Will a media, metal and aviation tycoon be the big winner of the Ukrainian election?
Zelenskiy a young comedian who rose to fame playing a humble schoolteacher who becomes president of Ukraine in the hit television show, “Servant of the People” appeals to Ukrainians frustrated with the country’s oligarchic elite, and the failure to drain the swamp after the country’s 2014 revolution. Ukrainians hope that Zelenskiy will fight for the common man instead. It’s a powerful narrative that has catapulted this political unknown within spitting distance of the presidency. There’s just one major problem with it: the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whose television station 1+1 hosts Zelenskiy’s hit show. He is more than 40 points ahead of his presidential election rival Petro Poroshenko – the oligarch turned head of state who has become internationally known in the last few years as Ukraine has been at the sharp end of the international schism between Russia and the West. In contrast, Zelenskiy has no political experience.Instead, since the mid-2000s, he has created some of Ukraine’s most popular television, appeared in numerous rom-coms and co-ran the Kvartel 95 TV production company that has poked fun at the elite in a country that has been unable to shake off its reputation for corruption. Dr Eleanor Bindman, a politics lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and an expert on east European affairs, says even before he took up politics he would have been hugely well-known by people across Ukraine as a celebrity.
“He’s what they call in Russian a showman; so he’s an actor but he’s also a comedian. He sings and he does kind of great big glitzy variety show. He’s done all that.”He’s very popular. “The most recent one, which was the one where he plays the teacher who is elected president. That was also very, very popular.”
Zelenskiy grew up in Krivoy Rog, a major steel manufacturing city in the country’s heartland. His father was a lecturer in computer science and his mother a housewife and, like many people in the bilingual country, he spoke Russian as a youngster. In recent years Russia has fallen out of favour in Ukraine, with Mr Poroshenko keen to switch the population to their native language amid the war between Russia-backed separatists and the government in the east of the country. Dr Bindman says Zelenskiy’s use of Russian and appearances in Russian comedies shouldn’t lead anyone to expect him to be pro-Kremlin. Instead, she says, it makes him much closer to the mindset of the average Ukrainian. “What’s interesting is that he has no political experience whatsoever,” she says. “He’s never held political office. That’s been a real advantage because politics in Ukraine is so tainted and so bound up with corruption. The vast majority of Ukrainians speak Russian and Ukrainian and a large number of Ukrainians, if not the majority, speak Russian as a matter of preference.
“People want the war to end, for a number of reasons. They’re also very concerned about the economy.”His pragmatic approach, she believes, will have advantages for the West.”What he’s saying should be much more welcome to organisations like the European Union, like NATO, than what Poroshenko is saying and doing, because he’s talking in very practical terms about what will resolve this crisis. And Poroshenko is not doing that. “Most people in Ukraine accept that Russia will have to be involved in discussions about how to resolve it.”People may not be thrilled about that, but that’s the reality of the situation. Russia would be more likely to engage with him than Poroshenko, who they absolutely loath.” The election takes place on 21 April.