The Ukrainian presidential campaign has been nothing if not absurd. But the success of TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky shows that the electorate has had it with politicians. A trip through the country reveals the roots of his success.
Doping tests for politicians aren’t exactly standard, yet politics and sports really aren’t all that different from each other. Both are defined by competition in the public arena, by the spectacle of rivalry.
Ukraine would seem to be closer to realizing that truth than others. Petro Poroshenko, the country’s president and a candidate in the run-off that will be held on Sunday, took his second drug test within just a few days in preparation for a public debate with challenger Volodymyr Zelensky. The debate is to take place this Saturday in front of 70,000 spectators at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium — though most of the details are still unclear. If it does end up taking place, it will be an appropriate ending to what has been a truly bizarre campaign.
Foreign observers have watched in fascination as Ukraine tries to decide who will lead the country for the next four years. It has been an absurd spectacle, pitting the increasingly despairing incumbent against Zelensky, a TV comedian without political experience whose most important qualification for the job is the fact that he plays a fictitious president in a television series.
The drama has been entertaining to watch, but it is deadly serious. Tempers are flaring and the tone has become tense. There is much to indicate that Ukraine is on the eve of a new era and that a professional jester will soon become head of state even as the war against pro-Moscow separatists continues to fester in the country’s east. A man who, his opponents fear, could be taken to the cleaners by Russian President Vladimir Putin due to his inexperience. But the fact that he has become a candidate with a realistic shot at victory in the first place is the fault of the incumbent Poroshenko.
To understand the Zelensky phenomenon, it is helpful to travel through the country and talk to voters. Doing so makes it clear that Zelensky is popular in almost all parts of the country, despite the fact that Ukraine is traditionally divided into a western camp and an eastern camp when it comes to presidential elections. Zelensky has managed to break through this paradigm and unify the country — and has been able to do so because he means different things to different voters. The man is a kind of national Rorschach test in which everyone sees something else: an anti-corruption crusader or a peacemaker; a man of Moscow or an ally to the West; a guardian of the needy or a champion for the successful. There is only one thing that nobody believes him to be: a politician. And that’s why they like him.
Pryvillia in Donbass
The town of Pryvillia is home to around 7,000 residents, two mines and spoil heaps that preside over the countryside like pyramids. It has been a long time since voters here have cast ballots in a Ukrainian presidential election. The last time was back in 2010, when the majority threw their support behind Viktor Yanukovych, the man from the coal-mining region. When Yanukovych was toppled in 2014 and snap new elections were held, Pryvillia — along with much of the Donbass region — was no longer under Kiev’s control. Instead of a presidential election, there was a “referendum” on the independence of the “Luhansk People’s Republic.”
In June 2014, the Ukrainian army reconquered the town and today, the border to the separatist region runs around 50 kilometers to the south. But Kiev has not been able to reconquer hearts and minds in Pryvillia, a reality that became clear in the first round of the election. The openly pro-Russian candidate Yuriy Boyko won in the town, a man from Yanukovych’s old team. Just one week before the vote, he was received in Moscow by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, almost as though the candidate was being given the Russian seal of approval.
The 81-year-old Viktor Miroshnytshenko likewise voted for the pro-Russian candidate. He is sitting in front of a pigeon loft he built himself, the 80 birds inside cooing happily. Two of them are white as snow.
“I want peace,” Miroshnychenko says, explaining his vote. He speaks Ukrainian, but it is sprinkled with Russian words. One of Boyko’s greatest promises was that he would bring the war to an end — and for Miroshnychenko, war has been something of a theme in his life. As a child, he experienced the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union and the war turned him into an orphan. He then went to work in the mines as a boy, just like everyone else in the region. Seven decades later, war suddenly returned. And the blame, from Miroshnychenko’s perspective, lies solely with Poroshenko and the new leadership in Kiev — not with Yanukovych, not with the separatists and not with Moscow.
Two-thirds of the votes cast at his polling station went to pro-Russian candidates, with Zelensky only coming in third place. But in the run-off, most people here plan to vote for the comedian. He has said things about the war that, in their simplicity, were well received. For example, when he said people “just have to stop shooting.” He can certainly rely on Miroshnychenko’s vote: The pigeon breeder also enjoyed watching Zelensky’s TV series “Servant of the People,” in which he plays the president. Zelensky, he says, isn’t just a comedian. “The guy has a brain in his head!”
Petro Poroshenko, meanwhile, has taken to denouncing his opponent as a puppet of Moscow. His most recent campaign posters show the profiles of both Poroshenko and the Russian president, almost as if it wasn’t Zelensky on the April 21 ballot, but Vladimir Putin. Following widespread outrage, the posters have now been altered. But from the perspective of Pryvillia, Zelensky doesn’t seem particularly pro-Russian anyway, and the candidate has also said he supports NATO membership for Ukraine. But he does seem conciliatory.
And the people here hate Poroshenko. Not because he disappointed them — after all, they didn’t vote for him anyway — but because they never liked him. Plus, five years after the beginning of the war, the region’s economy is in disastrous shape and young people are leaving in droves. Indeed, it’s difficult to say who has it worse: the relatives living in the separatist region, where food prices are extremely high, or those on this side of the border, where electricity and gas prices have spiked through the roof. “Over there, salaries are at least paid on time,” says Viktor’s neighbor as she rakes her vegetable garden.
But very few people here dare to talk as openly about politics as Miroshnychenko, the man with the white peace doves. And many have doubts that Zelensky would really be able to change much as president. “Things won’t get any better, but at least we’d have something to laugh about,” they say.
Their concerns are well founded. Zelensky would not only have to win the presidential election, but also the parliamentary elections in fall if he wants to get much done. But he has no political party. The party “Servant of the People,” named after the TV series, exists only on paper. And the Ukrainian parliament has a fair degree of power. The result could ultimately be a stalemate between the president and the parliament, as has often been the case in Ukraine.
Hrabovets in Western Ukraine
A thousand kilometers west of Pryvillia, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, lies the village of Hrabovets. Church domes and the Stryi River glisten in the sun, while trucks rumble along the road bound for nearby Poland. Here, too, in the region of Lviv, Zelensky failed to come in first place in the first round of voting. That, though, is the only similarity between Ukraine’s east and west.
Hrabovets is a typical Galician village, the people here are both pious and patriotic. Residents greet each other on the streets by saying “Praise be to Jesus Christ,” and a flag from the nationalist partisan force UPA that once fought against the Red Army hangs in City Hall.
People like the citizens of Hrabovets are Poroshenko’s core supporters. His slogan “Army, Language, Faith” was primarily targeted at western Ukraine. It was a strategy that made sense. After all, the conflict with Russia has changed the profile of the Ukrainian electorate, with millions of voters in Crimea and eastern Donbass no longer taking part in Ukrainian elections. Plus, in the first round of voting, Poroshenko had to focus on defeating his primary competitor, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
But in Hrabovets, too, disappointment with Poroshenko is prevalent — despite the fact that the municipality could serve as a prime example for the progress the country has made since the Maidan revolution in 2014. Though it didn’t receive much attention from abroad, Ukraine has undergone a far-reaching municipal reform that decentralized powers and tax revenues, bringing them closer to the citizens themselves. It has been the most effective reform since the Maidan. The country is actually changing, even if it isn’t always apparent from outside, and places like Hrabovets can now make their own decisions on how to spend tax money.
“Correct, but difficult,” is how Bogdan Barabash describes the new system, adding that the extra responsibility is stressful. Barabash is a retired oil-industry engineer who is head of the Hrabovets municipality, which was created out of six villages as part of the reform. Now, they have a new football field and a museum for their local hero — a partisan fighter from the UPA — and a new outpatient clinic will soon be finished. The municipality managed to convince a courrier service to establish a distribution center in the area and they are currently thinking about what to do with the old military airport.
Barabash has an ambivalent relationship to Poroshenko. He is grateful to the president for what he has done, he says, but everything moves too slowly. “When Russia is your neighbor, you can’t dawdle with reforms,” he says. In the first round of voting, Barabash cast his ballot for a pro-Western former military man. Most voters in Hrabovets are likely to support Poroshenko in the run-off, but Barabash can’t, or won’t, say who he will be supporting. “The choice is a difficult one,” he says with a sigh.
That unexpected admission shows just how little success Poroshenko has had with his nationalist rhetoric, even here in the western part of the country. Barabash is a western Ukrainian patriot through and through: One of his ancestors built the Greek Catholic church here back when the region still belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He is a down-to-earth, mild-mannered local politician – not the kind of person to vote for a TV comedian on a whim. And yet, even he seems to be considering a vote for Zelensky. Poroshenko’s unspoken message — “either me or Putin” — is a message of fear, and people here are, in fact, afraid of Russia. But the fear cannot cover up the fact that Poroshenko has failed to live up to his promise. “Perhaps we are too fearful and conservative around here,” Barabash says pensively.
Odessa on the Black Sea
Odessa is like no other city in Ukraine. Residents would say it is like no other city in the world. Just the name itself is full of meaning for Ukrainians and Russians alike, conjuring up sea and sun — and the mafia. It sounds like Jewish cuisine and Jewish humor, indeed locals even refer to it as the “Capital of Humor” and hold a prank festival every April 1. Perhaps it is no accident that the comedian Zelensky received such a large share of the vote here in the first round: 41 percent.
Zelensky is especially well-liked among younger voters. “Those who are young are more open to risk,” says Alexei Chorny, a 34-year-old who organizes holiday camps for young people. Alexei is also considering a vote for Zelensky in the run-off, even though that admission came as a shock to his wife Halina. She grew up in a Ukrainian-speaking family, which is rather the exception in Odessa, and intends to cast her ballot for Poroshenko. It is the first time that the two have disagreed on politics. They fell in love with each other in 2004, during the Orange Revolution, and supported the anti-Yanukovych protests before both voting for Poroshenko in 2014. Both are disappointed with the president and with a corrupt system that pushes away politically engaged people like themselves.
But they argue about what should follow from that disappointment. “The most important thing now is to break apart the political system,” Alexei says. “The most important thing now is to avoid breaking apart the Ukrainian state,” says Halina.
Odessa was meant to be a vanguard in the battle against corruption. That, at least, was the plan when Poroshenko appointed former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Odessa Oblast. Because of the success he had had in Georgia, Saakashvili was seen as something of a miracle-worker when it came to fighting corruption. But he quickly gave up and now supports Zelensky against Poroshenko. Other anti-corruption activists have likewise thrown in their lot with the comedian.
It came as no surprise to Poroshenko’s campaign team that Zelensky was more popular among young voters: Zelensky is cool and funny while Poroshenko is stiff and pretentious. The surprise was that young voters actually bothered to cast their ballots at all — leading the Poroshenko campaign to rapidly change course. The president recently launched his own Telegram account on which he addresses followers with “Guys!”
According to public opinion surveys, Zelensky is far ahead on the eve of the run-off. Only a miracle can save Poroshenko — an incident on the Russian border, for example, or an immensely successful televised debate with Zelensky. That is also the reason why Poroshenko has undergone one drug test after the other. In order to delay the planned debate, Zelensky made one bizarre demand after the other: that the debate take place in the Olympic Stadium, and that the candidates be tested for drug use and alcohol abuse.
Poroshenko hopes he will be able to show up Zelensky in the debate, not least because Zelensky’s Ukrainian isn’t particularly good. In Kiev show business, that isn’t so important. But when it comes to Kiev politics, it is.
In his series “Servant of the People,” Zelensky plays the history teacher Vassily Goloborodko, who wakes up one morning as the president of Ukraine and, in his straightforward and ingenuous way, fights against a corrupt system. The third season was released in the week prior to the first round of voting. Viewers could watch Goloborodko as he fought against political opponents who looked like Zelensky’s real-life rivals Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.
It is the epitome of post-modern political role-playing: Zelensky shifts back and forth between the presidential candidate he plays on television and the presidential candidate he is in real life. If the TV series is a kind of blueprint for the country’s future, then Ukraine can expect turbulent times. The history-teacher-turned-president Goloborodko, after all, ultimately ends up in prison before being freed in the third season as part of a popular revolt so he can go on to reunite a country that has disintegrated into statelets.
That, in fact, might be the key to understanding Zelensky’s success: It is a protest vote, not just against the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, but against a broadly discredited elite.
It is a new Maidan, a popular revolt – and just like during the 2014 protests, it is impossible to predict what the result will be. This time, though, the revolt isn’t taking place on the street, but in the voting booth. In a free and fair election, largely undistorted by state intervention and with a result that is recognized by all involved. Because this, too, is clear: This election is being taken seriously by most citizens, whether in Pryvillia in the east or in Hrabovets in the west.
Ukrainian politics are, at the moment, more dramatic and interesting than is good for the country. But unlike their neighbors in Russia, at least Ukrainians can choose freely.