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Then presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to reporters on 5 April 2019 Then presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to reporters on 5 April 2019
28 May
The Ukrainian people have voted a comedian as their next president – Klaus Dodds examines the ramifications

In April, Volodymyr Zelensky romped to victory with more than 70 per cent of the popular vote in the parts of the Ukraine that could register their voting intentions. Due to the ongoing security situation, voters in Russian-annexed Crimea and rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk did not participate. Notwithstanding their absence, only one region in Ukraine (in the far west of the country) voted for the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko. On the face of it, it was a stunning victory for a politically inexperienced former lawyer turned television comedian.

Electing a comedian to the highest political office might seem unusual or even odd. But the people of Ukraine have arguably followed in the footsteps of others. In Italy, the comedian Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement captured political power on a platform of anti-sleaze and promises to make Italian politics less corrupt. He has been dogged by controversy, some of it originating in a conviction for manslaughter in the early 1980s. Nonetheless, in the 2018 general elections the Five Star Movement captured around 30 per cent of the popular vote. Grillo does not hold political office and the Movement is led by the serving deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio. Zelensky, meanwhile, has proved that a comedian can actually secure the highest political office.

Zelensky’s triumph coincided with his popular television show, Servant of the People. In the second season, a fictional school teacher (played by Zelensky) emerges as a surprise political winner after his complaints about government corruption goes viral. Disgusted with the established political parties, fictional voters later turn to his candidacy because he promises to ‘clean up’ Ukrainian politics. As the second season unfolds, the new president is depicted as unrelenting in his desire to confront corrupt politicians. He takes on the budgetary pressures imposed by the International Monetary Fund, and stages an unlikely re-election campaign. The script would be one that many populist politicians might actually approve of.

Building on his onscreen popularity and persona, Zelensky’s real-life political party was also called ‘Servant of the People’. During the 2018 presidential campaign, it became clear that many voters were fed up with the slow pace of political change. The country is beset by ongoing tension with Russia over Crimea/Eastern Ukraine and mired in political controversies. Plans for closer partnerships with the EU and NATO remain works in progress. Poroshenko, the former president and 2018 presidential campaigner, was never far removed from controversies about state-led spending and appropriation. Some observers complained that the Ukrainian voters were confusing ‘fiction’ for reality, as they marked their ballot papers in favour of the former lawyer turned comedian.

The successful candidate deliberately played with this ambiguity; his campaign videos were shot in the style of the fictional president. Footage from the television series was interspersed with his real-life campaigning videos. Hailing from the Russian-speaking southeast of the country, he was credited with reaching across a country that was deeply affected by the 2014 Maidan protests, and ongoing demands for legal reform and political accountability.

While the victory in the real presidential campaign was stunning, many Ukrainian voters were under no illusions as to what they were being offered. The choice of candidates was between two wealthy candidates (Zelensky and Poroshenko) with their own ties to powerful oligarchs. The billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskyi owns the television channel which broadcasts Servant of the People. Poroshenko is a billionaire in his own right and made his money from chocolate. Importantly, he owned his own television channel, Channel 5. Fittingly, Ukraine is described as an ‘oligarchical state’, where high net wealth individuals enjoy substantial media, business and political interests.

Having now won the presidential election, Zelensky has some tough issues to confront in his in-tray. While supportive of Ukraine joining the EU and NATO, he has called for the public to endorse them via referendum. He wants to negotiate directly with Vladimir Putin but it is hard to imagine what he can offer if he does not wish to cede any further territory in the east of the country. As the new president will discover, Ukraine is also a buffer zone for Russian and EU/NATO designs. His greatest challenge might be how he ‘buffers’ the competing demands of Ukrainian voters alongside Russian and European stakeholders. To his credit, former president Poroshenko conceded defeat quickly.

Depending upon who you believe, Zelensky is either the surprise winner of the election and/or the candidate of choice of his secret backer, Ihor Kolomoyskyi. However, it is difficult to imagine a presidential winner emerging without some oligarchical backing. While the newly elected president proved adept with his social media and online persona, the geopolitical forces and framings that shape Ukraine will complicate his message that ‘everything is possible’.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This was published in the June 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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