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Volodymyr Zelensky is a famous Ukrainian comedian, showman, actor, director, political figure, artistic director and permanent leader of the Kvartal 95 studio, producer, screenwriter and, as general public opinion sweeps say, a frontrunner in the 2019 Ukrainian presidential race. Zelensky was a board member and general producer of Inter TV channel (2010-2012) and is a long-time protégée of the influential and flatulent oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who, in particular, owns the central 1+1 TV channel.  

Despite the fact that Zelensky’s decision to run for the presidency of Ukraine was a total surprise for many, the preparation for this step started well in advance, at least in 2015. During this period, the popular television series called “Servant of the People” aired, in which Volodymyr Zelensky, already widely recognized and popular in Ukraine, played the star role. The electorate (primarily, housewives and pensioners) grew fond of him as a potential president. The plot revolves around an ordinary high school teacher of history, Vasily Goloborodko, who is elected president of the country for criticizing the government. It is noteworthy that the series was filmed in Russian, for which it was rebuked by Ukrainian nationalists. This TV series scored Zelensky some popularity points, making it possible for him to lead now in the actual presidential race in Ukraine. Psychologists explain that the Ukrainians still dream of a “good savior”, and the story about how “a simple man becomes the head of state” is in essence very archetypal. Therefore, it was not so much rational, as emotional acceptance of this character by the people, as well as their belief that he is real. As a matter of fact, even today, the people look at the perfect president Vasily Petrovich Goloborodko and see Zelensky. In his campaign, Zelensky continues to play the role of Goloborodko (which is no longer an easy job for him). Thus, we can call Volodymyr Zelensky a mediacratic candidate whose election canvassing is at a low level, since the bet is made solely on the media and anti-war rhetoric. The March premiere of the third season of the TV series on Kolomoyskyi’s 1+1 TV channel is to enhance the cumulative effect of Zelensky’s image.

Zelensky in TV series “Servant of the People”

At the same time, one should not overestimate the fact that Volodymyr Zelensky today leads the presidential candidates’ approval ratings throughout Ukraine. Traditionally for the Ukrainian political elite, most of these ratings are divorced from reality and do not reflect the actual alignment of political forces. The respective polls are ordered by any given television and radio company owned by the oligarchy, which, in turn, is behind the top candidates. Questions about the upcoming presidential vote tend to prompt, target and suggest. We can note that alternative polls taken by independent online media (Strana.ua, Klymenko Time, etc.) and bloggers (Ivan Protsenko and others) raise doubts about the ratings represented by the central Ukrainian media.

Analyzing the popularity of Volodymyr Zelensky, it makes sense to break it down into 2 main stages:

  • professional career since 1998;
  • political career starting from December 25, 2018 with a high-profile interview to Dmitry Gordon

As a professional comedian, showman, film actor and the Kvartal-95 studio executive, he undoubtedly accomplished a lot and became very popular not only in Ukraine, but also in the former Soviet republics in general.

As for Zelensky’s political career, it started (unofficially) in an interview with “Visiting Gordon”, when the nomination for the presidency was hinted. Indeed, at first glance, Zelensky looked like he had trump cards: a new face in Ukrainian politics, a charismatic candidate with a clean slate, successful, intelligent, talented and media-savvy. But at the same time, this interview for Zelensky was greeted with defamation and scrutiny, bringing a package of unfortunate comments, scandals and journalistic investigations. Zelensky’s close relationship with Kolomoyskyi, which they both deny, also came to light. Of course, journalists from rival media seek to destroy the image of the “people’s president”, to dissociate Zelensky from his character.

Supporters of Ukrainian nationalist movements express rejection towards Zelensky, firstly, because of his Jewish origin, and secondly, because of the joint business with Russian film companies. In a televised conversation with Dmitry Gordon, Zelensky said that he had no business in Russia, and all the joint films with Russian companies were produced before 2014. However, 3 weeks after the interview and 2 weeks before Zelensky’s registration as a presidential candidate, Radio Liberty refuted his words. The joint films were said to have been released in 2015 and 2016, and from 2014 to 2018 his companies in the Russian Federation (the most profitable one is Green Films, which released motion pictures “Between us girls”, “The Nesterov loop”, “8 best dates”) co-owned with Kolomoyskyi’s business partners, were said to have generated  850,000,000 rubles (about $13 million) in profits. Also, in production is the film “Down”, which received financial backing from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation.

Andriy Bogdan, the head of Zelensky’s technical campaign staff, also deserves attention. Bogdan previously served in Mykola Azarov’s cabinet, and until recently had been Kolomoyskyi’s lawyer. Naturally, he does not have election campaign experience and, accordingly, his competence is questionable. At the same time, if Andriy Bogdan is mainly fulfilling the role of a warden appointed to look after Zelensky by Kolomoyskyi, he may harm the candidate by disavowing his promises to fight the oligarchs. The issue of how long Zelensky will be able to nourish the myth about “new faces in politics” also looms large, because, in essence, this is his main advantage over rivals. With the current staff, the success of his campaign may cease as suddenly as it appeared.

Certain achievements of Zelensky in the presidential race are explained by the fact that, being a famous figure in the country, he, however did not discredit himself, unlike most other candidates who have long been known to voters. Zelensky’s ratings rather illustrate a legitimacy crisis in Ukraine. While the main contenders in the electoral race are losing votes, Zelensky catches them, but a large part of the electorate is yet undecided.

Zelensky is a moderate populist, he has no radical stances that could scare the population. However, despite the current image and the promise that he “won’t let any Ukrainian to be disappointed in him,” it is highly questionable whether he is able to resolve the internal armed conflicts, negotiate with neighboring countries and implement the Minsk II agreements.

Zelensky has no hands-on experience in governance and he doesn’t have a strong team. He doesn’t even have a compelling platform. However, the majority of Ukrainian voters understand that not much depends on the leaders of Ukraine, and if elected, Zelensky will not really rule Ukraine – the people from Kolomoyskyi’s team will. The latter can actually head the shadow cabinet. In addition, Ukraine’s sovereignty is very restricted, the country is sitting on the IMF’s credit needle, and the job of the new president would be not to make the situation worse.  

Some political scientists believe that the “Zelensky project”, in case of an unfortunate turn of events, may pull out of the election to the benefit of Yulia Tymoshenko, in exchange for the return of PrivatBank and other enterprises Kolomoyskyi lost. At the same time, Volodymyr Zelensky as a kind of a “bonus” gets the international spotlight and very good advertising for his TV series “Servant of the People – 3”, which is bought in many CIS countries, and even in Europe, and can significantly increase his viewership.