The view from headquarters: How Zelenskiy’s and Poroshenko’s teams reacted on election night
On April 21, several days before the official results of Ukraine’s presidential election are set to be announced, incumbent Petro Poroshenko admitted defeat and congratulated his rival, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on his victory. Now, the outgoing president is promising to build a powerful opposition for his successor while Zelenskiy’s supporters are divvying up cabinet posts to which they do not yet have a right. Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev reported from both campaigns’ headquarters on election day.
“My kids, fried eggs, coffee — and my wife set the mood by turning on some Eminem,” Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy said at his polling place, telling journalists how he spent the morning the election. “What song was it?” asked Pyotr Verzilov, the publisher of the investigative site Mediazona and Pussy Riot’s producer. “It goes like this,” the candidate said, vigorously bopping his head up and down. “Zaspivaty?” he asked — “Should I sing it?” Zelenskiy tried to recite the rap, muttered a few words, and trailed off — try as he might, he couldn’t remember the rest. “Something!” he finally sighed in English.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy was in such an elevated mood that he seemed to lose touch with reality. After he voted, he showed everyone around him (journalists included) his ballot with an X shining next to his name. Zelenskiy was later fined for campaigning on election day.
As midday approached, Petro Poroshenko unexpectedly appeared in St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery along with his wife and bodyguards. The president stood for about half an hour in the cathedral’s Palm Sunday service, prayed, and exchanged kisses with the Metropolitan Epiphanius, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In the nearby Officers’ House, the president voted and gave a short speech. He congratulated those around him on the Orthodox Christian holiday and announced that his negotiations with the Universal Patriarch regarding the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence had reached their final stages. He concluded, “We will not let anybody stop our progress toward Euroatlantic integration.” Poroshenko said that he was counting on the wisdom of the Ukrainian people and their power to remember what they had achieved in the past five years as they made their decision.
How the results reached Poroshenko’s headquarters
Poroshenko’s campaign headquarters is located right across from the Kyivo-Pecherska Lavra, in the Mystetsky Arsenal art museum. The national museum was established in a historic building in 2006 on the initiative of Viktor Yushchenko, who took the presidency after the first Maidan — that is, after the Orange Revolution — and who completely lost his voters’ trust by the end of his term. In the heat of election day, the mood in the current post-revolutionary president’s headquarters was grim. Periodically, someone spoke to the media about Ukraine’s future and the country’s choice between Europe and its rivals. Artur Gerasimov, the leader of the “Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc” faction in the Verkhovna Rada, spoke with unexpected openness: with election day barely halfway over, he suggested that the time was right to pass judgement on Poroshenko’s leadership in the past five years. Gerasimov admitted, almost officially, that nobody in the room had much hope left for victory. When I asked him whether he was in shock at what had happened, Gerasimov answered, “No, I’m not in shock. This is a result of propaganda and television.”
The faction leader assured those present that the Verkhovna Rada with all its current members would continue working until the fall elections even though it would be advantageous for the new president to dissolve the legislature and use his popularity to usher in his own group of deputies. Gerasimov’s assurance stemmed from the Ukrainian government’s set legal procedures: Zelenskiy is meant to take office no later than this June, but in order to dissolve the parliament (which is not permitted within half a year of the elections), his inauguration would have to take place on April 27 or earlier. It is the Verkhovna Rada itself that determines the president’s inauguration day, and it would be disadvantageous for most of the deputies to rush to hand over power to Zelenskiy.
Meanwhile, at Zelenskiy’s headquarters, supporters called dibs on cabinet posts
The guards stationed at the entrance to the ultra-contemporary Parkovy convention center, where Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s headquarters is located, searched my bags much more carefully than their colleagues at the Poroshenko campaign. As they checked every backpack pocket that came before them carefully with a flashlight, a significant line formed outside the door. Inside, the atmosphere was exactly the opposite of the one in the current president’s headquarters. In fact, it was entirely different from what one usually sees in a campaign office. To the right of the entrance, a ping pong tournament was in full swing. Around the corner, another group was playing foosball. Bartenders poured out endless drinks — red, white, prosecco, beer. At first, there was even loud club music playing, but someone eventually turned down the volume so that members of Zelenskiy’s team could give interviews to the TV cameras.
Ukrainian Ex-Finance Minister Olexandr Danilyuk, who can be expected to lead economic policy development during Zelenskiy’s presidency, said that he is not interested in the foreign affairs minister’s post and that he would rather take on domestic reforms.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs is one of two cabinet posts whose portfolio lies under the president’s authority. In Ukraine, executive officers do not leave their positions when a new president is chosen because it’s the parliament, not the president, that chooses most ministers. The only exceptions to that rule are the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense.
Another member of Zelenskiy’s team, Ruslan Ryaboshapko, admitted that Zelenskiy has not yet decided who should take those posts. He said a special competition will be held to decide that question. The campaign’s ideologue, Ruslan Stefanchuk, added that the country’s political priority after the election will be smoothing over relations with Russia. To the side, one could see former State Duma deputy, Russian opposition politician, and American entrepreneur Ilya Ponomarev standing modestly outside the center of the action.
“Servant of the people”
As 8:00 in the evening, when voting closes and exit poll data can be released, approached in the Zelenskiy headquarters, the crowd began to press closer toward the stage. Zelenskiy had already taken his place on it to the tune of a song from his TV show Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People). He waited for the first round of results alongside his team and a group of journalists. The crowd in front of the stage was reminiscent of the Kyiv metro during rush hour, and the big screen behind the future president displayed the 1 + 1 channel, which is friendly to Zelenskiy. The TV station was streaming a countdown until the evening news, and someone began counting along out loud. Zelenskiy joined in, and the rest of the crowd jumped in after him. When the first exit poll numbers appeared on the screen and Zelenskiy’s column rose to 72%, confetti exploded throughout the room. The future president jumped up and down a few times before throwing himself toward his wife for a hug and a kiss to the cheers of the crowd.
In his victory speech, Zelenskiy thanked his wife for her strength and resilience, saying, “If she had heard everything people said about me earlier, she wouldn’t have become my wife.” Overall, the speech was very short, but Zelenskiy nonetheless managed to thank his entire team, including Oksana and Lyuba, the janitors who had cleaned his campaign office throughout election season.
But his thank-yous didn’t end there: “Thank you to the Ukrainian Security Service for keeping me in the game. Thank you to our soldiers and volunteers for protecting Ukraine. Thank you to the journalists, thank you to all the Ukrainians who supported me and to those who made a different decision. I promise that I will never let you all down.” At the end of his speech, Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed all post-Soviet states “as a citizen of Ukraine” to say, “Look at us. Anything is possible.”
An hour later, Zelenskiy met with journalists once again and answered a few more questions. The president said, among other things, that Poroshenko had congratulated him and offered his support. Zelenskiy did not rule out the possibility that he would take his predecessor up on his offer and turn to him for advice.
One of the first questions Zelenskiy received was about whether the presidential administration would be moved out of its current building on Bankova Street. “Yes, I don’t want to work there,” Zelenskiy admitted. “The place should be open. We haven’t thought yet about where to go. What do you think about this place [the convention center], for example? Is it too tight? But we really want to cut down on the administration.” Zelenskiy said that he wants to move the administration’s offices to a location where bureaucrats would not exacerbate traffic and that he wants to get rid of the presidential motorcade altogether.
Meanwhile, Petro Poroshenko gave a long, fiery speech that began with a Winston Churchill quote: “Never surrender… Never, never, never… Never surrender the big things, never surrender the small things, not the major things, not the minor things… Never surrender if surrender goes against your honor and common sense.” Poroshenko said that he had never surrendered and did not plan to do so now.
He promised to give up his chair to the new president but provide a powerful opposition at the same time, all while offering help “in all his decisions that will bolster the national interests of Ukraine and bring us closer to the European Union and NATO.” Poroshenko added, “Between the announcement of the results of this election and the inauguration, I am willing to spend any amount of time to help the new president become part of the course of events.”
As a final note, the president said that he would pray, and it was at that point that his voice shook. “God, protect Ukraine,” Poroshenko said.
At 10:00 at night, Olexandr Sviridenko, the press secretary for the current president’s campaign, answered me when I called to ask whether there was any sense in coming back to Poroshenko’s headquarters now that he had lost. Sviridenko said, “Everyone’s leaving. We’re done. But we’re only done for today.”
At the same time, Zelenskiy celebrated his victory. He and his closest supporters gathered in a separate part of his headquarters that outsiders were never allowed to access. A group of about twenty muscular men in suits and headphones positioned themselves around the perimeter of the area. “Are you really all Zelenskiy’s bodyguards?” I asked one of them. “Us? We’re Zelenskiy’s team!” one of the security officers answered. He showed me a badge that read, “Team Ze.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen