The comedian president and his battle to change Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelensky / By Mykhaylo Markiv

Volodymyr Zelensky’s first year as president was anything but ordinary. From being thrust into the global spotlight by an impeachment scandal, to a landmark prisoner exchange with Russia, the 42-year-old’s first year saw him thrown in at the deep end of politics.

It was December 31st, 2019, when Volodymyr Zelensky announced his candidacy. 4 months later he was president on the back of a landslide victory. The actor-turned-president rose to prominence in the 2000s, competing in comedy competitions across Ukraine and Russia. His best-known role was playing Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a history teacher who unexpectedly becomes president after an expletive ridden rant on government corruption goes viral. A comedian becoming president can only be described as surreal. On a populist platform, Zelensky now finds himself no longer writing scripts, but instead writing the next chapter in Ukraine’s history. Is playing a president on TV easier than real life?

“He was a very charismatic, very funny guy. A very cute guy, and immediately he was a pretty prominent figure,” explains Peter Dickinson, who has been a journalist in Ukraine for 19 years. “All this time he’s been doing a lot of political humour, and it’s not satirical per se, it’s quite slapstick, but he would point out the emperor’s got no clothes and mock all the politicians. So, a lot of people looked at him like, he’s our guy, he knows the score because he’s spent the last 20 years tearing the shreds out of these fellows.”

Placed in a line up, he might not be the first one you picked as being the president of Europe’s second largest country. Zelensky’s smile wears the warmth of a child who wants to be told they’ve done well, but his easy going attitude brings a freshness to the role previously occupied by serious, career politicians. Ukraine has a long running history of celebrities involving themselves with politics. Eurovision song contest winner Ruslana soon after became a deputy in Verkhovna Rada -Ukraine’s parliament — and even Andriy Shevchenko had a short-lived political career following his retirement from football.

“I often compare [Ukrainian politics] it to a high school popularity contest. Almost all the other Ukrainian political parties are personal parties, say eponymous parties. They are the Yulia Tymoshenko party, the (Vitali) Klitschko party, the (Petro) Poroshenko party” Dickinson says. “When Zelensky became a viable candidate, it was just a landslide. It was a flood, people just flocked to him as the opposition candidate, the non-establishment figure. It was a vote against the whole thing, their whole way of life.”

Since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has struggled to find its footing in the world. The national identity has grown, but there is always the sense that Ukraine is on the verge of change, never having quite reached it. There have been two revolutions in the last 16 years. Firstly, the Orange revolution following rigged elections in 2004, and then a decade later, the bloody Maidan revolution saw tens of thousands of protesters hit the streets, with at least 77 being killed by the Berkut — Ukraine’s former special police force which has since been dissolved.

Since Maidan, Ukraine has largely stabilised. The EU association was signed in 2013 by former President Petro Poreshenko, and there has been gradual progress but not quick enough. Ukrainians are hungry for results, evidenced by only one president surviving longer than one term since its independence. Zelensky’s challenge is therefore to deliver, and to deliver quickly.

What he will deliver is yet unknown.

“Zelensky didn’t make it very clear what he stood for at all. That was one of his great tricks, he ran on this ‘I’m not them’ campaign.” Dickinson says. “To give you one specific example of how slippery he was, he did not talk to the media almost at all, and they got a lot of pressure for this.”

Dickinson was one of a select group of journalists invited to a roundtable event with Zelensky. “Randomly I was put next to him, I think because I was wearing my suit and tie and most of the journalists were just wearing t-shirts so ‘put that guy there so it looks good’. And they filmed this, and it was very inconsequential but friendly, and it was over.

“And for the next month or so, I kept getting calls from people saying ‘Oh, I saw you with Zelensky, what’s going on here?’ And I realised quite soon, that they’d taken this footage and they were using it everywhere to try and create the impression that he was talking to the media.

“It was on CNN, — all the American networks — it was on BBC. People were calling me from outside the country, and I thought Jesus Christ. They really got their money’s worth out of this because there is nothing else. He doesn’t talk to the media, and not only are they not speaking to the media, they’ve got a strategy of how to pretend they are because of this footage.”

Zelensky preferred to communicate with the electorate through selfie-style Instagram videos, in a manner more of an influencer rather than a would-be-president. That he challenged his fellow presidential candidates to a blood test, to prove there were no “alcoholics or drug addicts among them,” typified the unorthodox approach to his campaign.

Iryna Pobedonostseva was a key member of Zelensky’s campaign team and previously worked as a PR manager for Kvartal 95 Studio, Zelensky’s TV studio. “It was a very hard and long period of time before the elections. It’s a new time with a lot of new challenges and questions. I hope Mr Zelensky has a good chance to change the future of our country.” She says.

“Unfortunately, we have two wars ins our country. The first war is in the East [Crimea and Donetsk], and the second war is corruption.”

Corruption has been rampant in Ukraine for years. From healthcare and education to the courts, corruption pervades every level of society. Ukraine ranked 126th out of 180 countries, the 2nd most corrupt country in Europe according to the Corruption Perception Index 2019 released by Transparency International,

Paul Niland is a journalist and founder of Lifeline Ukraine. “I’ll give you an example you wouldn’t think of. I drive 15 km on my commute to work and then 15 km back, and almost on a daily basis I see a road traffic accident,” he says.

“Now you cannot imagine in the UK, driving every single day and you see a crash within a 15 km commute. It’s just imperceptible for you, right? But here that is the reality. And the reason for that basically comes down to corruption. So, the way that a Ukrainian person obtains their driving license is not by learning how to drive properly, it’s by bribery. So, these kinds of everyday bribes, what they contribute to is one of the biggest death tolls on the roads in the world. And this is a long-term problem that we’re facing.”

A 2018 report by the World Health Organisation estimated that there are 13.7 deaths from road traffic accidents per 100,000 people. Infrastructure Minister Vladyslav Kryklii says there were 160,000 road accidents last year, costing the country just over 2 billion pounds. Kryklii has set a target of reducing the accident rate by 30% this year.

Zelensky’s biggest challenge in his battle against corruption is to reform the courts. “There’s a joke that’s been around Ukraine for many years, which is the judge is sitting in his chambers prior to hearing a case,” Niland explains. “The defendant walks in and hands him $10,000, right? And then five minutes later there’s a knock on the door and the plaintiff walks in and says rule for me, here’s $10,000. And because they’re the exact same amount of money, he decides to weigh the merits of the case.

“I think that explains how very, very corrupt the system is.”

Since 2013 trust in the court system has averaged around 5–7%. In August, Zelensky appointed Ruslan Riaboshapka as Prosecutor General of Ukraine, describing him as “100% my man”. Riaboshapka was well regarded by anti-corruption activists. He was praised for seeking real reform, a change from his predecessors. On March the 5th, Riaboshapka was fired, in a move that caused outcry from activists. Since his firing Rioboshapka has called Zelensky untrustworthy, saying he is no longer interested in reforms to create the rule of law and independent criminal justice system that is needed. The sacking of Riaboshapka raises serious doubts on whether Zelensky will be able to enact his reforms, and his replacement marks a return to the kind of politicians Ukrainians voted against when they chose Zelensky.

Peter Dickinson says: “Fundamentally the system is broken at its heart. No one’s gone to prison for the big crimes, the killings on Maidan, and people are thinking if they can’t solve that what can they solve? A large majority of the country is living in a corrupt approach, they’re just looking for ways to live their life, go about their business. Until you get a justice system that’s demonstrated to work, until someone senior goes to prison because they were corrupt, because they did something wrong, it’s very difficult to see how these big changes can take place because fundamentally people just don’t believe it.”

Zelensky began his attempts at reform by passing a blitz of laws. One of which stripped politicians of immunity from prosecution; the first big win in Zelensky’s fight against corruption. The huge number of laws passed faced criticism from some due because of the focus on volume rather than quality. Ukraine’s youngest ever MP Sviatoslav Yurash rebuffs this, describing the reforms as “transformational”.

“A lot of laws have been waiting for their time and their moment. Now for the first time we have a majority in parliament and are able to achieve the long-sought dreams of our society. And we aren’t wasting our time, we’re delivering” he says.

Zelensky’s ‘Servant of the People’ party is the first in Ukraine’s history to have a majority in Verkhovna Rada. “Usually what we had is various oligarchic groupings battling with each other, trying to find a common resolution which will satisfy all their interests. Which often was impossible, and people suffer as a result. This is the first time we have a party and the momentum led by Zelensky where we don’t have to bow to anybody’s interests but the Ukranian people.”

Ukraine’s politics has long been entangled with oligarchs who dominate the political sphere from behind the scenes. Previous presidents came to power promising to tackle corruption, but secretly using this as a cover for their own corrupt dealings. For Zelensky, his biggest challenge might be standing up to Ihor Kolomoisky, a business oligarch who owned PrivatBank until it was nationalised in 2016. An investigation suggested massive fraud over a period of ten years, resulting in losses of over £5 billion. Kolomoisky also owns the television channel 1+1 which hosted Zelensky’s hit show. In the campaign Zelensky was often called “Kolomoisky’s puppet” by his opponents.

The day Zelensky was elected president, Kolomoisky felt comfortable enough to return to Ukraine after 2 years of self-induced exile. Soon after, Kolomoisky’s lawyer, Andriy Bohdan, was appointed Head of President’s Office, a position he held until his dismissal in February. In April 2019, an online news agency quoted Kolomoisky saying he wanted £2 billion in compensation as well as the shares he held — both are things he believes were stolen from him.

Recent signs point towards Zelensky standing firm against the oligarch. The “Anti-Kolomoisky” bank law passed its first reading at the end of March. The law would prevent Kolomoisky from ever taking back control of PrivatBank and would help pave the way for billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund and other foreign backers. The bill still faces a challenge before it can pass. Over 16,000 amendments have been proposed to block or delay the adoption. If the bill passes, then activists will find comfort in Zelensky’s party standing on its own. Zelensky’s full relationship to Kolomoisky is not known, but the oligarch’s actions since Zelensky’s appointment show that he feels he has some power over Zelensky that he didn’t have over Zelensky’s predecessor.

Kolomoisky is not the only billionaire Zelensky has come up against in his first year of Presidency. In September, Zelensky became embroiled in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, after a complaint from a whistleblower revealed that Trump might be soliciting foreign electoral intervention in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Trump’s aim, according to witnesses, was to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Hunter worked on the board of Burisma — a Ukrainian energy company.

“It was very painful for us. Nobody knew the reason for it” says Leonid Kozachenko, a former deputy prime minister in the early 2000s and more recently an MP between 2014 and 2019. “Without US support we would not be able to survive. They [the United States] had a serious impact on resisting a Russian occupation.”

The United States has provided more than $1.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. In July, Trump decided to withhold military aid ahead of a phone call with Zelensky. Since surviving impeachment, Trump has pedalled the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections to benefit Hilary Clinton.

US policymakers have long been keen to have Ukraine in the fold because it lies in the space between East and West, between Russia and Europe. “For not just the US, but for the European Union and other countries, Russia is the main threat and by cooperating they [Russia] have no neutral territory. They directly link with NATO and the military forces which Russia doesn’t want to face.” Kozachenko explains.

“It created a struggle for atime, but it wasn’t a disaster because Trump couldn’t take power as the president forever. Sooner or later he was going to be replaced and maybe now he will come to the conclusion that he made some mistakes.”

For his part, Zelensky has denied feeling pressured by Trump to carry out any investigations into the Bidens. He has played the situation diplomatically, knowing that regardless whether a Democrat or Republican wins the next election, he will need their support. It is currently unclear what support the new Biden administration will offer Ukraine.

For ordinary Ukrainians, the appeal of Zelensky grew out of hope for a better future. Life in Ukraine’s villages can be tough with low wages, damaged roads, and poor infrastructure.

“People struggle because of the low salaries,” says Andrew Meniv, a journalist in Ivano Frankivsk, a mountainous region in western Ukraine. “People have learned to survive. Ordinary people earn 4–5,000 hryvnias a month [£120–150] so it’s difficult for people to survive on such low salaries. I think they don’t care about ordinary people. There’s a big difference between rich and poor and it’s why lots of people are leaving the country for a better life.”

A village in the Lviv oblast — there are over 27,000 villages in Ukraine

Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe. It has seen its living standards fall far behind its neighbouring countries like Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, who have been able to better integrate with Europe. The Social Policy Ministry of Ukraine say that 3 million Ukranians are permanently abroad with 7–9 million leaving for seasonal work. One schoolteacher, who works in the Kirovohrad region, says nothing ever changes for poor people. “We still can’t understand why we are so unhappy and poor. We like to say — ‘Why are we so poor? Because we are stupid. And why stupid? Because we are poor.’” Many Ukrainians do not believe there is a middle class, only rich and poor.

Zelensky’s attempts to improve things for working people have taken a hit from the sudden global coronavirus crisis. Already 2 million people have been estimated to have lost their jobs, according to Prime Minister Denys Shmygal. The lockdown is predicted to result in the first quarterly decline in economic growth for Ukraine since 2015. Discussions on the long sought-after loan from the International Monetary Fund may have to be renegotiated because of the ongoing situation.

One move that will help boost Ukraine’s economy is the new land reform bill. Since 2001 Ukraine has banned the sale of private agricultural land, being one of six countries with that restriction. “Land reform is very much aimed at people in the villages” says Sviatoslav Yurash MP. “At the moment, despite someone owning a chunk of land, they cannot use it as their property in every other regard. We want to give people their land back. It’s as simple as that. It will transform things as far as villages are concerned. It will bring a flood of investments to improve and transform Ukrainian small towns, which are very much in the process of being destructed by the system that we have in place.” Estimates from the Kyiv School of Economics suggest that the new bill could result in $10 billion extra investment into agriculture.

In recent years, the blossoming IT sector has shown the potential for higher wages in the country. IT wages can be as much as $2000 a month, making it comparable to other central European countries. IT outsourcing is Ukraine’s third largest export sector and the number of IT specialists is predicted to double over the next couple of years.

“It’s affecting the economy because they want to have a middle class. They want to have coffee shops, restaurants and coworking spaces. We are seeing these things growing across the country. There is a middle class but it’s not really big enough. They don’t have the infrastructure for every class” says Peter Dickinson. “So, the services they expect: the good schools, the healthcare, these sorts of things that middle-class people want could drive people away.

“The salaries people in the IT sector are getting are close to Poland so it’s no longer necessarily attractive for Ukrainians to go to Poland to work in the IT sector. But they still go because the infrastructure is better, and they live in a nicer environment. It’s cleaner. The roads are better. They’ve got healthcare. They’ve got better schools for the kids and kindergartens, etc. Even if, as in many cases, they’re actually worse off, because the cost of living in Ukraine is much lower. But they’ll go because of these infrastructural factors, and that’s hard to catch up on because the governments got to get the money, spend it and build it. That takes decades.”

“That’s one of the things where the EU is really strong when they come into a country, and they’re on the membership trajectory. They improve the infrastructure, especially the roads, because they understand how important it is and Ukraine is basically having to do that on its own whilst being the poorest country in Europe.”

This past decade has seen Ukraine inch forward in its relationship to the European Union. Indeed, former president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU association agreement proved the trigger for the pro-EU Euromaidan movement which saw Yanukovych flee the country for Russian refuge. Ukrainians have high levels of trust in the EU and see it as a path to a better life. Zelensky has shown the same level of commitment to the EU as his predecessor, but despite this, it’s unlikely Ukraine will be welcomed into the fold anytime soon.

“If the EU announced tomorrow that Ukraine was on track to join, there would be huge outcries in all member countries. The French would go crazy, the Dutch would be up in arms, everyone would be up in arms because this is such a big country with a big population, and there’s so much concern about the cost of Eastern Europe” Peter Dickinson says.

“For Ukrainians, the European union as an institution doesn’t really mean much. They don’t really have much an understanding of what it is or even a particularly great love for it.

“European union for Ukrainians is again the protest vote. Ukrainian mentality is that Europe is a place where things work and are normal. If you commit a crime you go to jail, you go to school and you don’t have to bribe the teacher. They know the European Union is a rule of law environment where you can get ahead if you work hard. That’s what they want, and they can achieve all that without the European Union. They use Europe as a byword for positivity or goodness. Throughout Ukrainian society if you do up your apartment it’s called a Euro-renovation. What does that mean? It means it’s good.”

Sviatoslav Yurash says the focus of Zelensky’s party is to bring Ukraine’s standards up to match Europe. “Our job is to bring Ukrainian society and the European Union into our reality. To bring our standards up to par with Europe. Be that the rule of law, the battle against corruption, the transformations of healthcare and education.”

When Ukraine signed the EU Association Agreement in 2013 it said no to Russia and the Euroasian Economic Union (EEU), made up of former Soviet Union states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with headquarters in Russia. The agreement didn’t mean a whole lot, but Ukraine had been offered a place in the EEU and chose pointedly to take a different path.

“The Russians couldn’t understand and saw it as a choice against them when actually Europe is just much more attractive than Russia” Peter Dickinson says. “The Russian arguments [to join the Euroasian Economic Union] all harked back to the past, essentially all based in nostalgia with the Soviet identity issues and World War 2 being the most important ones.

“And as it went on they realised they were losing the argument, the Russian argument got a bit silly. It became ‘they’re all gay’ and there were posters all over Kyiv saying, ‘gay marriage is coming for you.’ Is that your concept of Europe — gay marriage? Is that the most important factor in Europe? But that was their argument, the only critical thing they could think to use against Europe was this gay marriage thing.”

This decision ‘against’ Russia had consequences, and the aftermath of these consequences pose a big challenge for Zelensky and his government.

As Euromaidan neared its end, armed men — believed to be Russian special forces — entered and occupied the Crimean Peninsula. Vladimir Putin says the need to protect the rights of Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Crimea is the reason for Russia’s sudden involvement. Crimea had been a part of Ukraine since 1954 when the Soviet Union issued a decree to transfer the Crimean region to the Ukraine SSR.

Statue in Kyiv, Ukraine

The illegal annexation of Crimea was soon followed by war in Donbass, a region in the far east of Ukraine. Over 13,000 people have lost their lives in the war so far according to the United Nations. Vladimir Putin denies any military involvement in Donbass, but evidence has been found repeatedly which purports Russian support of the separatists.

Peter Dickinson remembers the early days of war as being terrifying. “You’d go to funerals on Maidan and there would be five to ten coffins. The whole mass of people crying their eyes out. It was just so traumatic and terrifying to be here, living and knowing that this was happening a few hundred kilometers away. You didn’t know what the news would be. Are they coming here? I mean, just god, absolutely terrible times.”

Zelensky made clear that his top priority would be ending the war with Russia. A necessary promise for the Ukrainian people to hear but making a deal with Russia is not something that happens easily or overnight. In September, the first small step towards peace was taken when 24 Ukrainian sailors and 11 others were returned to Ukraine. This was followed in December by a second exchange where Ukraine’s government received 76 captives compared with the pro-Russian separatists taking around 124. Talks were held at the Normandy Format — a meeting between Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France — which served a key role in December’s large exchange. Further talks were originally supposed to take place in April.

Zelensky’s team have been criticised by some for giving away too much in the exchange. Some of the captives exchanged included five former members of the Berkut, the since disbanded special police force responsible for the killings at Maidan, who will never be held to justice. But Zelensky and his team has hailed the exchange as a huge success.

“We have achieved the impossible” says Sviatoslav Yurash MP. “We have got people back who Russian experts said would be impossible to give to Ukraine for various reasons.

“It hopefully gives us a road map to try and achieve the transformation Ukraine desperately needs. Our job is to try and search for a way to stop the strange warfare in the East. People are dying every day and we have to try and finally get Russia out of our country with a way to integrate occupied parts of the Eastern zone.”

It is difficult to see an end to the war now that focus has had to be on the coronavirus for the last couple of months. One possible way to end it would be a frozen conflict scenario.

“I think the best option is to freeze as it is, and it becomes a de-facto border. The Russians won’t back down and aren’t under enough pressure to do so. The international community has failed in that respect. And now they’re pressuring Ukraine to do whatever they need to do to calm it down” says journalist Peter Dickinson. “So, I would imagine what we will see over the next year or two would be gradual, very diplomatic, movements towards a recognition of that without ever saying it’s frozen.

“Georgia has got 20% of the country occupied by Russia but they still get a lot of investment. Ukraine could do very well from that and once they get five to ten years down the line, Ukraine economy’s growing, and people are getting salaries of $1,000 or more, the infrastructure is improving and the middle class is growing. People out East are going to think we want to get back to that.

“That’s how you do it, that’s how you win. Because you’re not going to win with tanks and guns against the Russians.”

Vladimir Putin’s big fear is that Ukraine will show Russians there is a better life to be had. Ukraine and Russia’s paths have been intertwined for hundreds of years and if Ukraine is successful then it can serve as a model example for how Russia could also be.

“Why is all of this happening? It’s because Ukraine has become a genuinely independent country and Russia doesn’t like it. Putin has this terrible fear of a domino effect. That once it starts you can’t put the genie back in the bottle and Ukraine is that genie — the democratic genie.”

Zelensky poses a unique threat to Putin in that he is popular in Russia. Zelensky made his name competing in the Russian comedy competition KVN and along with his team spent many years touring post-Soviet countries including Russia.

“A lot of Russians were very interested in Zelensky. The Russian media went big on the Ukrainian presidential election campaign because they thought Poroshenko would win. So they hyped it up a lot and then Zelensky came out and they couldn’t really just step back and say, okay we’ll shut up about it” continues Dickinson.

“They continued to do it, and almost like watching a car crash, they suddenly realised we’re basically promoting this guy, and they were. And they tried to attack him. But it was a bit late because he was popular in Russia as well. They knew him there and particularly young Russians thought this is really cool, they just elected this guy who we know. We know he’s not some American puppet. We know this guy and he’s won a fair vote.

“That sent shockwaves through Russia and it scared them. It scared them a lot. Now, they’re still trying to work out how to handle Zelensky because he’s the big threat for them. But again Russia is reacting. Russia didn’t come into Ukraine and impose its policy. Russia reacted to Ukraine’s development and that’s the genesis of the whole thing and what’s happening here. That gets missed a lot.”

For anyone, getting to grips with running a country for the first time, surrounded by a team of limited experience was always going to be difficult. Add to that Trump, Putin, oligarchs, and a pandemic, Zelensky may have had one of the toughest introductions to politics of any world leader.

Mistakes have been made — to many, the government in its current form is less inspiring then when it was filled with reformers in key positions. As time goes on Zelensky is going to have to make more difficult decisions which will affect how the population views him. His response to the global pandemic, as with any world leader, will prove vital in how he is viewed for the rest of his tenure.

“The great thing about being the protest vote is that you can please everyone by not being the previous guy” Peter Dickinson says. “He’s now going to have to be his own guy and he’s going to upset a lot of people along the way. It’s going to be a very tricky thing to manoeuvre. What’s he genuinely got to offer? What are his beliefs? What are his principles? And then they’ll be open to criticism.”

One year in Zelensky’s approval ratings remain high, something that hasn’t been the case for previous Ukrainian presidents. According to a poll by the Rating Sociological Group, 68% of Ukrainians approve of Zelensky’s first year in office. He was thrown in at the deep end and despite all the first-year challenges he’s still swimming. As one public activist and economist put it: “I think he’s realising it’s not like being in a TV show. It’s actually quite hard work.”

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