All eyes were on Ukraine this past month during their surreal election period. No one believed that a comedian who had played the president in a popular TV show would actually become president in real life. The question arose; would life imitate art? Yes, as it turns out. Volodymyr Zelensky, the now globally famous Ukrainian president-elect, won by a landslide. In fact, the largest margin by any president in Ukraine, ever. Another country ticks the ‘unexpected result’ box. It certainly is a trend these days.
I initially flew to Kyiv to cover the first stages of the election and to find out who was supporting Zelensky. I soon realised I was in a city weary from politics. Still wearing the scars of revolution, war and corruption, Ukraine was clearly wounded from all the lies spluttering out of the same old politicians’ mouths. Her citizens had lost all trust, having believed the current president, Petro Poroshenko, would make rapid changes to the system after the 2014 Maidan revolution. When his promises of eliminating corruption and ending the war in the East didn’t materialise, people were quite understandably upset. So, when a young, funny, relatable comedian from television announced his decision to run for president at the end of 2018, it is little wonder that people started flocking to him. As was explained to me, “He has no experience in politics, but he has no experience in corruption”, something few of Ukraine’s political candidates could attest to.
For many, Zelensky was the new face of politics they had been waiting for and since they had seen him play the president on his TV show Servant of the People, which was also the name of his political party, they knew what to expect from him. In his campaigns, which primarily utilised social media, Zelensky successfully channelled the same character he portrayed on television. After it was announced that he and Poroshenko were the final two candidates, Zelensky released a slick video on his Instagram where he walked purposefully into the €500 million Olympic Stadium, resembling a cocaine-fuelled city banker coercing a client, to the background of upbeat rock music and the occasional slow motion tracking shot. In the video, he challenged Poroshenko to a debate in the 70 000 person stadium, despite having declined all previous political debates. Within 5 minutes of being posted, the video had been watched over 300 000 times and proceeded to go viral over the following days. It was in this moment that Zelensky had effectively won. Now he was in total control, re-designing and altering the political playing field, cornering Poroshenko so that no matter how he responded it would pale in comparison to Zelensky’s charismatic presentation. If he responded in the same fashion as Zelensky, then it would seem out of character and people would quickly call him out for being a phoney, yet if he responded in his typical, professional manner then he would come across as the same-old boring politician clinging onto the past in the face of a new, exciting opponent.
Zelensky, or rather his team, had successfully forged a new reality that blended the exhilaration and slickness of television with the accessibility of social media and somehow convinced people that this reality was more honest and less fake than the one they currently inhabited. And because Zelensky was used to this world, he could manoeuvre himself through it with ease, fully adopting the personality of his character. Poroshenko was left behind, unused to this new game, hoping that in the end his experience would prevail over Zelensky’s personality. But Zelensky still had one last trump over Poroshenko. Whilst the incumbent president was clear about his policies, Zelensky took a gamble, one that would ultimately pay off despite the huge risk. In a country dominated by binary identities, Zelensky was a blank canvas for personal beliefs. He was deliberately ambiguous with his policies, revealing most of them towards the end of his campaign. For the most part, they didn’t differ much from Poroshenko’s: he vowed to end the war in Donbas, to push for a strong independent Ukraine separate from Russia, and openly supported the de-communisation reforms. These are views held by the majority of the country, they are nothing new at all; in fact you would be hard pressed to find people who disagreed with these notions. But Zelensky’s personality and refreshing approach meant that his sincerity was taken more seriously than Poroshenko’s. In this new world, he’s the most honest man in Ukraine.
It may be of no surprise that Zelensky had a large base of young supporters. His campaign certainly targeted the Social Media generation, captivating some of the mid-20s voters I met, including many protestors who took part in the Maidan. Curiously the post-Maidan youth seem to be less politically engaged than the generation before them, which is perhaps why they largely supported the least political politician. For them, Zelensky is the clean slate that has the potential to fulfil the Maidan vision of a corrupt-free, European-integrated Ukraine. Poroshenko, who was a noticeable protestor during the Maidan, may have been able to secure the votes of an older generation of ardent nationalists who stood alongside him, but the younger generation feel betrayed by his lack of action and are more likely to be open to change than those who were alive during the Soviet Era. In fact, a lot of young people don’t let politics obstruct what they want to do. Having grown up in a politically unstable time, particularly during the 90’s when communism was collapsing around them with horrendous consequences, they are more comfortable with political uncertainty. Instead the wave of hope and possibility from the Maidan transitioned into their daily lives, whilst the recent arrival of cheap airlines and visa-free travel within the Schengen Area has offered the opportunity for many young Ukrainians to travel easily in Europe and bring back new ideas and opportunities. There has also been an explosion in the Ukrainian tech industry, with programming offering a viable opportunity to make money, as well as the chance to work for international companies. Simultaneously, start-ups and co-working spaces are prolific in major cities such as Kyiv and Lviv. This means that young people feel they have opportunities to realise their dreams and ambitions, regardless of Ukraine’s political situation. Indeed, for many the more connected and integrated Ukraine becomes, the only way to go is up, regardless of who is steering the country.
So if Zelensky is the fresh-faced, clean slate that Ukrainians have been dreaming of, why is there such a big controversy around his victory? Indeed many are championing his success as a victory for Ukrainian democracy; a big middle finger to the corrupt politicians who normally run the show. Well, as it turns out, there is a shadow looming behind him that can’t help but cast Zelensky in a rather dark light. It belongs to an oligarch, Ihor Kolomoskyi, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen. He has his fingers in numerous juicy pies, one of those just so happens to be the media conglomerate 1+1 Media, which airs Servant of the People. This combined with his friendship to Zelensky is enough for people to suspect that the comedian isn’t really going to be leading the country away from its undemocratic oligarchic rule. In fact theories have been floating around that Servant of the People was a pre-empted ploy fathomed up by Kolomoskyi in order to gain power from Poroshenko, who he had a falling out with in early 2015. It’s not a totally implausible theory, particularly in Ukraine where oligarchs wield an unhealthy amount of control. Either way, there is enough evidence to suggest that Kolomoskyi and Zelensky have some kind of partnership, but the fact that people are willing to look past that reveals the actors popularity lies more with the faults of Poroshenko than his own policies. In the end, only time will tell if Ukraine improves post-Poroshenko, or if the country has simply elected a new face, masking corrupt oligarchic rule.