I am so happy to be with you again, five years after the Maidan (revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in 2019); five years after seeing hundreds of thousands of you holding aloft the flag of your country along with the starry banner of Europe; five years after mourning with you the Heavenly Hundred who fell under the fire of a vengeful tyranny beholden to foreign influence—but also five years after witnessing the birth of a free and sovereign Ukraine that grew and extended its hand to Europe.
I am in Kyiv to perform my play, “Looking for Europe,” which I wrote in anticipation of the European elections in May but wanted also to present to my dear friends here in Kyiv.
But another reason I came back to your city is because you will decide on Sunday who will lead your country and because Europe—which is also on the eve of deciding its future and which is, as you well know, in a very bad state—will have its eyes turned on you: as if sensing that you, in making your decision, will offer it a foretaste of itself, a sign of what awaits it.
Make no mistake, dear Europeans of heart and reason: we are, in a way, counting on you.
Many are we, in France and across Europe, who want to say to you: “In our eyes, as in your own, you are a part of us.”
Unceasingly, since the glorious and tragic days of the Maidan, you have voiced your need for Europe: please know that Europe needs you, today, nearly as much as you need it; Europe needs the intangible fuel, the faith, the spirit that you Ukrainians possess and embody with such resolve.
At a time of mounting threats from populist, nationalist, and extremist movements; at a time when, from Moscow to Beijing, and in Teheran, Riyadh, and Ankara, new empires are conspiring against Europe and its values; at a time when the United States of America seems to be withdrawing and letting things take their course—your enthusiasm for Europe, your desire to join us and to be Europeans, are infinitely precious to us.
I hope, then, that you will allow me—as the indefatigable friend of Ukraine that I am, as a friend who, for five years, has put Ukraine and the Maidan at the center of his own life—to address you and, through you, those who seek your votes, one of whom, in a few days, will hold a share of the continent’s destiny in his or her hands. Will it not be the place of that individual, as befits an applicant, to bring his or her full faith and energy to the great but wavering work in progress that is Europe?
I will begin with the new man, the candidate no one expected to see, who declared himself on the last day of 2018: Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
He is not well-known in my country.
And perhaps, if he is elected, he will surprise us, as other outsiders have done before him.
Even in Ukraine no one seems to have a clear idea of his program; as a result, in this mad world, which Shakespeare might describe as out of joint, anything is possible—including the metamorphosis of a TV actor into a responsible politician.
But how can one not be troubled by this figure who, as in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, steps out of his own films to take us by the hand and draw us in?
And when he is asked what, in his eyes, separates his former occupation from the responsibility to which he now aspires, when journalists ask him whether it might be difficult for him to move from fiction to reality and he responds, “What’s the difference?”—how can one avoid seeing in that response the height (or depth) of the dissolution of politics that bedevils our era and is, at bottom, the definition of populism?
The old democracies have plenty of experience with such characters.
One was named Coluche. He was French. And he had the sagacity, once his role was played and his medicine administered, once he proved that the emperors were naked and really must get dressed, to retire with a measure of grace.
Another is Italian. His name is Beppe Grillo. Appearing thirty years after Coluche, borne along by the same blend of lassitude and discredit of republican democracy, attacking the parliamentary system because of its corruption, its arrangements and compromises, its alleged disdain for the people, he passed the baton to unscrupulous politicians who did not hesitate, in order to govern Italy, to compromise with the lowest and slimiest elements of the political world.
Two more are Ronald Reagan and, alas, Donald Trump. Some see merit in both. But though Reagan proved himself, after trial by political fire, worthy of his office, the same cannot be said of the present tenant of the White House, whose incompetence, no less than his proclivity to confuse the people’s business with his own, have left the world’s greatest democracy autistic and well nigh ungovernable in 2019.
I know that history does not repeat itself.
I know that history has more imagination than any of us will ever have.
But, as I say, we have ample experience with these newcomers who want to change the system and the world but have no idea of what it means to govern a nation.
For that reason, please allow the steadfast ally that I am to give you a friendly warning.
I do so with all the more anxiety because young Ukraine, unlike Italy, France, or the United States, lacks the long tradition of republicanism, the deep state, that can temper the caprices of one man or the momentary excesses of a people.
Zelensky is a novelty.
But he is also a leap into the unknown.
And Ukraine could very well wake up to find at its helm a sorcerer’s apprentice scorning the rule of law, thereby endangering the progress already made under law as well as the progress yet to be made, all while ignoring the Russian bear lying in wait.
Then you have the Revenant.
I should say, the eternal revenant.
I first met her a few days after her release from Kharkov prison, where she had just spent three years in solitary confinement.
Yulia Tymoshenko was suffering terrible back pain that night.
But that did not stop this woman of steely character and will.
A few hours earlier, she had appeared in the Maidan, making honorable amends to a boisterous crowd that did not seem convinced for the disastrous gas contract she had signed with the Kremlin when she was prime minister.
And at the close of a very long night session of parliament, the former icon of the Orange Revolution stood on her crutches before me, beaming, full of energy, in one of the great reception rooms of the Rada.
We spoke of her health.
Of my son, lawyer Antonin Lévy, who had fought side by side with her daughter, Evgenia, for her release.
Of the trip to Paris that I was organizing, which was designed to bring the three anti-Putin candidates to meet French president François Hollande, a trip from which she withdrew the next morning, citing the urgent need for back surgery at a clinic in Munich and leaving the way clear for the two others, Vitaly Klitschko, the future mayor of Kiev, and Petro Poroshenko, for whom this chance trip proved to be a boon.
We spoke of the persistent, corrosive rumor of complicity with Russia that she never could put to rest.
And, in her own hand, she wrote out a few lines in English that I read the next day to the crowds in the Maidan.
In those lines she insisted on the purity of her motives and on the strength of her patriotism.
She formally denied harboring the least inclination to indulge the master of the Kremlin.
Looking me right in the eye, she even promised that, if she were to be elected to the top post, she would delegate relations with her country’s giant neighbor to a government ethics commission that would have control over transactions and contracts with Moscow, its state-owned companies, and its oligarchs.
That was the Tymoshenko I knew.
A woman of quality.
One with a fighter’s temperament hardened by repeated tests.
The question I ask myself, and that many in Europe seem to be asking, is whether this third return is possible. Does not the Ukrainian Pasionaria evoke so many figures who have failed, in the past, to yield the stage to new players? To pull some examples from my own country’s history, might she not be the Raymond Poulidor of Ukrainian politics, that champion cyclist who never won the Tour de France—unless she is the Ukrainian version of François Mitterrand, who made three attempts before finally becoming president? And, finally, what are we to make of the increasingly populist tone that her campaign has taken on in recent days
Let me conclude—giving honor where honor is due—with Petro Poroshenko.
I am aware of the grievances against him.
I know that he has not been able, during his four years at the helm, and despite his efforts, to put an end to corruption.
I know that corruption continues to afflict the administration, the police, and sometimes the courts, not to mention city governments in the hands of local mafias.
I am one of the many Europeans who was horrified by the fate of Kateryna Handziuk, the transparency advocate who died of acid burns after an 86-day ordeal, while those behind the crime were left undisturbed.
And finally I know that he is not favored in the contest that will come to a head on Sunday.
But him, I know rather well.
I met him in the Maidan, where, by chance, we spoke in succession.
I invited him to Paris for the March 2014 meeting with President Hollande, which his chief rival missed because of illness.
I had the privilege of joining him on the campaign trail and then, after he was elected, in Kramatorsk, where he spent an entire night at the bedsides of victims of an indiscriminate bombing by pro-Russian separatists.
I remember, before that, before he had formally assumed the presidency, pleading with the French president, who at the time was planning commemorations of the allied landings on the beaches of Normandy: “Mr. President,” I urged, “You cannot invite Putin and fail to invite the future leader of Ukraine. Is he not also a successor to the Red Army? Was it not a Ukrainian battalion that liberated Auschwitz?
And I remember, on that day, the exact moment when, with the world’s cameras rolling, Petro Poroshenko exchanged his first handshake with Putin: What struck me then was his authority, his charisma, and the immediate influence, and moral power, he had over his adversary.
The foreigner that I am, the intimate stranger, the brother in spirit of democratic and European Ukraine, invokes that experience, and that proximity, to tell you this:
I understand that one may disagree with the first president of free Ukraine.
But, without the slightest doubt, history will credit him with having built an army that saved his country from being dismantled by its Great Russian neighbor and its minions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
History will credit this pious and deeply religious man—whose distaste for war I was able to gauge as he forced himself to take charge of the armed forces that were protecting eastern Ukraine against other Ukrainians who had crossed over to Moscow’s side—for the fact that Odessa and Mariupol are still Ukrainian.
And finally, I believe that history will recognize his role, through the reforms he carried out, in enabling a country close to bankruptcy to break its dependence on Russian gas, to stand up to international lenders, and to resume its forward progress.
I would add that, of all the candidates, he seems to be the one who presents the mixture of solidity, experience, and legitimacy that makes for a reliable captain in the midst of a storm. Does one replace one’s captain in the midst of a storm? In time of war, when the enemy is alert to the slightest weakness, does one replace the commander in chief? Of course not. And that is why, if I were Ukrainian, I would choose Poroshenko.
You will cast your votes in less than three days.
Beyond the Ukrainian horizon, a piece of Europe’s future hangs on your ballots.
May the wisdom and boldness that prevailed five years ago at the time of the Maidan revolution again guide your steps.
Long live Ukraine.
Long live Europe.
Long live Ukraine in Europe.