Editorial Note: An earlier version of this article included Acting Minister of Healthcare Ulana Suprun among the prominent supporters of the Volodymyr Zelensky’s campaign. This was incorrect. She is not. We apologize for the error.
The shocking rise of performer Volodymyr Zelensky as the frontrunner in the March 31 Ukrainian Presidential election has been greeted with derision, defamation, and skepticism. He’s been labelled variously as a “clown,” a “joke without experience,” and “Ukraine’s Donald Trump.”
But Zelensky is no “clown,” nor is he the Slavic version of Donald Trump. He is a lawyer who has made millions as a producer and performer with theatrical productions and a hit television series called Servant of the People. Now on Netflix, the series stars him as a naive history teacher whose classroom rant about the rampant corruption in Ukraine is videoed by a student and placed online where it goes viral, propelling him to the presidency. The race in Ukraine is about art preempting life.
Zelensky is the antithesis of Trump, who never had a policy thought before he ran for public office. Zelensky’s scripts are manifestos on the country’s problems and possible solutions, and his character has so successfully skewered Ukraine’s political and oligarch classes for years that he has become a de facto opposition leader. Thus, his name recognition and his political credibility as a reformer are established.
But his lack of day-to-day experience running a country is a valid concern, even though this is hardly unique. Any first-term leader must undergo on-the-job training. In Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko ran chocolate factories before he took office, and his arch-rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, profiteered in the country’s murky gas business years ago before embarking on an arguably unsuccessful political career as a reformer. Both opponents have made allegations about Zelensky’s motives, and Poroshenko has accused him of being backed by an odious oligarch-in-exile, Ihor Kolomoisky, whose network airs Zelensky’s television shows. But Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former Finance Minister who aggressively took on Kolomoisky over his corrupt bank, believes this is a smear without substance and has joined Zelensky’s preliminary team.
Frankly, in the moral vacuum that exists in Ukrainian politics and society, voting for Zelensky is a “rational” choice, not a throwaway vote.
He may lack hands-on experience, but has a body of work and a platform that aligns with the peoples’ aspirations. He has also attracted an experienced reform team. So far, his inner circle includes Danylyuk; Aivaras Abromavicius, former Economic Development Minister; People’s Deputy Sergiy Leshchenko; and successful businessman Vyacheslav Klimov, co-owner of Ukraine’s largest express delivery company, Novaya Pochta.
Zelensky’s reform platform includes a pledge to serve only one term, to hold national referendums on key issues, to lift immunity from prosecution for lawmakers, judges, and the President himself, and to undertake judicial, health care, energy, and fiscal reforms.
By contrast, Poroshenko has not upheld the rule of law by removing corrupt judges, police, or prosecutors and replacing them with bullet-proof law enforcement institutions. There has not been one high-profile conviction in Ukraine, nor charges laid against Victor Yanukovych and his henchmen who fled with at least $70 billon. He has failed to create and protect a free and unfettered press by forcing oligarchs, criminals, and powerful vested interests to divest their media assets. And he has failed to overturn immunity for the 450 members of the parliament, or Verkhovna Rada, most of whom “sell” their seats and votes to oligarchs, which is the basis of political corruption in the country.
“Promises ended with a deception because the incumbent president came to power to enrich himself,” said Leshchenko in an interview with a prominent investigative journalist who, along with others, joined Poroshenko’s party in 2014 to help reform the country and is now part of Zelensky’s team.
Despite an abysmal track record, Poroshenko is supported by some concerned that a rookie could mishandle the war effort against Russia or reverse the direction of the country toward Europe and the West. But Poroshenko’s own Finance Minister Oksana Markarova recently challenged this argument, writing that because Ukraine has enshrined European Union and NATO accession, “whoever comes to power, Ukraine’s pro-western economic development and orientation cannot be reversed.”
Besides, Zelensky has, like the others, pledged support for EU membership but called NATO membership a “guarantee of Ukraine’s security” that should be put to a referendum. As for Russia, he has stated that while Donbass and Crimea belong to Ukraine, he wants to negotiate peace with Russia. His caveat is that the United States and Britain must also be at the table.
That’s where he comes across naively. The Kremlin has refused to give the United States or Britain a seat at the table since the invasion in 2014 and will continue to do so. And negotiations are impossible because Russia holds all the cards: The conflict with Russia will remain a stalemate unless Ukraine dramatically increases its military power. Reports are that Russia has moved 2,500 pieces of heavy equipment into the region of late, while Ukraine lacks the reciprocal firepower. Without equivalence, President Vladimir Putin will continue to have no reason to enter into talks and continue to control the situation at relatively lost cost in blood or treasure.
Perhaps Zelensky will learn fast enough and make lobbying the United States and allies for “Lend-Lease” war equipment a priority to match the Russians. Until then, all that Zelensky can assuredly deliver is hope the country will win its war against grinding corruption at home. And he’s set the table in more ways than most realize. Last year, before his presidential bid, he quietly registered “Servant of the People” as an official political party. Also shocking, this party leads the polls in this fall’s Verkhovna Rada election. This means that, whether he becomes President or not, he may have successfully launched a movement reminiscent of what politically incorrect comedian Beppe Grillo of Italy accomplished in 2009 with the influential Five Star Movement. Last year, Grillo’s anti-establishment party swept aside the country’s corrupt parties in the national elections by promising to expunge corruption, prioritize the environment, and provide a universal basic income for poor Italians.
The significance of a new party winning the largest percentage of seats in the Rada cannot be underestimated and is dramatically more important than winning the presidency. That’s because, in addition to the President, the country’s parliament is its biggest scourge. Its members break laws with impunity, take bribes, and impede reforms of any kind. Zelensky’s two-pronged election strategy is brilliant and represents the best hope yet of transforming the country.
This recognition has catapulted Zelensky and his new party to the top, albeit with some bumps along the road. He has had to, on at least one occasion, disassociate his fictitious character’s televised actions from what he would do if elected. For instance, one sequence features his meltdown with IMF officials over paying any interest rates on debts. While funny in a sitcom, tongue-lashing the IMF, which props up Ukraine’s economy and reform efforts, is not the least bit humorous in reality. Zelensky addressed this in an interview, saying that, as President, he wouldn’t hurl an obscenity at the IMF as his character does because “in life, we don’t have the right to.”
But normally, his comedy crosshairs are trained on all the correct targets and he hits the mark. In one segment, for instance, he visits a fancy cathedral in the country and asks the priest who paid for it. A millionaire, the priest replies, to which Zelensky asks whether he was a businessman. “No,” says the priest, “a judge.”
In the second season, he reluctantly decides to meet with oligarchs to see if they will relent. But after one hands him a folder with a photo of their suggested candidate for Prime Minister, he abruptly leaves. That’s because their chosen candidate is a race horse. The oligarchs all laugh at this suggestion and at the discomfort of the new President. So it is hardly surprising that Zelensky has repeatedly stressed the importance of bridling the country’s craven and contemptuous oligarchs.
If Zelensky wins, Ukraine will dominate headlines around the world and so will he. This will afford him, and his team, a honeymoon period to get their feet under the desk and begin enacting the type of major reforms that Ukrainians have waited for since their Euromaidan revolution five years ago. There will be sabotage, brinkmanship, and other maneuvers, but all leavened with Zelensky’s trademark humor.
Last month, he asked an audience why Poroshenko wanted a second term.
“So, he doesn’t get a [prison] term,” said the impish candidate.
At a recent press meeting, Zelensky was asked how nervous he would be to meet with President Trump. “It would be no problem. We are both from the same industry, after all,” he said.
As for meeting Putin, the five-foot, six-inch Zelensky joked that the two, who are the same height, would simply see eye-to-eye.