. He strongly supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. He wants to get the land back. He's not going to be giving that way.

    It is necessary for Ukraine and Russia to have direct discussions, and so I think his desire to speak to Putin is a good thing, not a bad thing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kurt Volker is the State Department's special representative to Ukraine. He dismisses fears that an inexperienced actor could be manipulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. And he points out Putin's relationship with Poroshenko got so bad, maybe Zelensky represents an opportunity.

  • Kurt Volker:

    One hopes that this is, because it's a new president, just an opportunity for a fresh start at dialogue, although it's Russia's position of invading and occupying territory that's really what's needed to change.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But whether a candidate who is largely a blank slate can deliver that promised change, whether related to corruption or to Russia, remains to be seen.

    And to talk about that, I'm joined by Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you very much.

  • Matthew Rojansky:

    Thanks. Happy to be with you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's start with where Ambassador Volker just left off.

    Could Zelensky actually prove to be an opportunity because he wants to meet with Putin and, as the Russians said, anyone but Poroshenko?

  • Matthew Rojansky:

    Right. At this point, opportunities are few and far between, so why not take anything that offers itself?

    I think Zelensky has a few advantages going into a negotiation. Number one, he has got a mandate. Right? It's hard to beat three-quarters of Ukrainian voters. He really can claim to represent what the Ukrainian people want.

    And even if you're negotiating with an authoritarian dictator like Vladimir Putin, being able to credibly say, look, this is where the Ukrainian people are, you can't push me beyond that point, I think it actually strengthens his hand.

    When you think about Putin negotiating with Poroshenko before, sure, there's no love loss between those two figures. But Putin also looks at a guy who he says, just like many Ukrainian voters did, hey, this guy's an oligarch, he's a creature of the old system. Maybe I can roll him. Maybe I can manipulate him. Maybe I can do a little kompromat, black P.R., all the same stuff in the old sort of KGB, Soviet tradition.

    Zelensky's message has been, I don't do that. I'm an open book. It's all out in public. And now I have a mandate. And he has simply said, I want to end the war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Is the flip of that argument, though, that he is untested, unproven, has never been in a negotiation with someone like Vladimir Putin? Is there any fear that someone like Putin could manipulate him or roll over him?

  • Matthew Rojansky:

    There is such a fear. There should very well be such a fear.

    I think Zelensky himself probably has concerns about what it's going to be like when and if he does sit down with Putin. And that makes a couple of things critical. Number one, what does his team ultimately look like? We have some very early indications, some lists of names, some smart, experienced folks on those lists.

    If you look to his television show for guidance, he was trying to bring in a new generation, as President Holoborodko on television. But he also did rely on people who had earned the trust of the Ukrainian people, people with real education, real expertise.

    So I expect he will do that as president. There's no compelling reason for him not to. The second dimension is support from the international community. He is going to want to get early and frequent signs of support from the United States, from the E.U., from NATO.

    And the signs are, within the last 24 hours, he's very likely to get that. He's gotten phone calls of congratulation. Ukraine remains high on the agenda for Western countries.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's go back to why he was popular and why he was elected. Do you think Ukraine voted for Zelensky or they voted for anyone who could embody change?

  • Matthew Rojansky:

    Yes, this was definitely a protest vote.

    They had a binary choice, right? It was either Zelensky or Poroshenko by the time you get to the second round. The numbers were overwhelming. It was not Poroshenko, i.e., Zelensky.

    Look, it doesn't mean that he didn't generate a certain enthusiasm, especially among younger people. The guy is 41 years old. He's communicating to a post-Soviet generation, people who didn't come of age under that old KGB-dominated Soviet system. So a lot of those people I think were genuinely enthusiastic about a guy who understands social media, understands modernity, good communicator, et cetera.

    But the reality is — and he said it himself in this famous debate just a couple of days ago in the National Olympic Stadium — he said to Poroshenko's face, he said: "I am not your opponent. I am your sentence."

    This was a referendum on Poroshenko, and he failed it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He's promising to — quote — "break the system," as we heard a couple of minutes ago. Can he really break the system, one, if he doesn't have Parliament behind him, which he doesn't right now?

    And, two, that system is so endemically corrupt, and has been influenced by Russia so much since independence in the early '90s.

  • Matthew Rojansky:

    Yes, so breaking the system can mean a whole a lot of things, right? It can mean breaking it and then rebuilding something great in its place.

    It can also mean breaking it and making it even worse than it is now, right? So it's terrible now, but at least it functions. Ukraine famously always muddles through, right, despite the kind of elevated expectations, always disappointed.

    So he doesn't have a strong political party behind him. He has a big-name brand. He has a lot of enthusiasm, a groundswell of support. Translating that half-a-year from now into a successful parliamentary campaign, where he packs the Parliament with his supporters, so that under Ukraine's Constitution, which gives tremendous power to the Parliament and to the ministers who come basically from the parliamentary majority, so that he can actually do something, that is a challenge of what the Russians and Ukrainians called political technology.

    He doesn't have a lot of that. He's got a TV show and a name brand. And translating that's going to be his challenge over the next half-year.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And quickly, because we don't have much time, that much time left, remind us, how important is Ukraine to U.S. and Russia relations? How important has Ukraine been?

    And how important will Zelensky be going forward to U.S. relations in this region and with Russia?

  • Matthew Rojansky:

    Zelensky is symbolic of change coming from within Ukraine. Nobody from the outside, not Russia, not the United States, produced Zelensky.

    And that's important because change that began within Ukraine, the Maidan Revolution, is what triggered ultimately Russia's invasion and the huge collapse of European security that has been the breaking point in U.S.-Russia relations and that have kept us apart for so long.

    With the United States unable to engage with Russia on nuclear issues or anything else important, if change from Ukraine reopens a window of opportunity, that could actually be quite big.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Matthew Rojansky of the Woodrow Wilson Center, thank you very much.

  • Matthew Rojansky:

    Thank you.

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