Europe

Australian Ukrainians worried their 'Donald Trump' has just become president

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Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy has won the second round of a presidential election against incumbent Petro Poroshenko by a landslide, but some in the Australian community are on edge about where he could take the country.

At St Andrews Ukrainian School in Lidcombe, in Sydney's west, families are seated around classroom tables splashed with coloured dye and wax that drips off the sides of burning candles.

A look of intense concentration, and at times frustration, fill the faces of those in the crowded room.

Still, the mood is festive as the community decorate hollow eggshells with a kaleidoscope of colours in what's known as 'pysanky' - a Ukrainian Easter ritual that dates back centuries.

Students at St. Andrews Ukrainian school learn the art of pysanky.
Students at St. Andrews Ukrainian school learn the art of pysanky.
SBS

The ancient tradition requires patience and steady hands, as intricate designs are painted onto the egg with wax before it's dipped into a bath of dye.

The parts covered in wax don't absorb the dye, and once held to a flame, melt away, revealing the colour underneath. The process is then repeated using different layers and colours of dye.

"The egg is very significant in our Ukrainian culture and our faith," says Odarka Brecko, the school's principal.

"[It represents] the new birth."

The Ukrainian Easter ritual dates back centuries.
The Ukrainian Easter ritual dates back centuries.
SBS

New beginnings for Ukraine this Easter are both spiritual and political. The religious holiday coincides with the country’s presidential election on Sunday.

As Australia's Ukrainian community come together to mark festivities, the vote is never far from their minds. 

"The conversations is very much what is happening in Ukraine," Ms Breko says.

When asked what about how the community is feeling ahead of the election, Tetyana Zinevych, a teacher at St Andrews takes a deep breath, let's out an anxious laugh, simply saying "there are big questions." 

Most are around how a comedian who plays a fictional president on a popular Ukrainian television show and has no real political experience, looks set to become the country’s new leader. 

"The egg is very significant in our Ukrainian culture and our faith," says St Andrews Principal, Odarka Brecko.
"The egg is very significant in our Ukrainian culture and our faith," says St Andrews Principal, Odarka Brecko.
SBS

"This comedian, you can call Ukraine's version of Donald Trump. He's just got lots of money and throws populist solutions at people," Ukrainian-Australian Andrew Mencinsky says. 

"He's peddling these populist solutions and unfortunately much to our dismay, people are falling for it." 

Julia Semeniuk feels the same.

"We have this new guy, who is like a showman, nothing to do with politics, lots of people were thinking because he's a new face, maybe he will do better." 

But many see Volodymyr Zelenskiy as more than a comedian, and his resume, which includes businessman, lawyer, writer and producer, suggests there is more to him than his humour. 

He burst onto to the political scene at time of deep dissatisfaction with the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko. 

VVolodymyr Zelenskiy, who has no experience in politics looks set to become Ukraine's next President.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has no experience in politics looks set to become Ukraine's next President.
AAP

A crippling economy, poor living standards and pervasive corruption appears to have left the door wide open for the 41-year-old Zelenskiy.

"The numbers and the fact that society now supports Zelenskiy in favour, or against Poroshenko, shows how Poroshenko did not deliver," says Dr Olga Oleinikova, director of the Ukraine Democracy Initiative at the University of Technology Sydney. 

"So it's a failure of Poroshenko. It's a message that life hasn't improved in the last five years. And they are happy to choose anyone, even the person without any experience," she says.

Dr Oleinikova says the disillusion among Ukrainians is part of a global shift away from the political establishment which in recent years, has propelled the rise of leaders like US President Donald Trump, and parties like the Five Star Movement in Italy. 

"Politicians promise many things but there is no measurable outcomes of it, and of course there is course growing distrust when they hear the promises but they don’t see any changes." 

Ukraine's incumbent President, Petro Poroshenko.
Ukraine's incumbent President, Petro Poroshenko.
AAP

Mr Zelenskiy, who is vowing to fight corruption and bolster the economy, has his fans. He secured the majority of votes - 30 per cent - in the first round of voting. 

President Poroshenko came in second, although with just 15 per cent. 

The pair will face off on 21 April with polls predicting a resounding victory for the new kid on the block. 

"They're saying it will be overwhelming. Maybe double or even triple," Dr Oleinikova says.

'We're trembling'  

That prospect has some Ukrainian Australians seriously concerned. 

"Whatever we're seeing and reading, we're trembling. We're absolutely trembling," one Sydney women, on the verge of tears, tells SBS.

"It's very scary. If you go to the dentist you obviously want a professional to treat [you], it's the same. It's a big responsibility and I would prefer to have someone with a good education background experience," Ms Semeniuk says.

This is the first time Ukrainians will elect a president since the 2014 Maidan revolution when former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was outsed. Russia annexed Crimea and backed armed separatists in the country's east.

That war is still raging. 

As Australia's Ukrainian community come together to mark festivities, the vote is never far from their minds.
As Australia's Ukrainian community come together to mark festivities, the vote is never far from their minds.
SBS

At the Ukrainian Youth Association, in western Sydney, members of the community have come together to bake Paska, the traditional Ukrainian Easter bread. 

Amid the festivities, the mood turns sombre when the issue of the country's ongoing conflict is raised.

"We've been fighting for five years, our boys have been dying for five years," says one women. 

She says it's a forgotten war. 

"I'm always emotional. Sadly, you will charge anyone in the street today and they’re going to ask really is the war still on because it's not an everyday thing, but we are every day because we’re hearing it from our families when we ring, when we reading it the papers and Skype."

"We know it's still on and we know they are being buried daily."

Despite President Poroshenko's failed promises to end the conflict within months of coming into office in 2014, some within the Australian community want him to stay in power, fearing a Zelenskiy victory could pull Ukraine back into Russia's orbit. 

"That is the worst thing that could happen to Ukraine in the last 20 years, if Zelenskiy was to win," Mr Mencinsky says.

"I fear for the future of Ukraine. This is a man who does not have any qualifications and is openly backed by a very powerful Oligarch."

"I think if Zelenskiy wins there will be another revolution in another few years time," he adds. 

Mr Zelensky has links with billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whose TV station airs Mr Zelenskiy's programs. 

His critics believe he is a "puppet" of Mr Kolomoisky, and effectively Russia. That's certainly the picture President Poroshenko is painting. 

At the Ukrainian Youth Association, in Western Sydney, the community has come together to bake Paska, the traditional Ukrainian Easter bread.
At the Ukrainian Youth Association, in Western Sydney, the community has come together to bake Paska, the traditional Ukrainian Easter bread.
SBS

"Poroshenko's whole campaign is now  pushing this rhetoric 'me or Putin'," Dr Oleinikova says.

Though she adds that the comedian denies any ties to the Kremlin, and has openly stated his support of a pro-Europe and pro-West campaign. 

Pre-election polls suggest most in Ukraine are sold on his word, or rather, as Dr Oleinikova says, "they no longer trust President Poroshenko".

But, she says, "there are no guarantees".

Dr Oleinikova says Mr Zelenskiy's true alliances won't be clear until after the election, and so his nomination is very much a risk for Ukrainians. 

But hungry for change, it's one many appear willing to take. 

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