Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: Once a Comedian, Now a Head of State to be Taken Seriously

On Monday, May 20, Ukraine inaugurated its new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s sixth president since it gained independence in 1991. The comedian and satirist, who rose from televised fame to political triumph in just a few months, overwhelmingly defeated the presidential incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, with 73.22 percent of the votes on the second round of the election, on April 21.

The 2019 presidential election was supposed to be decided between the two heavyweights of Ukrainian politics who had dominated the country’s landscape since the Euromaidan events started in 2014 (and even before that). On one side: Petro Poroshenko, president, billionaire, and the face of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the Donbas conflict. On the other side: Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister, a participant in the 2005 Orange Revolution, and a prisoner in the Viktor Yanukovych era.

In comparison, Zelensky’s candidacy had been disregarded, or at least mischaracterized, by many observers. But he acted the part of president on a popular television show, which gave him national recognition, and he had a valuable ally—self-exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy, whose personal nemesis was Poroshenko. These observations may make it easy to misunderstand Zelensky, what his election has demonstrated about Ukrainian politics, and the challenges he could face ahead.

More Than Meets the Eye

Two simplistic labels were attached to Zelensky early on.

First, the idea that a comedian can only be a joke. Zelensky is the famous creator and star of the hugely popular television show “Servant of the People,” a cruel political satir, in which the main character (played by Zelensky himself), a modest high school teacher fed up with corruption, unexpectedly becomes president. While “Servant of the People” made Zelensky famous and rich, it established him as an outsider who did not belong to the political system. After months of rumors and deliberate ambiguity about his intentions, Zelensky eventually announced his decision to run on December 31, 2018, which overshadowed President Poroshenko’s anticipated New Year address. Because his candidacy echoed the plot of his show, and he had neither political experience, a party, nor any experienced team, it was easy to consider his candidacy as a self-promotion feat or, at best, as a derisive act of criticism of the political establishment like others have done in the past.

As it turned out, the comedian was serious about becoming president. He ran an unconventional and smart campaign. Rather than conducting political rallies, he addressed voters through social media and variety shows all over the country. Critics rightfully pointed out that it allowed him to hide the hollowness of his program, rich in easy slogans and superficial communication stunts but empty of any tangible proposals. Yet this strategy enabled him to capitalize on his greatest strengths: his image, his audience, and the accomplishments of his incorruptible TV alter ego, Vasyl Holoborodko, who refuses to make promises in his inaugural speech, as it would be “dishonest” for someone who doesn't know enough about government. In a way, Zelensky was his own program. After securing 30.22 percent of votes in the first round, he easily defeated Poroshenko in the second round.

Second, Zelensky was often portrayed as a pro-Russian candidate. Born and raised in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, in the eastern region of Dnipropetrovsk, Zelensky is a Russian speaker who makes no mystery of his approximate command of Ukrainian. While poor official polling data and the annexation of largely Russian-speaking areas of Crimea and Donbas make it difficult to establish with high precision the evolution of Ukrainian and Russian languages in Ukraine, there is no doubt that Ukrainian has become more prevalent in the country and that fewer people consider Russian as their native language. Poroshenko had notably pursued an active policy of linguistic patriotism, promoting the Ukrainian language as a fundamental pillar of the Ukrainian identity. It was thus tempting to extrapolate, in the current context, that a candidate running in Russian was making a political statement in favor of Russia and would have little chance of winning beyond the western regions.

Here also, this reasoning proved misleading. Zelensky came in first in all of Ukraine’s 223 electoral districts but 15 (12 in the Lviv oblast, 2 in the Ternopil oblast, and 1 in the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast). While these are indeed located in far western Ukraine, the vast majority of western Ukraine elected a Russian-speaking president. It would be equally inaccurate to consider that there is no longer such an East/West divide. But the election proved that this is not the definitive principle to understand Ukrainian politics as it is often implied.

Soon after he was elected, Zelensky was immediately put to the test by Russian president Vladimir Putin, who offered Russian passports to Ukrainians living in eastern Ukraine's separatist territories and claimed that Ukraine and Russia had much in common. The president-elect made forceful rebuttals, underlining that a Russian passport only gives "the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest" and "the right not to have free and competitive elections," instead offering Ukrainian citizenship to "all people who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes," especially "to the Russian people who suffer most of all." He also made it clear that “after the annexation of Crimea and the aggression in Donbas, all [Ukraine and Russia] have in common is a border.” In 2019, being a Russian-speaker does not equate to being pro-Russia, and neither does it prevent you from being elected by Ukrainian-speakers.

“What Comes, That's What You Take”

Amid this groundbreaking election, there might paradoxically also be a story of continuity. During the 2014 presidential election, Poroshenko had also upset the traditional East/West divide, which had so long prevailed in Ukrainian politics, winning all electoral districts but one (in far eastern Ukraine that time). As Emmanuel Dreyfus recently argued, “the Russian question” has fundamentally evolved since the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas. Moscow has traded off economic and political influence in return for its military leverage. 80 percent of Ukrainians disapprove of Russian leadership. There is no more strategic competition between a Russian way and a Euro-Atlantic way for Kiev as had been the case throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Zelensky has clearly stated that, while he would look for ways to better “coexist” with Moscow, he intended to pursue the same course toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union and quickly established contact with European and American officials.

Ukraine's new president will face monumental challenges. The economy is in poor condition, with underperforming growth, continuous capital outflow, a declining population, large unemployment, and a failing banking sector. Corruption remains a massive and systemic problem that has proven resilient to the various reforms enacted since the Euromaidan protests. Attacks on civil society and journalists remain frequent as the recent assault against Vadym Komarov in Cherkasy and the distressing number of activists attacked in 2018 illustrates. And, of course, Russia has been consolidating its presence in Crimea and in the Sea of Azov, putting the economy and possibly the security of eastern Ukraine under asword of Damocles, while the war in Donbas continues to claim lives regularly, and no perspective of conflict resolution has emerged.

So far, Zelensky has offered little more than vague policies and principled commitments to address those challenges. Throughout the campaign he had given zero indication regarding the line-up of his future cabinet and made it clear that key positions (ministry of defense, ministry of foreign affairs, general attorney, and head of the security service) would not be announced before he took office. This will be a significant indication of the policies he intends to follow. A couple of important political figures are likely to be joining his team—former finance minister Oleksander Danylyuk has been acting as one of his envoys over the last few weeks, and current minister of internal affairs Arsen Avakov has been communicating his support for the new president. Even more importantly, given Ukraine's constitutional system, much will depend on the parliamentary elections. Zelensky immediately called for snap elections to be held on July 21 to build on his momentum and compensate for his lack of an actual party, a move that is likely to be challenged by his opponents. Finally, Zelensky's relationship to Ihor Kolomoyskiy, the exiled billionaire who had driven his candidacy with the objective of defeating Poroshenko, will have to be more transparent. If Ukraine's new president is serious about fighting oligarchs and business interests in the country's democratic life, he will need to distance himself from and clarify Kolomoyskiy’s influence.

In this uncertain and complex setting, there is one certainty: the comedian is now to be taken seriously. Since the 2014 Euromaidan protests, Ukraine has held its second presidential election in a competitive manner, while not entirely flawless, according to international observers. The incumbent president has quickly conceded his defeat, and no significant foreign manipulation of the election took place. This democratic achievement gives much legitimacy to the new Ukrainian president. It is now up to Zelensky to deliver on his reformist agenda and to Europe and the United States to support Ukraine in this direction.

Quentin Lopinot is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Quentin Lopinot