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The Joker Who Would Be King

Ukrainians are poised to elect a comedian as their next president. Who is Volodymyr Zelensky, and why does he inspire such high hopes?

One morning, a dishevelled history teacher is late for work. His parents and sister, with whom he shares a modest Kyiv flat, pound their fists on the bathroom door. He emerges bleary and irritable, encountering an officious-looking visitor with two companions, all in suits. “Vasily Petrovich Holoborodko?” “Yes?” “Good morning, Mr. President,” says the Prime Minister of Ukraine.

So begins the hit comedy series Servant of the People, which charts the unexpected rise to power of an honest everyman; Holoborodko’s vulgar rant against corrupt officials, surreptitiously recorded by one of his students, has won him the presidency. But truth could follow fiction after a runoff vote on April 21; Vladimir Zelensky, the comedian who plays Holoborodko, is now the frontrunner in Ukraine’s presidential race. In fact, opinion polls suggest that Zelensky will become president of Ukraine — this time for real. 

It would be easy to castigate this popularity as another symptom of an era of “post-truth politics.” But while Servant of the People may be a fiction, it is an astute one; a concentrated shot of anti-politics for a country which appears exhausted of promises frequently made and rarely fulfilled. Here in Ukraine, where the average wage is $300 a month and just nine percent of people have confidence in the government, Zelensky’s popularity is far from mystifying. The fact that the 41-year-old comedian has never before held political office does not faze his supporters. After all, in a society where people have disdained “skilled professionals” before doing so was fashionable, perhaps the most rational choice is to vote for a parody politician instead?

In the first round on March 31, many Ukrainians did just that. The scale of Zelensky’s victory came as a shock to Petro Poroshenko, the confectionery tycoon who has ruled the country as president since 2014 (Zelensky took 30% of the vote compared to Poroshenko’s 15.6%.) Poroshenko’s re-election campaign had been rich in patriotic tubthumping, burnishing his credentials as commander in chief of a country still at war, winner of a long-awaited visa-free regime with the EU, and defender of the faith for his role in securing autonomy for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church. In contrast, Zelensky’s team eschewed traditional pre-electoral campaigning, save for a series of free concerts. “Tents, flyers, and all that; that’s the technology of old politicians. We don’t need nor desire to use it, nor to appear similar to them,” Dmytro Razumkov, Zelensky’s political consultant, explained to me. (While Zelensky’s supporters interpret his love of social media as a love of direct communication with ordinary people, he has become famously shy of journalists.)

“In the second round, [Poroshenko] will divide society by saying ‘it’s either me or Putin.’ But it’s apparent that 80% of this country’s citizens don’t support him. You tell me, does that mean that 80% of our citizens are Putin?” Razumkov asked. 

The president’s billboards have become even starker, showing Poroshenko facing off against Vladimir Putin. Poroshenko has struck a more contrite tone in recent days, assuring voters that their discontent in the first round has been heard; his administration will mend its ways. To that end, he’s met with civil society representatives and fired unpopular regional governors. But it might not be enough. Despite it all, the president’s anti-rating is impressive, and was not helped by recent investigations alleging that his friend and business partner was implicated in corruption schemes involving procurement for the military. One recent poll by the Kyiv-based International Institute for Sociology gives Poroshenko just 25% compared to Zelensky’s 75%.

One of Us

After the first round, I visited Zelensky’s campaign headquarters in a leafy suburb of Kyiv. Rows of enraptured twentysomethings plugged away at laptops in a cubicle, its glass graced by felt-tip poll ratings and a sketch of an appropriately smug winking Zelensky. “Our ideology, if we can call it that, is simply people’s power,” explained Ivan Bakanov, campaign head and director of the Kvartal95 studio which produces Servant of the People. “Many people believe referendums are dangerous, but I would remind them that thanks to a referendum in 1991 Ukraine won its independence.”

Accordingly Zelensky promises that one of his first laws as president will grant new legal weight to public referendums on key issues, including Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership ambitions. While contemplating this has nourished rumours that Zelensky is a closet pro-Russian (which he strongly denies), it could be trickier to implement given that the country’s pro-Western course was written into the constitution this February. 

The promise of referendums, much like Zelensky himself, could be a green screen onto which his diverse electorate can project their desires. In pro-European strongholds in Galicia to the West and pro-Russian areas of the government controlled Donbas region to the East, voters clung to what they knew. But the overwhelming majority took a leap of faith in the first round, reflecting Zelensky’s ability to resonate across both Ukrainian and Russian speaking regions of Ukraine (a country whose political divisions are often oversimplified as immutable, if not congenital.) Importantly, Zelensky kept his distance from divisive topics such as language policy and questions of historical memory. Let Ukrainians worship their own heroes, as long as they agree on the right villains. 

And what villains. One of Zelensky’s few campaign billboards reads simply: “Let’s get them together!” (“зробимо їх разом”); in a notorious scene from Servant of the People, Holoborodko does just that. Standing before a raucous debate in the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, Holoborodko starts to daydream. Furious at the intransigent, self-serving deputies, the president draws two Uzis and massacres the lot of them. 

If this is “populism,” it comes with caveats. By standards widely applied by European broadsheets, nearly all of Ukraine’s leading politicians could be described as “populist,” offering high hopes to downtrodden Real Ukrainians. Unusually for Europe, Zelensky is an anti-establishment politician opposing a political establishment which employs populist rhetoric like a broken record. Unusually for a Ukrainian politician, he has succeeded by first launching a campaign with broad appeal, in comparison to which Poroshenko appears dogmatic and sectarian. And if, as his opponents say, Zelensky is unburdened by experience and practical proposals, so much the better — that makes him less the cut-out politician. Such inexperience appears to be in high demand; before Zelensky’s fortunes rose, the most high-profile “celebrity” candidate was Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, lead singer of the popular rock band Okean Elzy.)

Serhiy Kudelia, a specialist in Ukrainian politics and an associate professor of political science at Baylor University, agrees that Zelensky defies clear ideological characterisation. “A candidate ‘against all the above’ implies that supporters don’t see a future, while Zelensky voters clearly do. I think he represents a different vision of state-society relations, where the state does not intrude into spheres that people value; what language you speak, what songs you listen to, what TV channels you watch. The demands of the new generation are to basically get rid of this state that imposes an ideological agenda.”

Who Writes the Script?

When Zelensky founded his comedy studio in 2003 with three school friends, he named it in honour of Kvartal 95, a nondescript district in Krivoy Rog, a sombre industrial city in south-western Ukraine, where he was born in 1978. Krivoy Rog is the centre of an industrial region known as the Kryvbas, rich in iron ore and the skeletons of Soviet factories. 

It seems hard to imagine that the “factory of laughter,” which went on to sell TV programmes to 21 countries, made its first laughs here. Like many locals, Zelensky left this city of 600,000 to make his fortune elsewhere.

“This is still a working city, working to the extent that you still won’t see modern buildings or skyscrapers. The mines are still open, but there’s not much in the way of culture,” begins Vladimir Kazakov, a local historian who pioneered industrial tourism in the Kryvbas. “Why are our guys so well known across Ukraine? Because they grew up in a tough working-class atmosphere, they speak their minds and do as they say,” says Kazakov.

Colleagues from the early days of Kvartal95 such as Bakanov occupy key positions in Zelensky’s inner circle. In many ways, Zelensky’s fame in Ukraine and the wider post-Soviet world is as tied to the real success story of his studio as it is to the fantasy of Holoborodko. “In a sense, running a state is similar to running a business, and Vladimir has tremendous experience,” stressed Bakanov. 

A major vulnerability to Zelensky’s self-made image could be his alleged links to Ihor Kolomoiskyi, the Ukrainian-Israeli billionaire who owns the 1+1 television channel which airs Kvartal95’s programmes. Some observers fear that Zelensky’s candidacy is the latest round in Kolomoiskyi’s long-simmering vendetta with Poroshenko. Kolomoiskyi, who still owns a significant business empire in Ukraine, is believed to seek compensation for the nationalisation of PrivatBank, which the state took over as part of a putative “de-oligarchisation” campaign in 2016.

Poroshenko has publicly dismissed Zelensky as a puppet of the exiled oligarch. Zelensky and his team dismiss that the connection has any political relevance. “It’s a mutually beneficial business relationship, that’s all,” Bakanov told me, “But in politics, Vladimir is independent.” Yet there are coincidences. Several people close to Kolomoisyki, including the billionaire’s lawyer Andriy Bohdan, also work on Zelensky’s team. A recent investigation revealed that Zelensky had taken multiple trips to Geneva and Tel Aviv, where Kolomoiskyi owns homes. Whatever the nature of this opaque relationship, it remains to be seen whether Zelensky will have a favour to repay.

A further group which has Zelensky’s ear are the disillusioned “technocratic” reformers. These government functionaries were deeply dismayed at what they saw as the authorities’ lack of commitment to the reform agenda swept in by the government following the Maidan revolution. They included high profile figures such as former Minister of the Economy Aivaras Abramovicus and Minister of Finance Oleksandr Danylyuk. Another is Serhiy Leshchenko, a former journalist turned lawmaker, who has advised Zelensky on anti-corruption measures. “It wasn’t like a menu at a restaurant, there were only a few candidates; I didn’t know Volodymyr [Zelensky] well, but I knew that he stood for reform,” Leshchenko told me in a central Kyiv cafe. The journalist dismisses parallels between Zelensky and other anti-establishment populists worldwide. “It’s good that Ukraine has a populist who doesn’t wave around swastikas, but an actor with a good sense of humour who unites the country. The old or the new; that’s the only dividing line this time.”

Lawyer Ruslan Riaboshapka resigned from Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Council in June 2017, and joined Zelensky’s team this January. “All the most important criminal cases faced obstacles in the courts, so the agency couldn’t secure good results,” Riaboshapka told me in a telephone conversation. “The laws are there and the experience is there; everybody understands what needs to be done, but the main problem is the lack of political will. And Vladimir has that political will.” If Zelensky shows that will, then Ukraine’s elites will be fighting for their very survival. For now, they are content with jockeying for influence in the new order; Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov, widely believed to be the protector of Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist right, is alleged to have been reaching olive branches in all directions for several months. 

“Most oligarchs have probably come to back Zelensky by now. But the guy is genuine; I don’t think he’s a just a puppet,” said Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I wouldn’t rule out that he planned this presidential run from the very start; he planned a reality show from the beginning for us, and we’re all playing a role.”

Stay Tuned

This Friday, Zelensky and Poroshenko will go head to head in a televised debate. When Zelensky backed out of another live debate on April 15, Poroshenko was treated to an argument with an empty podium. It’s not for nothing that some Ukrainians now ask whether the two men really want the challenge at all. Zelensky has demanded drug and blood tests of his opponent; Poroshenko obliged. Meanwhile the overall tone of campaigning sinks ever lower; one video posted on a Poroshenko-affiliated Facebook page shows Zelensky run over by a passing lorry.

Zelensky’s advisors stressed to me that Servant of the People played no key role in the electoral campaign, nor in Zelensky’s appeal to Ukrainian voters. Nevertheless, last March, Bakanov and his colleagues from Kvartal95 founded a political party to contest parliamentary elections this coming October. Why, I asked, had they chosen to name it “Servant of the People”? “It was a defensive reaction. At the time, there was another group of people who wanted to register a party with the same name,” responded Bakanov, who hesitated to identify the group in question. “Look, Holoborodko is a great character, but our voters voted for Zelensky,” Bakanov continued. “Zelensky’s jokes were always about politics, and he’s told the truth about politics 20 years; yes, in an ironic and humorous way, but nothing but the truth.”

As the prospect of a Zelensky presidency draws nearer, the comedian has been compelled to fill in his blank slate before others do so for him. He’s named a handful of ministers, talked tough on Putin. In a strong deviation from the script of Servant of the People, he’s even built bridges with the IMF.

“We have a plan. We have answers to all the key questions; it’s just that nobody wants to listen,” declared Razumkov, the political consultant. The vagueness or precision of those blueprints may be beside the point. By promising little, Zelensky has promised everything: that politics will be different from usual. If past years prove anything, it is that cleaning house in Ukraine is no comedy show, and the script gives scant forgiveness to those who fail.