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The Mystery of Volodymyr Zelenskiy


The comedian has played the president on Ukrainian TV for years. Now he’s likely to be elected to the real office. Who is Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and what or whom does he stand for? 

© REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

This Sunday, April 21, Ukraine will elect its president for the seventh time since independence.  An unprecedented number of candidates threw their hats in the ring, but only two survived the March 31 first round to make it into the run-off: current president Petro Poroshenko (15.95 percent or 3 million votes) and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy (30.24 percent or 5.7 million votes).

Zelenskiy, a newcomer in the Ukrainian political scene, was leading in public opinion polls for months before the vote, but anyone hardly expected that he would beat other candidates by such a margin. The three weeks between the first round and the run-off have been marked by heated discussions about what accounts for Zelenskiy’s popularity and, most importantly, what his presidency would mean for his country.

The personality of the president, and how he or she chooses to use his or her powers, is vital in a country like Ukraine. Ukraine has weak democratic institutions and high poverty rates, and it suffers from endemic corruption and a politically dependent judiciary. It is also at war with Russia, which brings new fatalities almost daily and costs Ukraine significant resources.

Although the prime minister (appointed by the parliament) is nearly as powerful as the president in Ukraine’s parliamentary-presidential system, certain powers are reserved for the presidency, such as proposing and vetoing legislation adopted by the parliament, exercising direct control over foreign affairs, defense, security service and prosecution, appointing regional governors and formally appointing judges to their posts after they’ve been selected by dedicated bodies.

President Poroshenko’s legacy, should his term come to an end on Sunday, will be a controversial one. On the one hand, Ukraine has made impressive reform progress in the past five years since the Revolution of Dignity, progress not seen during the entire period of 25 years since independence. Achievements include the overhaul of Ukraine’s biggest state company, Naftogaz, the clean up of the tax system and the banking sector, the launch of a transparent and competitive procurement system, a public administration and civil service reform that brought fresh blood in the government, and the establishment of institutions that limit corruption opportunities.  

While government and parliament have worked on reforms under pressure from and with the assistance of the West and Ukraine’s vibrant and professional civil society, Poroshenko has also played his part. Ukraine has also been able to withstand Russian military aggression and build a strong professional army almost from scratch.

But on the other hand, Poroshenko is accused of having used his presidency to increase his assets and having allowed some oligarchs and people from his near circle to profit from access to public resources. The most recent scandal was a corruption scheme in the state defense conglomerate UkrOboronProm, in the wake of which Poroshenko was forced to fire his business partner and (now former) deputy head of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council Oleh Hladkovsky. These revelations have been damaging, whereas the reforms have for the most part not yet impacted people’s daily quality of life or household budgets. Due to Ukraine’s pluralistic media landscape, strong investigative journalism and civil society, Poroshenko has received a lot of negative coverage, which has further undermined his already low public support. It is typical for Ukrainian incumbents to be unpopular; they fall victim to excessive expectations and successive disappointments.

In this context, Zelenskiy has emerged as a ‘new face’, one able to accommodate various expectations and disappointments alike. According to the most recent poll by Group Rating, 58 percent of those who intend to vote in the run-off will vote for Zelenskiy, 22 percent will choose Poroshenko and 20 percent are undecided. It is very likely that Zelenskiy will become Ukraine’s next president.

From TV President to Real Candidate

Most Ukranians know Zelenskiy from his comedy outfit Kvartal 95, which later developed into a production studio by the same name. Its shows are broadcast by popular oligarch-owned channels Inter and 1+1, not only in Ukraine but also in other post-Soviet countries.

Zelenskiy comes from the industrial city Kryvyi Rih in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine and received his education as a lawyer. Yet he decided on a different career path, which proved to be a success: his comedy group earns an annual profit of around $10 million. 

Zelenskiy’s popularity has grown even further since 2015, when he became the star of the popular television series Servant of the People, where he plays the role of the President of Ukraine. In the series, Zelenskiy’s character is a high school history teacher who wins the presidential election after a viral video created by his pupils shows him ranting against government corruption in Ukraine. The feature film produced on the basis of the second season of the series became the most-watched movie in Ukraine in 2017, earning the equivalent of $800,000. 

Some analysts think that Servant of the People was meant to lay the groundwork for its star’s future presidential campaign. Indeed, the central theme of the series can be seen as a sort of “Ukrainian dream,” which was attractive to many people disappointed with the traditional political establishment.

Since 2017, when Zelenskiy and his team registered “Servant of the People” as a political party, there had been rumors that he might run for president. Already in 2017 Zelenskiy was polling at 4 percent; his support then grew to 8 percent toward the end of 2018 and skyrocketed after he announced on 1+1 TV New Year’s Eve show that he intended to run. By February 2019 he had already become the leader of public opinion polls, ahead of long-time politicians Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

Nevertheless, despite the responsibilities incumbent upon a leading presidential candidate, Zelenskiy continued to tour the country with his show and did not interrupt film shooting. Nor did he bother to give interviews and explain his political views to the people.

What Does Zelenskiy Stand For?

If you want to understand what Zelenskiy the politician is about, it will not suffice to read his political program. The character of his campaign, his public appearances, and communication with media are important to consider.

Zelenskiy’s program is a mixture of ideas, wishful thinking, and, occasionally, specific policies. On the whole it offers very few concrete solutions. If elected, Zelenskiy plans to introduce direct democracy in Ukraine by making it easier to organize referendums. The program contains measures meant to enhance the rule of law, such lifting immunity from the president and MPs, passing a law that would enable impeachment of the president, and depriving MPs who are absent from sessions or vote for several missing colleagues at once of their mandate. In the rather abstract section concerning defense and security, the program never mentions Russia, although it describes an ‘aggressor state’ occupying Ukrainian territory. Interestingly, Zelenskiy’s program suggests organizing a referendum on NATO accession, although recent amendments to the Ukrainian constitution enshrined Ukraine’s aspiration to join EU and NATO.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, Zelenskiy plans to reduce the role of the state in the market and boost the salaries of educational and medical workers, albeit on a very abstract level. Some of the concrete provisions, such as replacing the income tax with a tax on withdrawn capital and introducing an agricultural land market are also promoted by Poroshenko.

In general, Zelensky has so far been very vague about his policies and vision for the future. So it has been extremely difficult to tell what he stands for or fact-check his largely policy-free statements in the way the experts have for other candidates. He rarely mentions facts. It is perhaps unsurprising that, according to a poll conducted in March, only around 20 percent of Zelenskiy’s supporters know his or his program’s position on key issues such as the relationship with the EU, NATO, and Russia.

Zelenskiy and his team became more outspoken after the first round of elections. For instance, he publicly demanded that Poroshenko ensure the passage of certain laws or appoint people to certain offices, such as the National Agency on Corruption Prevention. Since those are responsibilities of the Parliament or the Cabinet of Ministers, it was clear that Zelenskiy does not fully understand the president’s role and powers. On other occasions he has called for measures that have already been implemented, such as the publication of Poroshenko’s assets, or introducing open, transparent bidding for public tenders. The latter already exists in the form of the online platform ProZorro, which has saved the state $2.76 billion for the state budget since its introduction. 

Moreover, he presented his team and experts on various issues just three days before the run-off vote, and did not name his candidates for important posts such as foreign minister and minister of defense.

It is worrying that Zelenskiy has avoided talking live to journalists and debating Poroshenko. Although Ukrainian legislation foresees the two candidates having a debate at 20.00 at the public broadcaster Suspilne on the Friday before the Sunday run-off vote, the comedian-turned-candidate has not played along. Zelenskiy announced he wanted debates on the stadium Olimpiski in downtown Kiev at 19.00 instead. Poroshenko accepted the challenge and agreed to take part in debates in both settings. He also asked the Central Election Committee to consider postponing debates at Suspilne for one hour in order to allow candidates to make it to the TV studio after the stadium. Poroshenko’s request was satisfied, and the TV debate was postponed to 21.00, but Zelenskiy nevertheless announced that he would not come to Suspilne. In short, Zelenskiy has so far been reluctant to discuss substance, but he has been active in making a show out of the electoral process.

What is Behind Zelenskiy’s Popularity?

Zelenskiy’s popular support seems to be down to several factors: a protest vote against the current political establishment, support for the fictional TV character Zelenskiy rather than the real man, and his use of targeted social media advertising rather than the traditional methods of TV and billboards. 

Interestingly, those supporters are very diverse and often expect mutually exclusive actions from their preferred president. Natalia Zubar, the Chair of the Maidan Monitoring Information Center, conducted an analysis of Zelenskiy’s promotional images and discovered that they differ depending on the targeted group. In other words, the same product is being sold in different packages. It is difficult to imagine what policies a candidate with such campaign and electoral base would pursue in reality.

It is therefore not surprising that Zelenskiy is polling ahead of Poroshenko with all age groups, not just young people, where he is strongest. He also leads in the East, South, and Center of Ukraine, while in the West of the country the chances of both candidates are equal. According to a study by the Razumkov Centre, 56 percent of Zelenskiy’s voters support integration with the EU and NATO, while 35 percent prefer neutrality. 59 percent support peace in Eastern Ukraine on Ukrainian terms, while 30 percent support peace at any price. A tough policy toward Russia is supported by 55 percent, while reestablishment of friendship with Russia by 32 percent. 47 percent support a market economy, while 41 percent prefer strengthening the role of the state in the economy. (The comparison with Poroshenko showed that his voters are much more homogeneous. For instance, 85 percent of his voters support integration with the EU and NATO and only 13 percent are against.) 

The Oligarch in the Background

While Zelenskiy is portrayed as a fighter against oligarchs in his TV show, in reality he is clearly linked to the Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, the owner of 1+1 TV, where the candidate’s show has appeared since 2012.  

According to an investigation led by Volodymyr Ariev, an MP from Petro Poroshenko’s bloc, the start of this TV cooperation coincided with large financial transactions between Privat Bank, Ukraine’s largest bank which was at that time owned by Kolomoisky, and Zelenskiy and other team members of Kvartal 95. From 2012 to 2016, $41 million was directed from the bank through a series of intermediary companies into the accounts of Zelensky and Co. companies. Ariev contends that Kolomoisky used Zelensky’s companies for money laundering.

There is more to this than just money. A recent investigation revealed that Andriy Bohdan, Kolomoisky’s main lawyer, is often seen at Zelenskiy’s headquarters and introduces him during important official meetings. Moreover, Zelenskiy was revealed to have traveled to Tel-Aviv, where Kolomoisky currently lives, at least five times since January 2019. Considering that Bohdan represents Kolomoisky’s interests in court, where the oligarch is demanding compensation from the Ukrainian state for nationalization of Privat Bank, such active involvement of Bohdan in Zelenskiy’s team raises troubling questions.

This linkage is important in the context of the confrontation between Poroshenko and Kolomoisky. The latter was forced to leave the post of the governor of Dnipropetrovsk region one year after Poroshenko appointed him in March 2014. Although Kolomoisky apparently played an instrumental role in suppressing the separatist insurgent movement that succeeded in neighboring Donetsk and Luhansk regions, he was deprived of control over the state-owned company Ukrnafta in early 2015, where he had misused his powers for years. The government then nationalized his bank, Privat Bank, at the end of 2016. Poroshenko supported this move, as large scale fraud had embezzled money from the bank, undermining its and the country’s financial stability. Assets that were proven to be linked to the Kolomoisky and his business partners were frozen. 

Since then Kolomoisky has lived in Switzerland and Israel, where he has citizenship; in Ukraine he might face prosecution. He allegedly wants to use Zelenskiy to regain his power. After the first round of elections, Kolomoisky announced that he would seek compensation of $2 billion from the state for the bank. Moreover, he said that he is going to return to Ukraine if Zelenskiy wins the elections. Zelensky, for his part, emphasizes that he has an exclusively business-related relationship with Kolomisky.

What’s next for Ukraine?

It’s important to keep the election in perspective: the parliamentary elections currently scheduled for October will probably be even more important for Ukraine, as that body’s makeup will have significant implications for the pace of reform in the country. Whoever the president is, he will have to work together with the legislature and the cabinet. The pressure from the West and Ukraine’s strong civil society  are other factors that will constrain the space for maneuver of the future president.

Still, Zelenskiy’s potential victory raises a lot of questions—and produces uncertainty. While some believe that his presidency might be an opportunity for Ukraine, there seem to be a lot of risks, from Zelenskiy’s lack of political experience, to the absence of information about whom he would appoint, to his manipulative campaign, which produces contradictory messages and images rather than a clear vision of public policies. Sunday will show what Ukrainians really think of him.