Who’s Laughing Now?: What Volodymyr Zelensky's Presidential Win May Mean For Ukraine Studies

Originally published in June 2019 Newsnet

Who’s Laughing Now?: What Volodymyr Zelensky's Presidential Win May Mean For Ukraine Studies 

by William Jay Risch, Georgia College

It was not supposed to happen this way in Ukraine.

Comedian and entertainer Volodymyr Zelensky, a man with no political experience whatsoever, defeated incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, a prominent figure in Ukrainian politics for the past two decades. He won despite Ukraine being five years in a hybrid war with Russia that has cost at least 13,000 lives by late February 2019 and has led to as many as 1.8 million people still being registered as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) as of July 2018.

It was not a defeat. It was a blowout. In the second round of voting held April 21, 2019, Zelensky defeated Poroshenko by an astonishing 73.22 percent to a mere 24.45 percent. On the electoral map, Zelensky led in all regions of Ukraine where voting could take place, except for western Ukraine’s Lviv Region.

Television Crusader

Nationwide television had made Zelensky famous. In 2003 he started his televisioncompany, Kvartal 95 (Block 95), which has produced television programs, films, and live shows for not just Ukraine, but the post-Soviet sphere and Eastern Europe. Their television comedy show, Vecherniy Kvartal (Evening Channel), has been a hit with audiences since 2008. The television series Svaty (The In-laws), which has completed six seasons, had the highest ratings for three of them in Ukraine. In 2012-14, the Monte Carlo Television Festival considered it among the top three comedy series viewed worldwide, next to The Big Bang Theory and Desperate Housewives.

The show that gave Zelensky the most political clout was the television series Sluga Naroda (Servant of the People), which premiered on Ukrainian television in 2015. Servant of the People is about a struggling high school history teacher in provincial Ukraine who, frustrated with his country’s political system, delivers an impromptu speech against corruption that a student films in class. The student’s video goes viral on YouTube and gets Zelensky’s character, Vasyl Holoborodko, elected president. Servant of the People is about more than just a novice president battling corruption. The series portrays ordinary Ukrainian citizens complicit in this culture of corruption, from housewives urging their husbands to accept bribes so that they can buy fur coats to neighbors who abuse one another yet will go out of their way to please government ministers.

Zelensky Hysteria

At first it looked like Zelensky had no chance of winning. Out of 40 candidates for president, Zelensky’s campaign strategy was bizarre. As he began his campaign in January 2019, Zelensky, going by the brand name of “Ze,” said idea crowdsourcing and popular referendums would determine his political program. Zelensky held few live political rallies. He did not engage in any ambitious billboard campaign. Instead, he performed with his comedy team. His campaign team used the social networks and YouTube to broadcast campaign messages. The television network hosting Zelensky’s shows, 1+1, gave Zelensky a venue for appearing as a president on Servant of the People, narrating a documentary on the life of Ronald Reagan (another actor who became a president), and greeting viewers with the New Year at midnight, during a spot traditionally reserved for the President of Ukraine.

Due to his amorphous campaign rhetoric and his past comedy acts, Zelensky seemed like a clown, someone else’s puppet. One suspected puppet master was Ihor Kolomoisky, a prominent oligarch who supported the Euromaidan protests and, after Russia’s military intervention, funded volunteer battalions to defend Ukraine. While this led to him becoming governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Region in Ukraine’s southeast in 2014, his relations with President Poroshenko soured, and he was out of office the next year. The owner of 1+1, Privatbank, and other assets, Kolomoisky allegedly embezzled some $5 billion from Privatbank, causing the Poroshenko administration to nationalize the bank in 2016. Kolomoisky left Ukraine and claimed that the forced nationalization of his bank was illegal. Kolomoisky gave Zelensky not only air time through the 1+1 channel, but also provided security and logistical support to Zelensky’s campaign team. Andriy Bohdan, Kolomoisky’s personal lawyer, became Zelensky’s legal counsel.

Russian president Vladimir Putin became Zelensky’s second suspected puppet master, largely through a subtle smear campaign. Euromaidan Press claimed that Zelensky’s campaign program bore an eerie resemblance to that of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. A website known for intimidating journalists and political opponents, Myrotvorets’ (Peacemaker) – called simply a “non-governmental organization” by some media – claimed that it had intercepted emails proving that a former pro-Russian Donbas militant, owner of a cryptocurrency trading platform, had organized the transfer of cash from Russia’s FSB to the Zelensky campaign. Euromaidan Press reported this news, while being unable to verify the information completely. Yet at least some suggested, rightly, that this kind of Russian support was negligible, given the enormous resources Kolomoisky and his 1+1 television channel provided.

Still, experts warned that Zelensky’s victory would doom Ukraine because Putin would take advantage of his lack of political experience. Alexander Motyl claimed that Servant of the People episodes suggested Zelensky was “dangerously pro-Russian.” He argued that Zelensky’s show treats Ukrainian nationalists, not Russia, as the main threat to the country. Zelensky, if elected, may make all kinds of concessions to Putin, including ceding the country’s sovereignty. Such experts stressed the importance of Poroshenko winning reelection. Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council said this would protect Ukraine from Russian interference running rampant during the elections, and would keep it safe from further Russian military aggression. Quoting Ukrainian historian and public intellectual Yaroslav Hrytsak, Karatnycky concluded that it was just a matter of time before Ukraine’s educated elite backed Poroshenko and thus guaranteed his victory at the polls: “The main decision for liberals today is whether to support Poroshenko in the first round or wait until the second.”

Day of Reckoning

Hrytsak’s liberals did not determine the outcome of the presidential race. Zelensky’s electoral victory was a direct indictment of them and the view of Ukraine that they and their Western partners shared.

Educated elites most active in the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14 tied that revolution’s fortunes to the Poroshenko presidency. Poroshenko himself played an active role in supporting the protests, through his television channel, Channel 5, and through his own intervention in key events that led to the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

The Poroshenko presidency, despite attempted reforms, ushered in yet another cycle of systemic corruption. Rather than breaking with a system of bribes, graft, and embezzlement at all levels of state administration, it perpetuated it. A 2018 Gallup poll found 91 percent of Ukrainians claimed government corruption was widespread. Ukraine’s national government was the least trusted in the world (9 percent), far below the median for former Soviet republics (48 percent) and the global average (56 percent). Even the Yanukovych administration, overthrown by protests in February 2014, did not have such a low rating, though admittedly confidence in that government was also extremely weak (no higher than 24 percent). Rather than overcoming the arbitrariness and lawlessness of past regimes, Poroshenko’s encouraged a “culture of impunity” where crimes remained unpunished or uninvestigated, security organs detained and tortured citizens, and far-right vigilante groups freely intimidated and assaulted their opponents. In late February 2019, investigative journalists claimed the son of one of Poroshenko’s close business partners extorted millions of dollars from the state’s military industries by selling them parts smuggled from Russia at grossly exaggerated prices.

Despite greater openness with the European Union, including visafree travel, continued economic decline and the Donbas war had ruined people’s standard of living. The value of the hryvnia to the US dollar plummeted from 8 to 27 (as of 2018). In 2015, the average salary of Ukrainians was 190 US dollars a month (a little over 6 US dollars a day). From 2014 to 2017 (before even visafree travel with EU countries began), over 25 percent of all working age, economically active citizens (those not students, pensioners, mothers on maternity leave, or those disabled and unable to work) left Ukraine for employment abroad. The sharp drop in Ukrainians’ living standards, made worse by austerity, has hardly been the prosperity of the “European dream” shared by Euromaidan activists and their supporters more than five years ago.

Ukraine’s cultural and intellectual establishment, while grumbling about such corruption and economic hardships, chose to side with Poroshenko to the end. Poroshenko’s presidency reinforced myths they shared and perpetuated (sometimes with Western help) about the Euromaidan protests and Ukraine’s war with Russia. The Euromaidan protests were about a civilizational choice. They were a contest of wills between the “tolerant ones” (tolerasty), those who adhered to human rights, rule of law, democracy, and European values, and the “Soviet ones” (sovky), those who blindly followed their post-Soviet leaders and feared change. Marci Shore and Timothy Snyder have been the most fervent Western perpetuators of such myths. The protests represented a “rebirth of metaphysics” for not just Ukraine, but Eastern Europe, where the values of Europe acquired real meaning in acts of resistance on Ukraine’s Independence Square. The Ukraine crisis occupied center stage in a global war for the “truth” and liberal democracy. Such myths transformed those who were indifferent to the Euromaidan protests, who refused to support the protests, or who openly opposed them into people who were culturally, intellectually, and even spiritually lacking. This was especially true for residents of the Donbas region, who, according to Hrytsak, were allegedly too skeptical, too materialist, and too spiritually deprived to appreciate the altruism of the Euromaidan protesters. Such myths ignored the fact that the Euromaidan protests never gained support from half of the country – mostly residents of the east and south – and that the violence that eventually brought down the Yanukovych regime only polarized public opinion further. Only the threat of Russian military aggression ensured national unity.

As it failed to produce reforms that benefited ordinary citizens, the Poroshenko administration used the threat of Russian military aggression, and nationalist tropes, to bolster Poroshenko’s reelection bid. “Army, Language, Faith” became his campaign slogan. Poroshenko guaranteed strong defense against Russian military aggression. When Russian naval forces seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 sailors in November 2018 and closed the Sea of Azov off to Ukrainian shipping, Poroshenko with Parliament’s approval temporarily imposed martial law in 10 regions along Ukraine’s east and south, claiming that Russian forces threatened to seize those territories as well. The move was viewed as politically motivated, given that nearly all of these regions were least supportive of Poroshenko’s presidency. In early January 2019, the Poroshenko administration succeeded in obtaining independent status for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, removing it from the control of the Moscow Patriarchate. Poroshenko later went on a tour across Ukraine with the document, known as the Tomos, claiming that Ukraine had achieved spiritual independence from the Russian world at last. Poroshenko voiced support for a law strengthening the use of the Ukrainian language in education and government. Parliament passed the law shortly after Poroshenko’s electoral defeat.

Ukrainian cultural and intellectual figures lined up behind Poroshenko. At a late January 2019 rally in the Kyiv International Exposition Center, writers, actors, musicians, and politicians joined Poroshenko to express their support for his platform. They claimed that Zelensky, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and other rival candidates threatened to undermine Ukraine with empty populist rhetoric, authoritarianism, and a return to the days of Yanukovych’s “pro-Russian” regime. The rally offered an even more stark slogan on display: “Either Poroshenko or Putin,” with portraits of the two leaders facing one another. Once it became clear that Poroshenko was most likely to lose to Zelensky in the first round and even in the second, Ukrainian intellectuals warned that a Zelensky victory would be a disaster for Ukraine. As many as 26 representatives of the Ukrainian intelligentsia–mostly writers, academics, and former Soviet dissidents–claimed Zelensky’s election would make a mockery of Ukraine. Western champions of Ukraine and the Euromaidan protests joined in the jeremiads against a possible Zelensky win. Bernard-Henri Lévy, who had spoken to the Maidan in early February 2014 and claimed that the Europe he was proud of stood before him, warned a Kyiv audience in late March 2019 that Zelensky was a “leap into the unknown.”

Fear and Loathing of the 25 (Or Less) Percent

The jeremiads did little more than echo among the faithful. When the results of the first, and then the second, rounds of voting came in, intellectuals and public figures who supported the Euromaidan were furious. They took out their anger against the vast majority who had voted for Zelensky.

Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, whose work included the passing of controversial laws in 2015 banning Communist symbols and commemorating controversial nationalist figures who had collaborated with Nazi Germany, highlighted the dangers of “the majority” to his readers on Facebook one week before the second round of the elections. “The majority does not read books,” he wrote April 14, 2019. “The majority does not know a single foreign language. The majority has not seen the world not just beyond Ukraine, but even beyond their own televisions. The majority did not come to the Maidans [public protests in 2004 and 2013-14], they did not stop the ‘Russian Spring’ in the south and east, did not fight at the front, did not form volunteer groups to help soldiers.” He claimed that “the majority” quickly changes its loyalties, and that it was “the majority” that brought to power such odious figures as Lenin, Hitler, Putin, and Yanukovych (a claim that clearly went against the historical record regarding Lenin and Hitler).

The second round of voting coincided with the beginning of Holy Week for the Eastern rite in Ukraine, and commentators were quick to add Biblical language to express their contempt for the majority. “It is not I beating (him), but the mob [iuba] is,” wrote political scientist Volodymyr Kulyk, referring to Palm Sunday and the fickle crowd that greeted Jesus and then betrayed him. “On the day of [Christ’s] arrival in Jerusalem they decided to return to Egypt…” Writer Yuri Andrukhovych, who had already warned readers of Zbruch that Zelensky’s victory would mean the return to power of a more subtle version of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, compared Poroshenko’s resounding defeat to Jesus Christ’s betrayal by the mob on Good Friday.

Other intellectuals opposed to Zelensky looked for signs of victory amid defeat. Facebook users affixed the number “25” to their profile photos, proudly identifying themselves as critically-reflecting members of civil society. Poet, critic, and essayist Mykola Riabchuk claimed that Zelensky’s presidency would be such a disaster that those supporting a modernized, Ukrainian future connected with Europe, free of the influences of the sovky, could win in a future political struggle.

There was no soul-searching at all among the 25 percent or less. One exception could be art curator and former Euromaidan activist Vasyl Cherepanyn. He compared Zelensky’s victory to a popular uprising like that of the Yellow Vests in France, only within the legal system, voting against such issues as the war in Donbas (namely politicians’ exploitation of that war to benefit themselves), corruption, and the divisive nationalism that Poroshenko had turned to in order to maintain popular support. Still, as Cherepanyn admitted, what had united the 73 percent of Ukraine’s voters behind Zelensky was not voting for Zelensky but voting against something.

While Zelensky’s victory bridged regional divides, such divisions remain highly salient for the most important problems facing Ukraine. One survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology indicates that in February 2019, around 62-65 percent of residents of Ukraine’s west and center said that Russia bore responsibility for starting the war in Donbas, 10-12.5 percent said Ukraine was responsible, and 25 percent could not answer the question. In contrast, in Ukraine’s south, as many as 47 percent could not answer the question, while 23 percent blamed Ukraine and only 30 percent blamed Russia. In the east, the contrast with the west and center was even starker. Most, a total of 55 percent, could not answer the question, while 31 percent blamed Ukraine and only 14.5 percent said Russia was responsible for starting the war.

Zelensky’s presidential win thus is no laughing matter for either his opponents or his supporters. Ukraine remains in dire economic straits. The corrupt system in Servant of the People pervades Ukrainian society and involves ordinary people who, regardless of their individual qualities, matter in any representative democracy that claims to live by its ideals. Russia remains a military threat, though far from all Ukrainians agree who is to blame for the war it continues to direct and support in the Donbas region. The gulf between educated elites and “the majority” bears resemblance to the Russian Empire of 1905-1917, where, Leopold Haimson wrote long ago, dual polarization between educated elites (obshchestvennost’) and the state and between educated elites and the masses threatened to topple the entire system. While this latest drama in Ukraine’s history could end as comedy, farce, or tragedy, it is clear that “the people” deserve better treatment than that given to it by the pundits, the experts, and some scholars over the past five years.

William Jay Risch, Associate Professor of History, Georgia College, is the author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011) and of the forthcoming One Step from Madness: Power and Disillusionment in Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution.