Ukraine: Zelenskiy, the mysteries of a presidential candidate comedian

As the ideal president of a successful television series, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy aims to adapt fiction to reality. At 41, he is now a favorite of the polls of the inter-two-round of the Ukrainian presidential election, after a campaign ...


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Volodymyr Zelenskiy makes the sign of victory after the results of the first round which sees him ahead of outgoing President Petro Poroshenko. REUTERS / Valentyn Ogirenko

As the ideal president of a successful television series, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy aims to adapt fiction to reality. At 41, he is now a favorite of polls between the two-rounds of the Ukrainian presidential election, after an unprecedented campaign. The man and his program nevertheless raise many questions.

" You know me well, I am a simple man. I do not fall into the detours of politics, and I keep my promises . " Through some entertaining videos and brief public interventions, the biography of Volodymyr Zelenskiy is intended to be obvious. Winner of the first round of the presidential election , he is credited with a large lead in the polls of the second round. The candidate presents himself as a progressive reformer, tolerant and close to the people. There would be nothing else to say. But if the actor is well known to the general public, the contours of the man and his program remain difficult to discern.

The outlines of his life are known. Born in Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city today in the center of Ukraine, in January 1978, Volodymyr Zelenskiy comes from a Jewish family. He does not say himself practicing. With his teacher father and his mother engineer, he spent 4 years of his childhood in Mongolia. At 16, he gets the opportunity to study in Israel, but his father prevents him. He is studying law in the newly independent Ukraine. He will not work, however, as a lawyer. It is his participation in the KVN, Russian acronym for the "clubs of funny and inventive people" of the Soviet era, which takes up all his time. Together with close friends, he founded the "Kvartal 95" (Quartier 95), which is set to become the most popular entertainment studio in Ukraine.

President of the Republic by accident ...

The anchoring of his work in the Soviet humorous tradition is one of the primary reasons for his popularity. The "Kvartal 95" brings together, among others, a "Liga Smikha" (League of Laughter), a skit contest that allows young comedians to emerge. Volodymyr Zelenskiy appears as the godfather. This is the hit series Slouga Naroda (The servant of the people) which gives it a political stature. He plays Vasyl Holoborodko, a professor of history who became President of the Republic by accident. Once at the helm of the state, he is fighting against corruption and oligarchic negligence that have paralyzed Ukraine since independence. He reforms without compromise and does not engage in any compromise. In a memorable scene, he begins to dream that he fires on deputies in the hemicycle with automatic guns.

" I'm not Vasyl Holoborodko, " defends Volodymyr Zelenskiy, drawing a clear line between reality and fiction. "But I share his principles and his values ." The candidate does not hesitate to refer to "Slouga Naroda" by his expressions and gestures. The third season was broadcast just days before the first round of voting on March 27. Three episodes dedicate the triumph of Vasyl Holoborodko, and the transformation of an impoverished, divided and corrupt Ukraine, into one of the richest states in Europe.

From there to think that Slouga Naroda is part of a political project concocted for a long time, it would be only a step. The oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy, owner of the TV channel 1 + 1 where the programs of "Kvartal 95" are broadcast at leisure, is seen by some as the inspiration of a political creature to dethrone his nemesis, the president Petro Poroshenko. According to the latter, Volodymyr Zelenskiy is also a " puppet " in the hands of the oligarch. Surveys have shown significant logistical support to the campaign. The actor, married and father of two children, strongly denies any connection with Ihor Kolomoiskiy.

" Volodymyr is not a man to be influenced, " says Oleksandr Vigliano, a member of his communications team. He refers to a scene from the early 2000s. Volodymyr Zelenskiy was then working on Inter, and stood up to the oligarch owner of the channel who wanted to buy him the rights of the "Kvartal 95". " Volodymyr is his own man, an accomplished businessman, who knows how to come up with a winning strategy ." The candidate puts it himself: " Being on the stage is less than 20% of my time. The rest is serious business management of Kvartal 95 ". Implied, a managerial experience that he will put at the service of the country.

Liberal or economic interventionist?

His success as a business leader attracts a young electorate , eager for a structural development of the country after 25 years lived as so many frustrations. Ukrainians are today the poorest of Europeans, in terms of GDP per capita. The state is cut off from the Crimean peninsula and bruised by the war in the East. Volodymyr Zelenskiy does not come from the political seraglio, and enjoys a "dégagisme" to the Ukrainian. He said he wants to restart negotiations with Vladimir Putin and accelerate the European integration of Ukraine through the establishment of a real state of law incorruptible.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy voting on 31 March 2019. REUTERS / Valentyn Ogirenko

His opponents, however, decry the vagueness of a program maintained by an elusive candidate. Is he a liberal or an economic interventionist? Which army commander will he be? The fact that Volodymyr Zelenskiy constantly juggles Ukrainian to Russian appeals to part of his electorate in this bilingual country. He also tells his detractors that he is not fluent in the national language. " Let it come to a debate to confront Petro Poroshenko, " one can read often on social networks, " so that it expresses itself freely, without a scriptwriter writing his script ." Filigree, the idea that the man would not size to become president, contrary to the image returned by the artist. A few days before the second round, the mystery remains intact.

" The main thing is that Volodymyr induces a radical renewal of political staff ," says Nikita Potourayev, consultant for the campaign. " He is ready to finish what the EuroMaidan revolution started in 2013-14. This time, not in the street and blood, but in the ballot box. He carries the values ​​of the revolution ". With all the unpredictability that entails.

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ref: rfi