Ukraine's presidential election is just a few days away, but its observers are still scratching their heads. The March 31 contest's clear front-runner is a television comedian named Volodymyr Zelenskiy. For the army of analysts watching the race and the formidable rivals running in it, namely incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, Zelenskiy has proved a tough nut to crack.
Zelenskiy brazenly announced his presidential bid on New Year's Eve on the 1+1 TV channel as the clock ticked away the last minutes of 2018, and as other channels were broadcasting Poroshenko's New Year's speech. Many viewers thought Zelenskiy was making just another one of his singular jokes, but the joker was serious this time.
And disgruntled Ukrainian voters appear to be taking him seriously, too. Recent opinion polls suggest the 41-year-old comedian-turned-maverick of Ukrainian politics could soon become in real life what he plays on television: Ukraine's president. In the popular comedy show "Servant of the People," Zelenskiy is Vasyl Holoborodka, a history teacher who becomes president by a fluke of fate. Zelenskiy's character is a scrupulously honest leader who regularly outsmarts crooked legislators and shady and greedy businessmen. The latest opinion polls show Zelenskiy comfortably leading the crowded presidential field, with Poroshenko and Timoshenko competing for second place and, if the polls are correct, the right to face Zelenskiy in a one-on-one runoff in April.
Populist or Proxy?
So, how exactly does the comedian beguile?
"People identify with me because I'm open. I get angry. I get upset. I get sad. I don't hide my emotions on camera. I don't like to look different if I'm inexperienced in something," says Zelenskiy, who chairs the Servant of the People party, established in the spring of 2018 and named after his TV series.
Some observers have dubbed Zelenskiy Ukraine's Donald Trump because of his status as a TV celebrity, his strong following on social media and his ability to play to a crowd. And like Trump, Zelenskiy regularly lambasts Ukraine's political elite and its "crooked" system. Most analysts agree that he embodies the public's disenchantment with Ukraine's current leaders and the system they control.
Zelenskiy's emergence as the presidential election's leading candidate "clearly indicates that the Ukrainian public is very unhappy about how Ukraine is run," Kestutis Girnius, a Lithuanian political analyst, said. "The incumbent president, Poroshenko, hasn't been effective. In the last couple of months, he veered very much towards the nationalist line and picked up some support there. The other rival, Timoshenko, is facing … claims of corruption. When she was prime minister, she was ineffective, too, forever squabbling with (former Ukrainian President Viktor) Yushchenko. So, we see a major protest vote."
It's also another piece in a recent political trend. "Zelenskiy's rise is not a stunning phenomenon at all in the modern world of politics marked with a disdain for the political establishment and traditional parties. Let's remember Italy, Slovenia and the United States, too, where new leaders have successfully ridden the wave of the people's protest against establishment parties," Ruslan Bortnik, director of the Ukrainian Institute for Analysis and Management of Policy and an adviser to Ukraine's parliament, said.
'Zelenskiy's rise is not a stunning phenomenon at all in the modern world of politics marked with a disdain for the political establishment and traditional parties.' — Ruslan Bortnik, director of the Ukrainian Institute for Analysis and Management of Policy
But behind Zelenskiy's populist appeal are questions about his connections. "Zelenskiy's attraction is that he seems to be the main challenger to the established power structure," said Anders Aslund, a resident senior fellow in the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and the author of Ukraine: What Went Wrong and How to Fix It. "His drawback is that he's obviously supported by Ihor Kolomoisky."
Kolomoisky is an oligarch who owns the TV channel that airs Zelenskiy's show. He's a bitter enemy of Poroshenko and unlike many other Ukrainian businessmen hasn't been put on Russia's sanctions list. Zelenskiy's connection with Kolomoisky has prompted critics to say he isn't the independent candidate he promotes himself to be. In addition, "Schemes," an investigative program on the U.S.-supported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported in January that Zelenskiy still had business connections in Russia, raising some doubts about his honesty. Zelenskiy later confirmed his business interests in Russia and promised to cease his activities there.
A Raft of Issues Ahead
If elected, Zelenskiy would face a slew of huge problems. Five years after the Euromaidan protest movement that led to pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich's removal and Russia's incursion into eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine's situation remains troublesome. Rule of law continues to be a work in progress, the judicial and legal systems are corrupt and dysfunctional, and the security services remain unreformed — because, some insist, Poroshenko comes from them.
Ukraine's economic growth hovers at 3 percent — well below where economists say it should be. Wary of state policies, wealthy Ukrainians keep their savings abroad and investors are reluctant to open their wallets. Ukraine has an investment ratio of barely 20 percent of GDP when countries with similar economic indicators see around 30 percent at least.
Most Ukrainians continue to wonder when their standard of living is going to change for the better. "For the last five years, less than 20 percent of Ukrainians have seen improvements in the quality of their lives, according to our statistics," Bortnik said. "In most opinions, the state isn't moving in the right direction and life is getting harder. Just one number to illustrate this: Utility payments have increased by a factor of about 10 over the last five years."
But foreign experts tend to give Ukraine some slack. "Importantly, Ukraine is a market economy. Not quite yet a perfectly functioning market democracy," said Alexander Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark University and the author of two books on Ukraine, but "quite healthy," even compared to some Western European countries. "The fundamental problem as in all post-Soviet countries is that Ukraine doesn't have any real property rights," Aslund said. "So, the locals take their savings out of the country and foreigners are reluctant to invest — the old political and economic power structure hasn't been broken. Thus, the rise of Zelenskiy."
However, Aslund added, Zelenskiy "avoids talking about the economy and corruption, focusing on nationalist zeal, language, army and faith."
The reason the likely winner of the first round of Ukraine's presidential race circumvents the hard issues — said Audrius Butkevicius, a former Lithuanian interior minister who's spent the past five years advising various Ukrainian governmental organizations — is because he "exposed his sheer incompetence with a couple of blunders on TV when talking about the issues, and now his team keeps him away from the TV limelight. That way he doesn't spoil the game when being cool and smart matters most."
The Joke's on Someone
With the presidential election just days ahead, is it possible the race is too close to call despite Zelenskiy's sizable lead in the polls?
"Yes, Zelenskiy stands the best chance, but Ukrainian electoral politics are so volatile that any prediction would be foolhardy," Motyl said. "Zelenskiy is clearly the front-runner and all indications at this point suggest he'll win. But his recent rise has been meteoric and it's perfectly possible that his fall may be just as sudden and meteoric."
But Zelenskiy has a possible trump card in his hands against such a collapse. New episodes of "Servant of the People" began airing in late March.
No doubt the latest adventures of Vasyl Holoborodka will bolster the determination of the army of Holoborodka-Zelenskiy fans as they prepare to vote for their hero, while leaving Zelenskiy's critics still frowning about his suitability for Ukraine's ultimate political post.