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The Comedian President: Volodymyr Zelensky’s Victory in the April 2019 Ukrainian Elections

“ARMY, LANGUAGE, FAITH,” mockingly boomed an actor playing Petro Poroshenko, the former president of Ukraine, to an enthralled crowd in a Kyiv theater. Poking fun at his nationalist slogans, Volodymyr Zelensky’s comedy group paved the way for a shift in political rhetoric. On April 21st, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for Zelensky to be their president, despite being a Jewish comedian with no political experience. He trounced chocolate magnate Poroshenko in the 2nd round of voting with 73% of the electorate. Poroshenko had failed to address Russian backed military action in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine since the 2014 revolution, massive corruption, and a stagnating economy in his 5 years as president.

Zelensky is primarily an alternative to Poroshenko; the country’s urge for change 5 years after a disappointing revolution is palpable in the election results. He is someone who with anti-corruption and civic unity based rhetoric based exclusively in his sitcom style TV show, has been able to bridge the divides that once defined Ukrainian politics. This success is tentative and precarious. At the core of its precariousness is a turn away from the nationalism that has defined the past 5 years. Army, Language, and Faith has not been enough for the Ukrainian people. Zelensky needs to think outside of these norms to be successful.

Zelensky’s rise to fame seems to make the cynicism that got him elected even more comical. Between sketches for his comedy group, Zelensky played a math teacher who was surreptitiously catapulted into the presidency after his anti-government rant leaked on Youtube in the wildly popular television show, “Servant of the Nation,” now in its 3rd season. Viewing the show in parallel with Zelensky’s campaign promises reveals uncanny similarities, suggesting that for voters, the show was a strong enough platform to win Zelensky the highest office in the country. Nevertheless, this election was more than life imitating art. Ukrainians were willing to elect a comedian to the presidency, turning towards a message of unity and civic Ukrainian-ness that is not defined by nationalism.

Not everyone in Ukraine supported Zelensky. After all the votes were counted on election day, the only regions that voted for Poroshenko were in the country’s far west, where Ukrainian nationalism flourishes most strongly. Voters there epitomized an undercurrent of belief that response to Russian ideological and military aggression must be with strong ethnic Ukrainian identity. Although this nationalism does feed on anti-Semitism and has brought about the construction of monuments to Ukrainian Nazis and openly fascist marches through the streets of major cities, anti-semitism lives on across Ukraine, not just among ultra-nationalists. This election ostensibly demonstrated a reduction in nationalist sentiment, but Ukrainian Jews remain suspicious should Zelensky fail on his promises. With both a Jewish President and Prime Minister, one wrong move and a Ukrainian comedian-outsider could easily be the target of vicious anti-Semitism, his Jewishness outweighing his Ukrainian-ness. While voters were definitely conscious of the fact that Zelensky is Jewish, Russia and the economy dominated discussion.

While Russia is a very real threat to Ukrainian security and identity, voters were more concerned with the internal affairs of the country than with a war that is invisible to most Ukrainians. This is in contrast with Poroshenko, who used the image of the war to rebuild Ukrainian military strength (Army) in conjunction with national unity (Language) and spiritual strength (Faith). The tripartite message ignores the fact that Ukraine is very much a multilingual nation with significant religious and linguistic minorities. While it was easy for the former president to rally support with this message, the lack of progress in a never-ending conflict began to overshadow his nationalist message.

The reduction of an affiliation for an identity based on the narrow constraints of the Ukrainian nation and the Eastern orthodox faith have been brought about by the “frozen” conflict in the Donbass among other problems. In a country with the worst economic output per capita in Europe and rampant corruption, citizens were able to find a common enemy in Russian intervention that has bridged divides across identities. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz explained that the election of Zelensky was “an attempt to articulate a new sense of Ukrainian nationhood, one that can be more at peace with its troubled past and with its minorities and neighbors.” This was the wave that Zelensky rode so keenly. While Ukraine’s animosity towards minorities is still felt in its contemporary consciousness, this election showed small steps taken to reckon with this history.

Despite the veneer of a departed nationalism, many Ukrainians regarded both candidates with a shrug. On the eve of the election, the economy was a wreck, the army was still fighting an endless battle with an invisible army on the Russian border, and oligarchic money remained ubiquitous in the political process. One voter quoted in the New York Times stated about Zelensky that, “He promises utopia of course, but let it just be different.” By electing Zelensky, Ukrainians were not necessarily electing someone who intended to take a stand against nationalism and make Ukraine more whole, but rather they elected someone who was not Poroshenko. Many have pointed his success towards the extraordinarily relevant political message of “Servant of the People.” Zelensky gave few press interviews and largely avoided giving policy explanations or details. Shocking as it may be, through his public image in comedy and television alone, Zelensky has sent a thought-provoking message to the Ukrainian people: that Ukraine is a country that must not only be independent from Russian influence, but also a functioning liberal democracy.

This is the fine line that makes Zelensky’s election so precarious. He is a comedian who played the President on a popular TV show. His defeated opponent is an oligarch who made his fortune in chocolate. The situation seems like a farce; it shows rather the unease of Ukraine’s contemporary situation. The election fraud and manipulation of the years from 1991-2014 have faded away. While the Zelensky victory has been important, Ukraine has many hurdles to overcome and a looming Vladimir Putin just across the border. Zelensky’s challenges ahead of him outweigh his successes on the campaign trail. In order for the new President to be successful, he must harness the forces beneath the funny-guy-intrigue that got him elected: a diminishing sense of ethnic nationalism and a desire for change from the outside. By fighting corruption within Ukraine and using his foreign allies to make progress in the Donbass (no small task) Zelensky might have the chance at success. Army, Language, and Faith are on their way out, but their successors remain elusive.

Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Debates