Fool turns king: How Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky laughed his way to presidency

He has little political experience and no clear policy approach on how to deal with the pro-Russian separatists, but time will tell if Ukraine made the right choice by voting Zelensky to power.

With no political experience and few detailed policies, Jewish actor-comedian Volodymyr Zelensky defeated incumbent Peter Poroshenko by a landslide in Ukraine’s recently concluded presidential polls on April 21.

Poroshenko is a veteran politician, who fought on the planks of a tougher stance on Russia, with whom Ukraine is at war, and led a vehement campaign for Ukrainian identity against eastern separatists. However, he polled favourably with only 24% of the voters, while 73% voted for Zelensky, who has never held political office.

The latter is a 41-year-old, best known for his stint on the popular satirical television show “Servant of the People”, where his character, a teacher, accidentally gets elected as the president.

Russia played an important role in this turnout

Zelensky will now take over the leadership of a country that is a major setpiece in the West’s standoff with Russia. Meanwhile, Russia has annexed Crimea and backs the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

“I will never let you down,” Zelensky told supporters while celebrating his victory, after Poroshenko conceded following the first exit polls.

The latter, however, said Zelensky was too inexperienced to stand up to Russia effectively. In a tweet, he said “a new inexperienced Ukrainian president… could be quickly returned to Russia’s orbit of influence”. Poroshenko, who came to power after an uprising overthrew the Russian regime, firmly stressed he will not quit politics.

Under his governance, however, the two countries have edged more towards war than peaceful reconciliation. The five-year conflict assumed a naval dimension in November 2018, when Russia seized and fired at three Ukrainian warships for allegedly illegally entering Russian waters in the Black Sea near Kerch. According to NPR, keeping the strait is “a strategic and economic imperative” for Kiev, while, for the Kremlin, “the challenge posed by Ukraine’s tiny navy is almost entirely symbolic”. 

Poroshenko responded to Putin’s threat of “full-scale war” by imposing martial law for 30 days in Ukrainian regions adjoining Russia, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov. He told media that his country is under the “extremely serious” threat of a land invasion, adding, “Russia will pay a huge price if they attack us”.

Normandy Format meeting between Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko to discuss the Crimean Crisis in Minsk in 2014. It was mediated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the then French President Francois Hollande. Credit: President of Russia. CC BY 4.0

After Zelensky’s historic win, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday that Moscow expects him to show “sound judgement”, “honesty” and “pragmatism” so that relations between the two nations can improve.

Rise of the politically inexperienced isn’t necessarily bad

Zelensky is trained as a lawyer, besides being a successful entrepreneur. He ran under a newly forged party named after the show which was his claim to fame.

His very successful campaign eschewed all traditional modes of rallying. Instead, he channelled his on-screen persona, with promises to stamp out corruption and dismantle oligarchy in Ukraine.

This resonated with the majority of Ukranians who have grown disillusioned with the direction the country is taking under Poroshenko. Most analysts have linked his win to a general frustration with establishment politicians and cronyism, while some have chalked it up to conspiracy theories.

But…

As is the problem with most political novices, Zelensky’s has typically focused on his difference from the other candidates, rather than on any concrete policy ideas. His foreign policy, or at least what could be made out of it, pegs him as mainly pro-Western, seeking Ukraine’s entry into the EU and NATO — all positions that didn’t separate him much from Poroshenko.

Critics and sceptics have observed that Zelensky has invariably avoided serious interviews and discussions about policy—preferring instead to post light-hearted videos on social media, where he is followed by millions.

Compare this to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, bartender-turned-youngest US congresswoman, whose Green New Deal is a concrete and strong political strategy aimed at reducing the carbon footprint and increasing funds for universal health care and minimum wages.

Zelensky’s close links to the billionaire oligarch Igor Kolomoisky has further made his anti-corruption agenda prone to suspicion. But more importantly, these vague promises have betrayed a rather simplistic understanding of the simmering Ukrainian politics, fomenting doubt on whether he is the right man to lead and deescalate Ukraine’s conflict with Russia.

With a month to go before the inauguration, there is considerable pressure on the president-elect to prove he knows what he is doing.

After his victory, however, Zelensky has openly stated for the first time his intentions to “reboot” peace talks with the separatists saying, “I think that we will have personnel changes. In any case we will continue in the direction of the Minsk [peace] talks and head towards concluding a ceasefire.”

Challenges ahead: How serious is Moscow-Kiev conflict?

Russia and Ukraine share the Sea of Azov as part of a 2003 agreement, but Moscow claims complete control over the Kerch Strait, and its access to Ukraine’s ports since the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

In May 2018, Putin, in fact, inaugurated a 12-mile long bridge over the Kerch Strait while steadily arming the airspace and seas near Ukraine. This bridge links Crimean peninsula to Russia and is a crucial way for Russia to assert its sovereignty over the region.

It is, thus, becoming increasingly difficult to protect the 180-mile stretch between Crimea and east Ukraine where separatist presence has increased in recent years, in the midst of Russia’s continued interference in Donbas.

Furthermore, 80% of Ukraine’s naval fleet was “wrecked” in 2014 in Crimea, which puts their military strength in a precarious position. This military imbalance between the two former members of the USSR gives adequate cause for alarm, in the event of a full-blown armed conflict.

Reactions

Western governments have traditionally rallied behind Kiev, accusing Russia of illegally blocking access to the watery stretch of Azov used by both countries. On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron congratulated Zelensky in a phone call, as did neighbour, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda.

In a tweet, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “You will now truly be the Servant of the People.” The US embassy in Ukraine also tweeted its congratulations while European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU was “determined to continue its support” for Ukraine.

An example for political trendsetters

The influx and rise of politicians from diverse professional backgrounds, with no direct experience in policy-making or political debate, has never been more pronounced than now, suggesting that traditional theories explaining a candidate’s success or failure may not translate to today’s primary electoral landscape.

A study titled The Increasing Value of Inexperience in Congressional Primaries notes that the driving force behind the success of inexperienced candidates is attributable to the growth in outside money in primary elections. Youth is certainly another factor, especially in Europe and the US, where a generation of young leaders has swept to power in the recent polls.

In the last couple of years, France, Ireland, Estonia, and Austria have elected leaders under the age of 40, although some of them have held political positions before. Meanwhile, Belgium, Greece, Malta, and Luxembourg, have in the last four years, elected heads under the age of 45.

Changing spaces of political encounter and the supersaturation of stodgy career bureaucrats has played a huge role in the rise of politicians from the familiar working class, and the growing preference for leaders who seem ostensibly distempered by systemic corruption. When it comes from a comedian who openly critiques establishment politics, nepotism and oligarchy, the hope for genuine change is manifold.

But this preference has to be balanced with informed decision-making on the part of the voter, as rooting for underdogs has also given the world politicians like Ben Carson. The rise of the politically inexperienced is accompanied by another trend: most of these fresh faces are male and contest on the plank of right-leaning policies; it is this combination of youth and tradition that makes these leaders palatable to the electorate, claim experts.

For Ukraine, however, the stakes are much higher: Will Volodymyr Zelensky stand up to Putin? Only time will tell who will have the last laugh.


Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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