“How could I, a simple guy from Kriviy Rih ever imagine, that one day I’ll be fighting for the president’s chair?” - those were one of the first words of Vladimir Zelenskiy, a candidate for the President of Ukraine, during official debates before the second round of elections. 2 days later, he received congratulations from his opponent, current President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko. Although official results of the election weren’t announced yet, according to National exit-poll Zelenskiy has gained an ultimate victory with more than 73% of votes. So how could a comedian with no political experience win a President’s chair?
Who’s Mr. Zelenskiy?
Despite he has never been a part of the political system, it’s hard to call Vladimir Zelenskiy a dark horse in the Ukrainian presidential election. Famous comedian and actor, producer, owner of a large production studio known for it’s movies, series and night shows, Zelenskiy is a highly recognisable figure in Ukrainian society. This popularity was one of the key factors which lead him to run for the president’s chair and winning it as a result.
He was born in 1978 in an industrial city of Kriviy Rih, in a Soviet middle-class intelligence family. His mother worked as an engineer, and father was professor and Head of the Department of Informatics and Information technologies at local technical university. After school, Zelenskiy entered the Department of Law at the Kriviy Rih’s branch of a major university of economics in Kyiv. There, he first became a part of a KVN team, which has changed his entire life.
KVN is a famous intellectual and humoristic show, which was invented in USSR and outlived it in most of the post-soviet states. It looks like a kind of night show, where teams from different cities battle in humoristic scenes, created and written by themselves. After being invited to the team of his city, Zelenskiy quickly became not just an actor, but also a writer of scenarios and jokes. In 1997, he became a captain of a new team called “95 kvartal” (“Neighbourhood #95”). From 1999 to 2003, this team participated in the highest league of KVN, having shows in Moscow and competing with the best teams from all of the ex-USSR.
In 2003, he and his team were offered to make a number of concerts with their best jokes and scenes by one of the largest Ukrainian TV-channel, “1+1”. The popularity of this concerts led to another offer from another major TV-channel, which suggested Zelenskiy and his team make a regular night show, known by the name “Vecherniy Kvartal” (“Evening Neighbourhood”). This show became one of the most popular on Ukrainian TV, mostly because of its jokes about politics and parodies of the most influential figures of the Ukrainian political system.
Later, Zelenskiy has also created a production studio. It has created a wide range of TV-shows and comedy movies, distributed not only in Ukraine but also in other countries of ex-USSR. In 2012, his main product - night show “Vecherniy Kvartal” has returned to its first TV-Channel, “1+1” without changing the concept - it remained as the most important humoristic show with a solid part of political and social topics on Ukrainian TV.
Things have changed in 2014. After the Revolution of Dignity, the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and war in Eastern Ukraine, Zelenskiy judged Russia’s actions. According to his words, he cut all the business with Russia which had a huge financial impact on his business. Standing on the Ukrainian side of the conflict but nevertheless criticising the government in his show, Zelenskiy managed to increase his popularity even more and later on created a completely new project.
A candidate from YouTube
In 2016, Ukrainian YouTube users found a new series, which very soon became popular and started to attract millions of viewers. A show called “The servant of the People” tells a story of a simple teacher of history, who once surprisingly becomes the President of Ukraine. Soon, he started to rule the country in a completely new way, fighting corruption, oligarchs and false reforms for the good of common people.
This show, obviously, was written and filmed by “Kvartal” studio, owned by Vladimir Zelenskiy. Even more, the most popular actors of “Vecherniy Kvartal took some roles in it, and Zelenskiy himself performed the main role of Vasiliy Goloborod’ko, teacher of history and new President of Ukraine. This was the start of Zelenskiy being considered as potential runner-up for a President’s chair.
Despite all the other candidates, Zelenskiy didn’t announce the start of his campaign right until January 2019. In the New Year’s Eve, at the time of traditional annual speech of President, one of the major Ukrainian TV-channels suddenly cancel the broadcast of the President and put a video with Zelenskiy, who congratulated people with the holidays. This happened at “1+1” channel, which had also translated 2 seasons of “The servant of the People” and had an intention on broadcasting the third one.
Even before the official announcement, main sociological companies included Zelenskiy in their election conducts and surveys. Far before the first round on the 31st of March, Zelenskiy was among the top-3 candidates. Unlike the others, he didn’t tour around the country to meet his potential voters. Neither did he hold long speeches on political issues or participate in political TV-shows. Instead of this, he and his team published some videos on YouTube, filmed on a frontal camera of his own smartphone.
Zelenskiy didn’t also explain his political program. In one of the most famous videos he made during the campaign, he asked people to list top-5 problems of Ukraine in order to help him create a program. One of the main mottos of his campaign was to refresh Ukrainian political system with some new faces, although he announced his team only a few days before the second round, without even telling who’s going to take which position.
Other slogans he used were appealing to some constant wishes of Ukrainian voters - to fight the corruption, to punish all the corrupted politicians, to decrease prices for utilities and increase salaries and social payments. He also constantly referred to himself as a “simple guy”, “a man of the people and from the people”, and later during the official debates he stormed current President Poroshenko with tonnes of provocative questions which he described as “questions from the people”. All this, in the result, provided him with sufficient success in the first round - he won more than 30% of votes, a half more than his follower, current President Petro Poroshenko. In the second round, his success was even more astonishing - with support of 73% of votes he becomes the 6th President of Ukraine.
Not even a cat in a bag
Despite the unquestionable success of Zelenskiy, there are still 25% of people who supported Petro Poroshenko in the second tour, and division between these 2 camps is dangerously radical.
People who didn’t support Zelenskiy have their own arguments. First of all, no matter how strong he denies it, the newly elected President is connected to one of the most scandalous oligarchs of Ukraine, Ihor Kolomoyskiy. The TV-channel, which was the first host of Zelenskiy’s show - “1+1”, - is owned by Ihor Kolomoyskiy. During the presidential campaign, journalists have found that among some new faces, Zelenskiy’s team also includes a trusted lawyer of Kolomoyskiy. Together with the lawyer, Zelensky made 13 trips to Geneva and Tel-Aviv during the past 2 years - cities, where exiled oligarch Kolomoyskiy prefers to live these days. All this makes some people consider Zelenskiy as a creation of Kolomoyskiy, who’d love to come back to Ukraine and regain his major business actives. During the debates, Petro Poroshenko called Zelenskiy “Not even a cat in the bag, but a bag, inside which are demons and torturers, and everything else which threatens my country these days”.
Although Zelenskiy declared his wish to continue the country’s course on integration with the EU and NATO, he’s far less radical in this matter than current President is. For some people, that’s enough reason to be afraid of him betraying Ukrainian national interests and bringing the country back to the Russian sphere of influence on a geopolitical arena. His knowledge of Ukrainian language is far from perfection, in public speeches he mixes it with Russian. It makes him closer to voters from the Eastern part of Ukraine but also makes some Ukrainian-speaking part of the population his radical opponents.
The lack of competence and overwhelming populism are also among the top reasons for no-trust. His few conversations with journalists and unexpected confrontation with Poroshenko on one of the political TV-shows he attended have shown him as not really confident politician and bad negotiator. Most of the slogans he used during the campaign are touching subjects which lie far beyond the competences of President according to the Ukrainian constitution. He hasn’t also proposed much in the spheres of international affairs and defence, which are the keys responsibilities the President of Ukraine.
“New faces” of his team are not that new as well. Besides Kolomoyskiy’s lawyer, Zelenskiy works with Oleksandr Danyliuk, ex-Minister of Finance, Aivaras Abromavicius, ex-Minister of Economic Development and Trade, and Ivan Aparshin who used to be the Head of Department of military policies and strategic planning at Ministry of Defence. Although these people weren’t involved in large political or corruption scandals, people can barely call them “new”.
Zelenskiy refused to publish his income statement of 2018 until the election is over, which made some people question the reason. As a figure who has never been involved in politics, he shouldn’t be afraid of corruption scandals. Later on, another journalist investigation has found that despite his own words, Zelenskiy still has some business in Russian Federation. He later apologized, stating that he had no time to finish this business.
However, despite all the secrets and controversies, Volodymyr Zelenskiy has won the election with outstanding support. Now, his task is to save as much of it as possible.
What happens next?
Being a President in a country where Parliament has a dominating role over the other branches, Zelenskiy has gained only a part of success. Without a majority - or, at least, some large amount of seats in Parliament, - he has a really small chance to succeed in reforming the country. The Parliament is going to be re-elected in October 2019, and Zelenskiy has not so much time to form and present his party. For now, his companions have registered a party called “The servant of the People” This name itself can provide this party with a lot of support, but repeating the success of presidential campaign may be far more problematic this time.
For now, it’s obvious that among 73% of people who supported him during the second tour not everyone is a fan of his. Many of those people have quite opposite views on many topics of internal and internal policies and united not to support Zelenskiy, but to oppose Poroshenko and current political system. The parliamentary election will give much more variety to choose from, and Zelenskiy’s team need to work really hard to keep as many supporters around as possible.
His slogans and promises can also play a bad joke for his party. Being unrealistic in his words during the presidential campaign, he could put many of his voters into a false sense of expectation of miracles to happen. Some people who consider him not less than a messiah can become disappointed pretty soon, and for the following 6 months, Zelenskiy needs to try hard to prevent it. Otherwise, he’s going to lose the battle for the Parliament and all the intentions of his, whether they are pure and open or hidden and corrupt, will be incredibly hard to fulfil.