No Laughing Matter: The Rise of Ukraine’s Comedian-President
By Nate McGhie
In the wake of the 2014 Euromaidan uprisings in Ukraine, comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy created, produced, and starred in “Servant of the People”, a TV series about an unknown history teacher winning the presidential elections. The show is a satirical take on the corruption and inefficiency in Ukrainian politics and struck a chord with Ukrainians at a politically fraught moment in which the country found itself at a crossroads between Russia and the West. Zelenskiy’s character was portrayed as a virtuous public servant who railed against the corruption that had hampered the nation.
The show became wildly popular, but no one could have scripted Zelenskiy himself announcing a real-life presidential bid as the third season began airing. Incredibly, he was a leader in the polls six months before even announcing his candidacy . A whirlwind of a month brought big wins for Zelenskiy and his newly founded political party (named after his TV show). He defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko in a landslide victory, and just months later Servant of the People won the first ever absolute majority in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament .
Though most Americans probably associate him with their own president’s impeachment inquiry, Zelenskiy represents a major shift in a critical region. The impact of his election and first year in office should be noted.
In electing Zelenskiy, a comedian and film producer, Ukraine followed a global trend of increasing support for non-traditional political candidates. Servant of the People took it one step further, opening the door for well-known musicians, actors, and athletes to take seats in Parliament . The success of amateur politicians across the country sends a strong message – Ukrainians view corruption as one of the main problems plaguing their politics and economy. For a country whose demands for reform have so often led to economic misery – the hryvnia fell to almost a quarter of its value after the 2014 revolution and subsequent Russian aggression  – last year’s elections show loud and clear that Ukrainians will continue to vote for change over stability.
However, not all Ukrainians view their new president as an anti-corruption warrior. In fact, some feel that his connections with billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who funded Zelenskiy’s channel, point to an obvious conflict of interest. Former president Poroshenko highlighted the connection in his campaign against Zelenskiy, calling him “Kolomoisky’s puppet” . Poroshenko’s poor electoral performance suggests that most Ukrainians, even if not completely sold on Zelenskiy, trust him enough to give him a chance.
Ukraine-Russia Relations and the Donbass Conflict
Bringing Ukrainian prisoners-of-war home and ending the Donbass region conflict with Russia was a key element of Zelenskiy’s campaign. Zelenskiy has shown willingness to negotiate with Putin where the previous president did not, but the talks have yet to yield any fruit. The separatists continue to operate semi-autonomously and either side has yet to enforce the Minsk agreement . It was hoped that Zelenskiy, a Russian speaker, could find common ground with the Russian government and galvanize the ethnically Russian regions of Ukraine to unite a naturally divided country. The conflict remains frozen, however, and there seems to be little on the horizon in terms of bilateral resolution.
The Complications of Shifting West and US Relations
One side effect of the impeachment proceedings was highlighting the extent to which Ukraine relies on Western support, specifically US/NATO military aid. The nation itself is younger than most millennials, and two of the five elections in its short history have ended in revolution. Additionally, having the most fertile land on earth and no natural borders has proven to be a historically precarious combination – a pattern that Russia’s recent aggression is no exception to. All this underlines Ukraine’s current reliance on Western powers to protect its young democracy. That reliance will doubtless continue.
Regardless of geopolitical tension with Russia, Ukraine has undeniable cultural and economic ties with its eastern neighbor. Though Ukrainian is the official language, Russian is spoken widely, some in the south and east refer to themselves as “Russians”, and most Ukrainians have close friends and even family who found themselves with Russian citizenship when the Soviet Union fell . Economically speaking, it seems Ukrainian business leaders are primarily comfortable trading with Russia, regardless of their politics. Russian goods continue to line the shelves of Ukrainian stores. Even though the conflict has claimed more than ten thousand Ukrainian lives, Ukrainian trade with Russia has grown at the same rate as trade with the EU over the last four years . Reliant on Russia economically and the West militarily, Kyiv finds itself in the complicated but historically consistent position of seeking a balance in relations between two competing forces.
Zelenskiy is a seeming paradox – on the one hand, he’s an ethnic Russian who has made no secret of his discomfort with the Ukrainian language. On the other hand, he’s a Western facing progressive who’s made a career, at least in part, making fun of Russia and Putin. His willingness to own his Russian heritage without compromising on democracy provides a template for Ukraine as a whole to follow. This, plus his pleas for Ukrainian unity, seem to perfectly prime him to be the president who can toe the line between Russia and the West.
Ukraine has always been a country between worlds, but the strong electoral victory of Zelenskiy and Servant of the People shows a nation whose people are ready for change. The nation has a real chance to commit to unfettered democracy and an end to corruption. As discussed, policy making has proven harder for the comedian-president than getting elected, but Ukrainians still may see a realization of the idealistic reforms they voted for last spring.
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