Showbiz to Presidential Candidate: Who is Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy?
14 January, 2019

On the big screen, he plays a president who wins over people’s hearts by speaking out against the establishment, vowing to end corruption, improving living standards and raising Ukraine’s status internationally. In reality, however, the race is just beginning for Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who declared his presidential candidacy on December 31.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy depicts unlikely Ukrainian President Vasyl Goloborodko in the popular satirical television series Servant of the People. Now he's running to become real president of the country. Photo credit: UNIAN

Despite having no political experience, clear agenda or even a team, the popular comedian has been polling well, just behind former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. But can reality live up to fiction?

Hromadske gathered together a panel of experts to discuss the comedian’s chances of winning and what Ukraine can expect from a President Zelenskiy.

More Than Just a Comedian?

As Novoe Vremya journalist Ivan Verstyuk points out, Zelenskiy is not only known for his role as a fictional president. He is the co-founder of the Kvartal 95 film studio, where he is also art director, and has proved to be a savvy businessman, according to Verstyuk.

Ukrainian comedian-turned presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Photo: courtesy

“He was always able to make deals with owners of television channels. Besides, Zelenskiy launched his own movie production, he has been very successful as a businessman, his movies are among the most popular in Ukraine,” Verstyuk comments.

But Zelenskiy’s business connections with oligarchs such as Ihor Kolomoisky could bring his independence into question. Verstyuk considers this to be the biggest risk to Zelesnkiy’s candidacy.

READ MORE: Comedian Turned Presidential Hopeful Kicks Off Campaign with Public Appeal

“When a politician is not independent in his decision-making, that's the biggest risk for the country, because the country becomes a hostage of the politician's sponsor,” he says.

Campaign and Agenda

In the short time that Zelenskiy has been an official presidential candidate, he has made it clear that he intends to do things differently than seasoned politicians. And he is definitely making the most of his TV audience and social media following.

He launched a website on January 2 which allows any member of the public to apply for a position in his team, stipulating that applicants must have no previous experience in politics. He also published a video on social media, where he asks the population to list their most pressing concerns, which will likely form the basis of his political agenda.

Although this populist approach echoes the actions of his on-screen character, who fills the cabinet with a ragtag group of old school friends and prioritizes the needs of the ordinary man over the wealthy and powerful, it could also suggest the lack of a real agenda, as CEO of NGO Center UA Inna Borzylo highlights.

Comedian-turned-presidential candidate Zelenskiy on stage during his comedy show "Kvartal 95." Photo credit: UNIAN

“Do we assess this as a lack of his own agenda? Or as a very technological instrument or tool for citizen engagement in politics?” Borzylo states, adding that it is still unclear how Ukrainians will react to this new approach to politics.

And that’s not the only thing that’s unclear with regards to his agenda and campaign. “We're not sure if he knows how to run the economy, we don't know what he thinks about, say, judicial reform, we don't know his precise steps to do the anti-corruption reform,” Verstyuk comments.

If Zelenskiy’s political comedy in his artistic career is anything to go by, the fight against corruption could well be feature of his political career, which is part of his appeal in comparison to the other contenders, according to Kyiv Post journalist Oleg Sukhov.

From left to right: Novoe Vremya journalist Ivan Verstyuk, Hromadske journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, CEO of NGO Center UA Inna Borzylo and the Kyiv Post journalist Oleg Sukhov discuss Zelenskiy's chances of winning the presidential race. Photo: HROMADSKE

“If you consider the three options, from the standpoint of the average people, who are so sick and tired of all corrupt politicians, at least with Zelenskiy, they think they have a chance. With the two others, they don't have a chance of changing the system. That's part of Zelenskiy's appeal,” Sukhov comments.

His Opponents

Zelenskiy’s main two opponents are former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and incumbent Petro Poroshenko. President Poroshenko is playing the patriotism card with his three-pronged “army, faith, language” campaign slogan, while Tymoshenko is trying to appeal to the working-class electorate by focusing on economic issues in her campaign.

In his comedy sketches, Zelenskiy often resorts to mocking top Ukrainian politicians. In this photograph, Zelenskiy's fellow Kvartal 95 actress Elena Kravets portrays Batkivshchyna party leader and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko. Photo credit: UNIAN

But in the upcoming elections, Zelenskiy could win over supporters of these two veterans of Ukrainian politics, according to Sukhov.

“Zelenskiy's electorate, in some ways it's similar to Tymoshenko, but it could also take away voters from Poroshenko because he is seen as a candidate that is against both of them,” Sukhov states, adding that,“both Tymoshenko and Poroshenko should be worried about Zelenskiy because he could deprive both of them of their place in the second round of the election,” he says.

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What’s more, Zelenskiy, being from eastern Ukraine originally and a Russian speaker, also has a chance of appealing to the pro-Russian electorate. According to Borzylo, since declaring intentions to run for president, Zelenskiy has already won over supporters of Opposition Platform-For Life party’s candidate Yuriy Boyko.

“Zelenskiy is taking votes from Boyko, so this is the positive moment because mostly the electorate in the eastern and southern and central parts of Ukraine, who would consider Boyko as a potential candidate after Zelenskiy announced about running in the elections, they switched,” Borzylo comments.

Does he stand a chance?

The experts think so. “I think Volodymyr Zelenskiy has good chances for winning the election. And I don't think we should consider him as a technical candidate who is acting to take away votes from one of the other figures, like Poroshenko or Tymoshenko,” says Verstyuk. “He is a candidate who aims to win the elections.”

Zelenskiy (L) during the Kvartal 95 TV show. Photo credit: UNIAN

And even if Zelenskiy’s efforts are aimed at securing the top spot, as opposed to his contenders, the comedian has “spoiled the picture for Poroshenko and Tymoshenko,” says Sukhov. “Zelenskiy basically broke this paradigm, and now there is a clear triumvirate, a trio of candidates, who are likely to win,” he comments.

CEO of NGO Center UA Inna Borzylo, on the other hand, has reservations. Not having a network of party offices, like his main opponents, and his appeal to the more unreliable younger electorate may affect his chances, according to Borzylo, but that does not necessarily mean his political career will be short lived.

“I think he is a real candidate for parliamentary elections, and he will probably continue his political career, the future party, which is actually already registered, this Servant of the People, will be present in the next parliament,” Borzylo adds.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s 2019 Presidential Elections: Polls Reveal Potential Winners and Losers

/Interviews by Nataliya Gumenyuk, text by Sofia Fedeczko