How president Zelensky upset the establishment and made a TV series come true
The newly-elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was sworn in on 20 May. What exactly happened in Ukraine during the recent presidential elections is not so easy to explain, including for Ukrainian citizens themselves.
The Zelensky phenomenon
In Ukraine, the plot of the popular TV show The Servant of the People practically became a reality, in which Zelensky played a simple history teacher in the series who ‘accidentally’ became president, defeating the current president of Ukraine in elections.
Zelensky received 73 percent of the vote, and his opponent Petro Poroshenko received slightly less than 25 percent.
What played the greater role here: sympathy for the character from the series, or rejection of the current government? No one knows the exact answer yet.
Zelensky’s character in the series, President Goloborodko, fights against corruption, imprisons high-ranking officials, fights against oligarchs, and eventually succeeds after going through many difficulties, including the threat of impeachment and even prison.
“You are not Goloborodko”, President Poroshenko said to his opponent during the debate, “You did not come here by bicycle or trolleybus.”
Zelensky does not ride a bicycle, but rather a quite expensive Range Rover, with guards. He is not just an actor: he is also an author and screenwriter, and an experienced media manager who manages (in any case, managed before the elections) a business with millions in turnover. In addition to the studio Kvartal 95, he is involved in the production of films and various shows.
Few people know that, for example, the rights to the comedy TV programme Laugh and Win, familiar to Georgian viewers, belongs to Zelensky – the Laughing Comedian show was invented by him and now he receives money from 21 countries for it.
Almost all opponents of Zelensky in response to the question of whether or not they had watched the series Servant of the People or Kvartal 95, said they had not, noting they had heard the series was no good, and that Kvartal 95 has low-grade jokes.
In fact, what Zelensky did was not just humor, but political satire on topical and significant topics for society. The Kvartal 95 team ridiculed not only the Ukrainian authorities headed by Poroshenko, but also Vladimir Putin, and Russian propaganda against Ukraine.
How heavily they poured it on is a matter of taste and sense of humor.
Judging by the ratings of the series, the majority of viewers in Ukraine accepted this humor well. Thus it is not unfair to say that Zelensky deserved his popularity as an artist.
The main thing that Zelensky is accused of by Poroshenko and his supporters is proximity to the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky – the president even called him a “puppet” during the campaign.
Once a colleague of Poroshenko, Kolomoisky, was appointed by the president himself to the post of governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region in 2014. Many in Ukraine think that he saved the region from the influence of pro-Russian separatists, while financing the army and volunteer battalions from his own funds.
Later, Poroshenko and Kolomoisky went their separate ways, after quarreling with the president because of control over a state-owned oil company. The oligarch was dismissed as governor, and later left the country. The largest bank of Ukraine, Privatbank, owned by Kolomoisky, was then nationalized.
Vladimir Zelensky calls Kolomoisky a business partner – his comedy shows and television series went on the “1 + 1” channel, owned by Kolomoisky.
Reporters found that Zelensky during the election campaign is served by the same lawyer as Kolomoisky, as well as guards and cars belonging to the structures of the oligarch. In addition, it turned out that Zelensky flew to Israel several times before the elections, where Kolomoisky lives, accompanied by people close to the oligarch.
Zelensky himself denies Kolomoisky’s influence on him, and representatives of his staff in cooperation with “longtime partners” did not see anything wrong during the campaign.
What is the main reason?
Most political commentators in Ukraine suggest that the electorate largely voted against the current government because of general disillusionment with current politicians.
“To some extent, a high percentage of Zelensky is not his personal achievement. This was a vote for a person who has not been in politics for a single day”, says Sergey Rakhmanin, deputy editor-in-chief of Dzerkalo Tizhnya (Mirror Weekly).
In his opinion, it was actually his lack of time in politics, plus recognition thanks to the series and the show, which provided Zelensky with decisive support.
In addition, Poroshenko and his entourage contributed to their own defeat:
“Poroshenko created around himself a loyal, partly boot-licker environment.”
Before the elections, the president chose for himself the image of a “father of the nation”, the successful commander-in-chief, defender of national ideas and spiritual values, wisely experienced.
Moreover, shortly before the elections, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, thanks in large part to the president, achieved recognition of its autocephaly by the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
In general, Poroshenko was very similar to the image of a typical post-Soviet ruler. Before the election, the president even publicly ordered the tests of new rockets – almost like Vladimir Putin.
The main slogan of Poroshenko’s campaign was “Army, Language, Faith”, which, without any additional explanation, should have attracted those voters for whom national values were important.
However, this did not work.
“What happened? People were tired of people who told them half-truths or lied to them for many years. Many are tired of patriotic rhetoric in recent years. Due to the fact that people’s lives have not improved, all these slogans about language, faith, army, and success in the international arena were very annoying”, said Andrei Kulikov, a well-known journalist and host of the main radio debate at the stadium between candidates before the second round of the elections.
Indeed, there are plenty of problems besides language and faith.
The conflict with Russia, who is leading a hybrid war in the east of Ukraine, continues.
And although the Minsk agreements stopped active hostilities, positional battles and mutual shelling continue, servicemen continue to die.
The revolution and then the war led to economic crisis, accompanied by a sharp devaluation in the national currency. During this time, Ukraine ‘won’ Moldova’s dubious privilege of being called the poorest country in Europe.
The situation with corruption has not improved significantly in recent years – it is still off the charts.
Transparency International’s corruption perception index for 2018 says Ukraine is ranked 120th in the world, making it one of the most corrupt countries in Europe.
Among the post-Soviet countries, corruption is worse only in Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and the countries of Central Asia.
Oligarchic rule continues to flourish in the country — the main media, entire sectors of the economy and even political parties are controlled by oligarchs.
Corruption scandals, including those related to corruption in the supplies of the army, in which his closest entourage was implicated, greatly undercut Poroshenko’s reputation.
On the positive side of things, Poroshenko was credited with obtaining a visa-free regime with the European Union and the course towards integration with the EU and NATO.
However, the head of the Union of Journalists of Ukraine, Sergey Tomilenko, notes an interesting detail about the last election campaign: television channels that are pursuing a clearly pro-Russian policy, before the second round, supported Poroshenko, not Zelensky.
And the media controlled by Poroshenko’s supporters did not refrain from engaging in the dirtiest methods of propaganda.
“The national television channel Direct, which supports President Poroshenko, is funded by his entourage. We compare it with Russia Today, the Rossiya-1 and Rossiya-24. This is a Ukrainian TV channel built on Russian propaganda standards”, says Tomilenko.
Before the second round of elections, Poroshenko launched a real campaign of black PR against Zelensky.
There was a persistent rumor in the Ukrainian media that the president brought on famous Israeli political consultant Moshe Klughaft, who had helped the Georgian ruling party’s presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili win the elections in Georgia in November 2018.
Neither Poroshenko’s headquarters nor Klughaft officially confirmed this, but Poroshenko’s campaign before the second round actually copied Zurabishvili’s campaign.
In addition, an answering machine with Poroshenko’s voice called citizens on their phones and asked to support him in the elections, billboards with Poroshenko and Putin were hung, stating that the choice of the citizens was exactly the difference between the two.
In addition, many stickers and posters on the streets informed citizens that Zelensky was a drug addict, that he would take their deposits from private banks and give them to Kolomoisky, and other tricks.
This campaign did not help the president. In fact, it likely was a factor contributing to his defeat.
Poroshenko is not giving up
After the defeat in the elections, neither Poroshenko nor his supporters are going to surrender ahead of parliamentary elections to be held this fall.
On the second day after the election, thousands of Poroshenko’s supporters came to his residence in the evening to thank and support the president. They chanted dyakumeo [Ukr. thank you].
The president came out to them about half an hour later. It was hard for the crowd to hear or see him, but it was clear that it was another Poroshenko, different from the previous one. He was no longer the “national leader” isolated from society, residing in a castle. He was a lively politician, ready to fight and communicate with the people.
He thanked the people for their support and promised to lead them to victory in the future. People listened to him very emotionally, constantly shouting patriotic slogans, some even cried.
It was clear that Poroshenko, despite the lost elections, was already able to occupy an important political niche and enlisted the support of at least some of the pro-Western, nationalist and patriotic electorate.
The Lviv region in the west of Ukraine – where national feelings are traditionally strong – was the only region where Poroshenko won against Zelensky.
“The main thing that President Poroshenko did in five years is to ensure a strict adherence to the geopolitical choice that was made on the Maidan — an irrevocable course towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Therefore, despite many problems and flaws, scandals around the person of the president and people close to him, for many mistakes and unfulfilled promises, I consider Poroshenko to be one of the best presidents in the history of independent Ukraine”, says Pavlo Bilak, a non-governmental organization employee who came out to support Poroshenko.
Poroshenko’s supporters after the lost elections rallied even more – many put on Facebook a proud avatar with the number “25%” – as a sign of their political attitude.
Where war is close
The east of Ukraine in the second round voted almost without exception for Zelensky.
For example, in the districts of Donetsk region controlled by the central government, he received almost 90 percent of the vote. This is after the openly pro-Russian candidate Yuriy Boyko came out on top here in the first round.
Slavyansk – a city liberated by the Ukrainian army from the pro-Russian separatists in the summer of 2014 – today looks quite peaceful. There are almost no signs of war here, except for the hospital, which was completely destroyed during the hostilities and never rebuilt.
The village of Semenovka adjoins Slavyansk.
Five years ago there were heavy battles. The director of the local school, Sergey Borisenko, shows a video of the destruction in the school. Now, thanks to the state and volunteers, the school has been fully restored. The school has material evidence of the attention that local schools and the region in general have received from Kyiv.
Also in a prominent place are portraits of President Poroshenko next to the state symbols of Ukraine.
In the second round, 65 people voted for Poroshenko at the site opened in this school, 550 people voted for Zelensky.
“We hope that those promises that he did not make, but that which we could guess at, will come true. That peace will finally come, industry will begin to recover, and finally we will live like people”, the director says, commenting on the voting results.
The adjacent industrial cities of Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk, each with a populations of 100,000 – 150,000 are cities of the scale of Batumi and Kutaisi. But those are just official statistics. Visually, there are far fewer people and cars. It seems that people have left the Donbass en masse.
The deputy of the Severodonetsk City Council, Igor Butkov, said that war fatigue played a big role in supporting Zelensky in eastern Ukraine.
“War is expensive. Ukraine’s economy is in serious condition, and it’s doubly difficult to wage a war with no end in sight. People are rotting in the trenches, as in the First World War, it is not clear why. Therefore, it played a large role (in the election results). And not only in the east. Just in the east it’s more tangible. Here, industry has been affected, people have no jobs, they are forced to emigrate”, says Butkov.
Mariupol was also freed from the separatists. Burnt buildings of the local police officer stand like monuments to the fighting in the area. The front line is just 25 kilometers away.
For a city of half a million, there are surprisingly few people on the street. In the centre there are a lot of destroyed and abandoned old buildings – not because of the war, but because of the lack of care for many years. Here, too, people supported Zelensky.
After the outbreak of the war, the state had to urgently solve the infrastructure problems.
One of these solutions was the opening in November 2018 of a new, equipped with the most modern technology center of heart surgery.
The urgent need arose after the clinic became unavailable in Donetsk.
Another area in which Kyiv has clearly not skimped on investments in the region is education.
School number 66 is supported – that is, a number of even private schools could envy its equipment. The classes, the building, even the appearance of the students — everything looks quite Western. The language of instruction here is only Ukrainian. Until 2014, the beginning of the war, it was the only Ukrainian school in Mariupol.
School director Natalya Rovitska says that after the government regained control of the city in 2014, there were much more people willing to enroll in this school.
“People began to realize that this was Ukraine, and knowledge of Ukrainian was a necessity.”
From the autumn of 2018, all schools in Mariupol, formerly fully Russian-speaking, have become Ukrainian language schools.
Rovitska says that for some students it was initially difficult, but after that everyone gets used to it.
The fact that the language issue in Ukraine is painful and relevant is also indicated by the fact that MPs of the Verkhovna Rada of the second round of elections immediately passed a new law on language, which obliges the media and officials to use the state language and establishes sanctions for violations. MPs rushed to have Poroshenko sign the new law.
The director of the Mariupol school argues that the new law will not change anything for students or for local residents. However, it is clear that for residents of the Russian-speaking eastern regions, the new rules mean additional worries and difficulties.
Deputy Mayor of Mariupol Mikhail Kogut talks about infrastructure projects that are carried out in the frontline city. Recently, a financing agreement was signed with the participation of foreign donors for the rehabilitation of the city’s water supply system.
Reluctantly commenting on the election results, he lists the main problems for which locals are awaiting solutions.
“I would like this person (Zelensky) to understand how many people trusted him. The first problem is peace, and that concerns everyone equally, whether it be a resident of Mariupol or Western Ukraine. And secondly, economic growth is needed, because without this, everything else will not have any use…I think that now we have passed such a stage that there will be no promises for a long time. If there are no concrete steps, the people will no longer take it and wait so long.”
A president for all?
It cannot be said that Vladimir Zelensky was supported only by the east of Ukraine or only by the west, only by the youth or only by the older generation. Or even uniquely pro-Western or pro-Russian voters. He was able to unite practically all age and social groups.
Journalist Sergei Rakhmanin speaks of Zelensky’s complete incompetence in politics and compares him to a “clean sheet” on which other people will write.
“It is not clear what his nuclear (main) electorate will look like and how he will adapt to it. And who will be the person or group of people who will influence him? Therefore, even approximately calculating his policy is impossible.”
This is the main challenge facing the new president – the expectations of his voters are so various that he is unlikely to satisfyy them all.