Analysis | Joke’s On You: Zelenskiy’s Rise

The Curtain Rises

Vienna — On April 21, with a turnout of 62%, just under three-quarters of the Ukrainian electorate declared their next president would be businessman and comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He was sworn in as the country’s sixth president on Monday, May 20. Zelenskiy’s rise to power is certainly a departure from previous presidential molds, and observers are keen to see how his ascendency will ripple across the plains of geopolitics that Ukraine itself straddles. To the East: Russia, the Kremlin, and its President, presiding over a war that is reaching its sixth year—with no foreseeable end. To the West: institutions that are wary of Ukrainian membership (the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)), and one where both Russia and Ukraine are members and the conflict has overtaken its agenda (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)).

Zelenskiy’s Debut
On March 31, Ukraine held its first round of presidential elections. It was a historically crowded field of 39 candidates, creating the longest ballot in any Ukrainian election. But there were really only three front-runners: incumbent Petro Poroshenko, former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, and political novice, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The results on March 31 pitted Zelenskiy against Poroshenko, and in the runoff on April 21, Zelenskiy won. Both elections were considered competitive and held with respect for fundamental freedoms, according to the International Election Observation Mission, comprised of four international bodies: the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Relations (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and the European Parliament (EP).  

Prior to the presidential race, Zelenskiy was most recently known for his leading role in the surprisingly prescient show, Servant of the People. In it, Zelenskiy plays Vasyl Holoborodko, a teacher who accidentally becomes president of Ukraine after a tirade of his against corruption becomes viral. The show comes with high production value and a solid opening theme. It’s a fish out of water story: more earnest than Veep, brighter than House of Cards, but maintains the no holds barred realism of Scandal— and season two, entitled “From Love to Impeachment,” goes particularly off the rails. 

Zelenskiy’s victory came as a shock to many, but it is not entirely unexpected for a few reasons. 

First, there is historical precedent. Incumbents rarely win back their seat in Ukraine, according to the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, DC, Petro Poroshenko was the fith incumbent to lose his bid for reelection. 

Second, already facing an uphill battle, Poroshenko was further encumbered by accusations of corruption and slow to implement reforms. Poroshenko also leaned heavily into an ethno-nationalist political slogan — Army. Language. Faith. — that ultimately did not resonate with voters, who are increasingly dismissive of such evocations. Poroshenko’s approval ratings were dismal; after starting his presidential career at an approval rating high of 55 percent, it fell to 24 percent by July 2015 and never really recovered. 

Third, Zelenskiy ran a relatively low-profile race, relying much more heavily on his charisma than on his policies. According to NPR’s Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim, Zelenskiy described him as a “very blank slate for people to project whatever they wanted on him.” 

And finally, Zelenskiy’s political inexperience played as a genuine advantage over Poroshenko. Ukraine’s politics are infamously a tangled web of corrupt bad actors and grift, that to be untouched by the system was seen as something good.

One question that remains unanswered is Ukraine’s expectations for Zelenskiy. Were voters primarily motivated by the character they saw on the show? Did the show simply provide enough name recognition for Zelenskiy, or, were voters mostly drawn to him simply because he wasn’t Poroshenko? Was name recognition his main benefactor from the show, or were voters drawn to him because he simply wasn’t Poroshenko? This is important, recalling that part of US President Donald Trump’s success on the road to the White House stemmed not only from his celebrity, but his persona on The Apprentice; people voted for the hard-hitting man they saw each week declaring, “You’re Fired.” Servant of the People may have swayed Ukrainian constituents in the same way. Expectations must to be tempered towards reality.

Helpful Humorist
Despite the unexpectedness of Zelenskiy’s victory, April 21 demonstrates positive strides for Ukraine. The first is that the country’s political system is vibrant and robust. That Ukraine held such an election during an active physical war and disinformation campaign, each directly involving Russia, should be recognized and lauded.

Zelenskiy unified the country too, if but for a brief moment. Ukraine the nation-state has always been a difficult square to round. Though the language divide is not as deep as it has been made out in the West, divides between Eastern Ukraine and Western Ukraine have historically been quite stark. Zelenskiy, who is Russian speaking and from the center of the country, won a majority in every district except for Lvov, according to ballot counts and reports from the BBC. Additionally, Zelenskiy is also Jewish making him one on a very short list of Jewish presidents worldwide. More than that, however, his victory is a direct blow to one of Russia’s main talking points about Ukraine — that it is a government run by anti-Semitic fascists. 

Finally, Zelenskiy’s election drives home the point that the 2014 Maidan Revolution was written in ink and not pencil. Russia does not and cannot enjoy the same level of influence they once had in Kyiv. It is unlikely that another Yanukovych figure will make a reprise. The Kremlin’s main candidate, Yuriy Boyko, received 11% of the first round ballots; their next best option was Yulia “we can always break a deal with her” Tymoshenko, who fared only slightly better than Boyko, with 13%.

Problematic Punchlines
As stated earlier, the main concern with Zelenskiy is the same reason many voted for him — he is inexperienced and ran on blank canvas messaging. He does not, at least publicly, have a substantial plan to address any of the problems facing his country. His political cleanliness is also drawn into question, considering his relationship with oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, former bank owner and current owner of the channel which runs Servant,  is still ambivalent at best. Zelenskiy will come to learn that the difference between campaigning and governing is staggering. 

One particular concern levels at Zelenskiy’s previous statements on wanting to rekindle talks with Russia over a ceasefire in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Currently in place is a 13-point ceasefire agreement known as Minsk II, drafted and agreed to in February 2015, after the Minsk Protocols failed. Deployed in the Donbas region is a special monitoring mission (SMM) from the OSCE recording ongoing violations of the Minsk agreement. The SMM is also prohibited from fulfilling their mandate due to restrictions in non-government-controlled areas, so their reports only offer a fraction of the story. 

It is not out of the realm of possibility that Russia could then use this to work an agreement in their favor, a lá the 2008 ceasefire agreement between Georgia and Russia, which has inter alia allowed Russia to maintain active troops within Georgia’s borders. Active hostilities between Tbilisi and Moscow might have ended more than a decade ago, but Russia’s encroachment into Georgian territory and meddling in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has been ongoing. And the Western alliance, eager to find a solution and weary from “Ukraine fatigue” may be more than willing to jump on conciliations. 

I must admit my bias that as an American watching Ukraine elect a political neophyte known only from his television series makes me a little uneasy. To give Zelenskiy some credit, however, he seems too vague in his policies to be part of the populist wave, which has swelled in Europe and the Americas, and having a law degree gives him some edge over President Trump. He also seems to have an overall more stable composure than Trump, which will perhaps lead to a more permanent cabinet, and thus more stable policies.

In light of these concerns, however, like in the United States immediately after November 6, 2016, the shape of the next five years will largely be determined by whom Zelenskiy chooses to surround himself with. It will also depend on how his parliament is formed. The political system in Ukraine is such that the Verkhovna Rada, its unicameral parliament, holds most of the power. 

It is for this reason that many actors on the world stage are offering congratulations to the newly elected leader, but are expressing deep caution as well. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin has been reticent to send congratulations.

Standup with the West
Gone are the stone-kicking, ambivalent days of 2013. Ukraine has made its desire to pivot to the West clear. In February this year, prior to the election, Poroshenko signed a constitutional amendment committing Ukraine to join the EU and NATO. Zelenskiy has been hazy on many policies, but has indicated that he wants to hold a referendum to echo the amendment, by asking Ukrainians if they want to join NATO and/or the EU. This leaves the question, then, of how these institutions see potential Ukrainian ascension into their ranks. In short, while supportive of Ukraine’s efforts against Russia, membership will continue to elude Kyiv for the time present; there are too many reforms that need to be conducted internally and too little political will in these states to go beyond what has already been given.

The war in the Donbass is a key piece prohibiting Ukraine’s aspirations into NATO, and it is unlikely that any changes to the conflict will be made any time soon. Article 5 protections that could put NATO in direct conflict with Russia worry member States (particularly France and Germany) about Ukraine’s entrance. Article 5 is a defensive clause of NATO which requires an organization-wide military defense response when one of NATO’s members is attacked. It has only been invoked once, in collective response to the September 11 terror attacks against the United States.

While the conflict makes EU member States wary of opening the gates for Ukraine, their concerns are buffeted by economic anxieties. Membership into the EU would mean an overnight entrance of almost 45 million people into its jurisdiction, and an economy and political system that — even after major reforms — would still need considerable help. Reforms are slow to draft and harder to enforce, and whatever Ukraine’s legislative body could draft, it cannot be applied universally, so long as Russia’s occupation stands. Indeed, according to ODIHR, 16% of Ukrainian constituents were blatantly denied the right to vote, because Kyiv was simply unable to send and receive ballots to and from occupied territories. This is also why Russia seems unlikely to force a major offensive beyond the Donbass, as maintaining the war at current levels sufficiently inhibits Ukraine from pursuing its Western aspirations.

There is also the not-small consideration that the EU has already prioritized membership for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Taking all of this into consideration, it seems more reasonable to put stock in claims made in 2016 by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that it will take Ukraine at least 20 to 25 years to join both the EU and NATO. Poroshenko himself projected accession by 2030, although that estimate would seem to pass from generous to delusional.

Despite the lack of a formal alliance framework, the United States and European Union maintain strong support for Ukraine, as evidenced by public remarks from U.S. Presidents and EU leaders alike denouncing Russia’s aggression in the Donbass and Crimea and by their continued implementation of targeted sanctions on Russian oligarchs. Although both Russia and the U.S. appear to be keeping their distance from the new Ukrainian leader, waiting to see whom Zelenskiy will nominate to his cabinet and advisory positions, from the perspectives of NATO and the EU, the status-quo will continue: cooperation will remain between Ukraine, NATO and the EU, but full-membership will remain elusive. 

The Greater European Theatre
While EU and NATO aspirations are on hold, Ukraine already enjoys membership in a cooperative security and economic European body, the OSCE. 

The OSCE is an interesting organization. It is highly influential—they fund and organize the monitoring missions that track Minsk ceasefire violations and serve as the guiding force behind ODIHR. Nevertheless, its public footprint is extremely light. Speaking from personal experience, even the internationally-minded in D.C. are often ignorant of the Organization, let alone aware of the role that the U.S. assumes as an active member. For those playing at home: think “bigger NATO, no guns, no Article 5.”

With 57 participating States, the OSCE has overlapping memberships and commitments from the States of NATO, the EU, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The U.S., Ukraine and Russia are all members of the OSCE, which puts it in a unique position. None of these countries is at risk of losing membership, though the conversation about the conflict varies in this forum. 

Under Poroshenko, the delegations from Kyiv to the OSCE have been incredibly successful in maintaining constant and consistent attention to the conflict, despite the “Ukraine fatigue” witnessed in Western capitals. Russian delegations have also been successful in stonewalling conversations and blocking decisions by withholding its vote. The Organization, like NATO, determines major decisions by “consensus minus one.” The continued maintenance of the conflict in the forefront of this organization’s agenda will — once again — depend entirely on what kinds of people the Ukrainian President appoints to represent Ukraine. 

Zelenskiy’s New Stage
NATO and EU memberships are good aspirations for Ukraine to continue pursuing, despite that they remain far from actually achieving such ranks. If successfully implemented, the internal reforms that are required to gain entry will make the country stronger, more independent and much more resilient in the years to come. As for foreign countries, the approach of a quiet, moderate, and positive response to the outcome of the Ukrainian elections should also be appreciated. 

However, the war in the Donbass is in its sixth year. Crimea is still in the hands of Russia, and sailors and naval equipment taken from the Sea of Azov in November of last year remain in Russian custody. While there is much to praise these organizations for, the current level of engagement by Western allied countries is insufficient. While it would be wrong to consider this conflict “protracted,” as it is still active and ongoing, it has reached an intractable stalemate. The current methodology has taken us as far as we can go.

In order to move forward, something has to change. Something, like the season, like the president himself, has to change. Such change could come by way of increased material support, or more aggressive rhetoric in these different fora. The United States in particular could—and should—be a more present force in the crafting of ceasefire negotiations (the signatories of the Minsk Agreements are Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany).

Zelenskiy’s presidency should be accepted as an opportunity, not as a point of fear and anxiety. Just as he might be susceptible to the whims of local oligarchs or Kremlin provocateurs, he may be inclined to the West. If there should be any lesson to be learned from the last decade, it is — where the West is not and where the presence of the Alliance is weak, detractors can make an easy and impressionable entrance. 

The Show Goes On
Despite its explosiveness, one thing for certain is Ukraine’s turn from Russia. That part of its post-Soviet transformation is complete. The spirit of Maidan lives, and it is difficult imagining Ukraine returning back to “business as usual,” pre-2013. Since 2014, the country has been more unified than they have ever been, not only in terms of national consciousness, but in their desire for a leader — their impulse for something new.

But this season is far from over. Indeed, we have only just reached the mid-season sweeps — a shocking twist and a cliffhanger before the show recedes into the summer hiatus. 

Zelenskiy’s fresh face might be a balm in domestic politics, where corruption is rampant and toxic, but will it be enough to face Russia in the East? Will it win over friends, supporters or even skeptics in the West? The shape of his cabinet and the coalition he will be able to build out of June’s Verkhovna Rada elections will challenge his grit and sincerity. 

As was said by U.S. President George Washingotn in the 2015 Tony-winning musical, Hamilton— “Winning was easy, young man/Governing’s harder.”

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Sarah Martin

- International Scholar
- Twitter: @sarahkm703
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Photo Credit:

  1. By Адміністрація Президента України, CC BY 4.0,

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

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