Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, April 2019
Valentyn Ogirenko / REUTERS

The global wave of protest populism that began with Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump reached new heights in Ukraine this weekend. A comedian outsider whose campaign served as an echo chamber for public discontent in Europe’s most consistently corrupt nation has won a landslide victory in the presidential race. Ukraine’s new president-elect, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is in many ways the ideal poster boy for the antiestablishment trend currently sweeping world politics. A media-savvy TV celebrity who has never previously held political office, he has made a virtue of his inexperience by posing as an everyman candidate untainted by the rot within the system. Zelenskiy’s stunning success—he won the Ukrainian presidency by a record margin and triumphed in all but one of the country’s 24 administrative regions—amounted to a vote of no confidence in the entire Ukrainian political class. Whereas other populists have exploited hot-button issues or courted support among overlooked demographics, Zelenskiy was able to galvanize an entire nation to back him in what was surely one of the biggest protest votes ever seen.

VIRTUAL CANDIDATE

What was Zelenskiy’s secret? He ran for president as a virtual candidate, eschewing traditional rallies, political talk shows, and press interviews in favor of comedy concerts, slick social media messaging, and carefully curated appearances on friendly channels. His most original and effective campaign platform was undoubtedly the hit TV series Servant of the People, in which he stars as an accidental president who crusades against corruption.

Launched in 2015, the show served as the perfect vehicle for a would-be protest candidate, allowing its star to pose as an honest man in a world of political sin. The fictional Ukraine depicted in Servant of the People is a grotesque parody of an already imperfect reality. A typical episode of the show conveys the moral bankruptcy of the country’s democratic institutions while reinforcing the morbid brand of political cynicism favored by many, if not most, Ukrainians. According to a recent Gallup survey, Ukrainians have the world’s lowest levels of confidence in their government, with just nine percent expressing faith in the authorities. In this toxic environment, Zelenskiy’s humorous and sympathetic portrayal of a well-intentioned political novice struck a resounding chord. It did not seem to matter that the third season of the show, which premièred on the eve of the presidential vote, was a thinly disguised extension of his campaign. By then, the comedian’s presidential pretensions had already gained a foothold in the national psyche.  

Although Zelenskiy the candidate was in some ways almost indistinguishable from the presidential role he played on TV, he has been a household name in Ukraine for decades. Zelenskiy first entered the national consciousness in the late 1990s as part of a student troupe that cut its teeth on the hugely popular TV comedy show KVN. Zelenskiy emerged as one of the show’s standout performers and was soon a star in his own right. He has remained in the public eye ever since, his comedy shows a ubiquitous presence on Ukrainian TV and his live performances attracting celebrity audiences, including the politicians he routinely mocks.

Not everyone enjoys Zelenskiy the comedian. Throughout the recent election campaign, critics held up his habit of joking at Ukraine’s expense as evidence that he lacks patriotism, and his routines mocking minorities have raised eyebrows. Nevertheless, an affable onscreen persona coupled with sheer longevity have combined to lend him the aura of an old friend. An entire generation of Ukrainians has quite literally grown up with Zelenskiy. This sense of personal familiarity proved invaluable during the presidential race, allowing him to remain conveniently vague on policy details while emphasizing his everyman credentials.

CULTURE OF CORRUPTION

The frustration that Zelenskiy exploited is not new. Ever since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has struggled with a pervasive culture of corruption that has fueled not one but two post-Soviet revolutions. Neither the 2004 Orange Revolution nor the 2013–14 Euromaidan revolution succeeded in bringing about fundamental change, creating the conditions for the rise of a populist outsider. This was bad news for Zelenskiy’s opponent, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko is by no means an especially corrupt politician, at least not by Ukrainian standards. His great crime is his perceived failure to break with the institutionalized corruption pervading the Ukrainian state apparatus. This ultimately outweighed his considerable achievements in nation-building and diplomacy. During Poroshenko’s presidency, Ukraine successfully stemmed Russia’s hybrid invasion and built an army capable of giving the Kremlin pause for thought. Poroshenko signed an Association Agreement with Brussels and won visa-free EU travel for Ukrainians. Under his stewardship, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church secured historic autocephaly, or independence, from the Moscow Patriarchate. These landmark geopolitical events, however, all took place against a seedy backdrop of graft scandals and backroom dealing that appeared to differ little from the unsavory shenanigans of previous administrations.

The frustration that Zelenskiy exploited is not new. Ever since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has struggled with a pervasive culture of corruption that has fueled not one but two post-Soviet revolutions.

Poroshenko became president just three months after the massacre on Kiev’s central square that marked the tragic climax of the 2013–14 street protests, and he has since spent the entirety of his presidency in a state of undeclared war with Ukraine’s superpower neighbor. For many Ukrainians, this makes his apparent willingness to tolerate continued corruption unforgivable. If the sacrifices of Euromaidan and the far greater losses caused by Russia’s subsequent invasion are insufficient to produce a decisive change in political culture, they argue, then perhaps it is now time to try something completely different.   

Zelenskiy is certainly different, but nobody really has any idea what kind of president he will be. The comedian will soon take charge of a vast and volatile country at war with Russia and struggling to redefine its place in the world. He will do so while burdened with the impossible expectations of an electorate that has projected its diverse hopes and dreams onto the blank sheet of his candidacy. Everyone knows what Zelenskiy theoretically opposes, but what are his actual plans?

Inevitably, he has identified the fight against corruption as his top priority. This is likely to begin with wholesale personnel changes within government institutions and a push to end the immunity from arrest currently enjoyed by members of Parliament, judges, and other members of the political classes. There is also talk of symbolic gimmicks such as moving presidential administration offices out of the Soviet-era building they currently occupy. Observers anxiously await his first major political appointments as president, which will provide a clearer indication of his commitment to genuine reform.

Perhaps the most meaningful test of Zelenskiy’s anti-corruption credentials will be his future relationship with the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who is widely seen as his patron. Zelenskiy owes much of his celebrity status to the blanket coverage he receives on Kolomoisky’s 1+1 TV channel, and opponents have accused the comedian of being a puppet who ran for office only in order to settle a personal score between the oligarch and Poroshenko. Kolomoisky suffered a number of losses during Poroshenko’s presidency, most notably the nationalization of his prize asset PrivatBank. He has been living in self-imposed exile in Israel for some time, but now plans to return to Ukraine. Any subsequent upturns in Kolomoisky’s fortunes will come under huge scrutiny and have the potential to derail Zelenskiy’s political career entirely.

FOREIGN POLICY AND IDENTITY

With anti-corruption activities serving as the alpha and omega of Zelenskiy’s presidency, other areas will receive less attention. The ongoing war with Russia will necessarily be one of his chief concerns, but although Zelenskiy has spoken of his ambitions to end the conflict, he is unlikely to diverge much from his predecessor in refusing to compromise with the Kremlin. Instead, he has proposed broadening the format of existing peace talks to include the United Kingdom and the United States, which would certainly not endear him to Moscow. This does not rule out the possibility of progress toward peace, but it makes a continuation of the current bloody stalemate a more realistic outcome.

In terms of foreign policy, Zelenskiy will almost certainly maintain Ukraine’s current geopolitical trajectory, but has also promised to put major national decisions such as NATO membership to referendum. Ties with Russia will probably remain in deep freeze, despite the fact that Zelenskiy’s opponents spent much of the presidential campaign depicting him as a Kremlin stooge. In reality, there is very little room for rapprochement in a relationship poisoned by five years of war and further complicated by Russia’s insistence that it is a mere bystander in the conflict.

A self-styled unifying figure, Zelenskiy will keep his distance from the national identity issues that have repeatedly divided Ukrainian society since 1991. Although supportive of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, he will shy away from attempts to bolster the official status of Russian and will instead maintain existing measures safeguarding the Ukrainian language. Likewise, he is unlikely to reverse efforts to recognize Ukraine’s mid-twentieth-century independence struggle against the Soviet regime, but will look to shift the emphasis toward less polarizing ground by honoring the heroes of contemporary Ukraine. He may adopt a more relaxed attitude toward Russian cultural content in the Ukrainian media, but most restrictions will remain in place as long as the current Kremlin information war against Ukraine continues. This hands-off approach to national identity will alienate some, but after five years of intensified nation-building, many Ukrainians will applaud a return to bread and butter issues.

FROM PRAISE TO PRESSURE

As Ukraine braces itself for Zelenskiy’s presidency, there is a sense of an entire nation preparing to leap into the unknown. Zelenskiy himself will have to adjust to an unfamiliar and incredibly pressurized environment where he can no longer hide from the press or his political opponents. For a man more used to the praise and platitudes of showbiz society, this will come as a rude awakening. Ukraine’s president-elect has said he plans to serve only one five-year term before handing over the reins to a new generation of politicians. This is presumably an attempt to emphasize that he does not see himself as a career politician and fully expects to return to his previous celebrity existence once he has finished saving the country. At this stage, simply surviving five years in office would represent a remarkable achievement for a man whose main qualification is a complete absence of qualifications.

Zelenskiy’s campaign was a brilliant example of anti-establishment populism, but he must now make the leap from virtual candidate and serving president. As the challenges of actually running a country begin to mount, he may come to long for the days of his TV presidency when nothing went off script. Ukraine’s hunger for change catapulted Zelenskiy to a historic election victory, but that same hunger could quickly consume him if he now fails to deliver.