Imagine Martin Sheen, inspired by his role as President Jed Bartlet in “The West Wing,” tossing his hat into the 2020 U.S. presidential race. Or Julia Louis-Dreyfus, capitalizing on her role as Vice President Selina Mayer in “Veep,” joining a ticket with Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders.
Well that’s exactly what’s happening in Ukraine.
In the first round of voting for the Ukrainian presidency, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who played a president in a popular Ukrainian TV series, garnered the biggest share of votes – 30.24% – in a field of 39 candidates.
In the April 21 runoff, he’ll face incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, who received 15.95% of the first round votes. A recent poll has Zelenskiy ahead 61% to Poroshenko’s 24%.
As a scholar of post-Soviet politics, I see this election as an important moment for the country.
Zelenskiy’s candidacy raises some big questions: Who is Zelenskiy and what can be expected from him? What might his election mean for Ukraine and its relationship with Russia and the West? And does this candidate’s ascension tell us something about the rise of global populism?
From Netflix to the campaign trail
Many politicians have burnished their image on screen before jumping into politics – think actor Ronald Reagan, wrestler Jesse Ventura, comedian Al Franken and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But their on-screen personas could diverge significantly from what voters tend to look for in a politician.
U.S. President Donald Trump did something different: He leveraged his image as a decisive boss on “The Apprentice” to enhance his image as a strong leader.
Zelenskiy takes things one step further.
In 2015, his production company, Studio Krvartal 95, aired the provocative political series “The Servant of the People,” which is now available on Netflix. In it, Zelensky plays a high school history teacher, who, after a student posts a viral video of him giving a passionate anti-corruption rant, wins the presidential election as a write-in candidate.
The series, which is now in its third season, chronicles the new president’s attempts to fight the deep-rooted corruption at all levels of Ukrainian society. Zelenskliy’s character stands up to the powerful oligarchs, corrupt bureaucrats, members of the parliament, and even his own family members. He is portrayed as an earnestly honest, albeit naïve, leader.
Zelneskiy’s political ambitions didn’t become apparent until the end of 2018. Right before midnight on New Year’s Eve – the time usually reserved for the presidential holiday address – Zelneskiy made an announcement during a Kvartal holiday special.
“Unlike our great politicians,” he said, “I did not want to make empty promises. But now, just a few minutes before the New Year, I can promise you something and I’ll do it right away. Dear Ukrainians, I am going to run for the president of Ukraine.”
Zelneskiy’s true independence in doubt
In retrospect, his show served as a long-running campaign ad.
Zelneskiy’s writers have a reputation for sharp political commentary. They don’t hide their disdain of Ukraine’s political class and how they’ve run the country over the past 15 years. The acerbic jokes written into the show echo the frustrations of its viewers.
But will President Zelenskiy really be as incorruptible as the character he plays on TV?
“The Servant of the People” airs on the TV channel 1+1, which is owned by Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Since Zelenskiy’s announcement, the TV station has been noticeably pro-Zelenskiy in its news coverage.
In 2016, the Ukrainian government nationalized Kolomoisky’s PrivatBank, a decision that Kolomoisky would like to see overturned. Moreover, there are reports of an FBI investigation of Kolomoisky’s business practices.
While Zelenskiy claims that he remains neutral toward Kolomoisky, recent reports suggest that Zelenskiy’s campaign has been in frequent communication with Kolomoisky, who is now in self-imposed exile and has had a well-publicized spat with the incumbent, Poroshenko.
The Russia question
Then there’s Russia, a constant source of political tension in Ukraine. In 2014, the Russian Federation annexed Crimea, a long-disputed territory between the two countries, via an illegal referendum. Extensive evidence also shows Russia’s active involvement in the five-year war between pro-Russian separatists and pro-government forces that’s raging in Ukraine’s Donbass region, which borders Russia.
Ukraine’s incumbent president, Poroshenko, has positioned himself as the only candidate with a proven record of standing up to Russian aggression. Campaign billboards have appeared throughout the country featuring Poroshenko staring directly into Vladimir Putin’s eyes.
Zelenskiy states that ending the war is his top priority and that negotiations with Russia are absolutely necessary. But he also calls for the creation of Russian-speaking television channels that would be directed toward the population of Donbass.
He claims that this would allow the country to win the information war again Russia propaganda. However, the use of the Russian language in Ukraine is a divisive issue. Since 2014, the Ukrainian government has severely restricted Russian-language broadcasts. This was done to prevent the spread of Russian propaganda and to solidify the status of Ukrainian as the country’s official language.
Zelenskiy’s true posture toward Russia remains unclear.
On the topic of the West, Zelenskiy says he supports Ukraine’s economic integration with Europe. But he believes the question of whether Ukraine should join NATO should be left to the voters through a referendum. It’s a position that raises concerns among pro-West figures in the country, given the recent history of Russian meddling in Ukrainian politics and the disputed referendum in Crimea.
Furthermore, the head of the Russian government-funded television network RT, Dmitri Kiselyov, has spoken warmly of Zelenskiy, suggesting that being an actor shouldn’t be detrimental to his ability to serve as a political leader. To prove his point, he cited former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s jump from actor to politician.
For these reasons, some see in Zelenskiy a candidate who’s “dangerously pro-Russia.”
Will the show go on?
In recent years, numerous academic studies have documented the spread of populist authoritarian politics all over the world. The 2016 U.S. presidential election, the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy and Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil have all been cited as examples of movements that have stoked division, deployed bombastic rhetoric and spread viral memes to win over voters.
Zelenskiy might not appear to be as divisive. But like these other leaders, he is charismatic and eccentric. Likewise, he positions himself outside of the corrupt political establishment.
Social media has served as a medium to incubate and burnish the images of these populist figures. Indeed, much of Zelenskiy’s campaign has played out in cyberspace, while Zelenskiy continues to be involved with Kvartal 95’s comedic projects. He has yet to formally debate Poroshenko.
In the meantime, the rest of the world can only wait to see whether Ukrainian politics will embark on a new season, or if the Zelenskiy show is about to come to an end.