Imagine Martin Sheen, inspired by his role as President Jed Bartlet in “The West Wing,” running for the U.S. presidency and winning. Or Julia Louis-Dreyfus, capitalizing on her role as Vice President Selina Mayer in “Veep,” joining a ticket with Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders and emerging victorious in 2020.
Well that’s exactly what just happened in Ukraine.
On April 21, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who played a president in a popular Ukrainian TV series, defeated incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in a landslide, garnering 73.2% of the vote to Poroshenko’s 24.4%.
As a scholar of post-Soviet politics, I see this election as an important moment for the country.
Zelenskiy’s victory raises some big questions: Who is he 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 took 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 into Kolomoisky’s business practices.
While Zelenskiy claims that he remains neutral toward Kolomoisky, recent reports suggest that Zelenskiy’s campaign was in frequent communication with Kolomoisky, who is currently in self-imposed exile and has had a well-publicized spat with 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.
Poroshenko had positioned himself as the only candidate with a proven record of standing up to Russian aggression. During the campaign, billboards appeared throughout the country featuring Poroshenko staring directly into Vladimir Putin’s eyes.
Zelenskiy stated that ending the war would be his top priority and that negotiations with Russia were absolutely necessary. But he also has called for the creation of Russian-speaking television channels that would be directed toward the population of Donbass.
He claimed 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 said he supported Ukraine’s economic integration with Europe. But he believed the question of whether Ukraine should join NATO should be left to the voters through a referendum. It’s a position that has raised 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, spoke 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 politician who’s “dangerously pro-Russia.”
Part of a global trend
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 played out in cyberspace.
After such a decisive outcome, it will be interesting to see what’s in store for Ukraine as the nation embarks on a new political season.
This is an updated version of a piece published on April 18, 2019.