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Showbiz vs Reality: comedian runs for Ukrainian presidency, and he’s in the top three

Volodymyr Zelenskyi starring in the TV series the Servant of the People. Photo:
Edited by: Alya Shandra

Politics in Ukraine can at times compete with show-business in Ukraine in terms of entertainment value. Now, when comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced he will run for president in March 2019, this value promises to rise even more. Underestimating Zelenskyy’s chances would be short-sighted. At least because after the presidential election, parliamentary elections will follow. So what is his political stance? How does he see the solution for Ukraine’s main problem, the war with Russia? But first, who is he and what is his background?

A few minutes are left before midnight – the New Year is coming. Ukrainian national channels, including commercial ones, broadcast the New Year statement of the president. Following the Soviet tradition, the new year comes to Ukraine just after the president’s speech on TV. But for the audience of 1+1, a channel owned by an oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi, it didn’t happened so this year. Instead of the current president Petro Poroshenko, they saw the statement of comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He announced that he will run for president, ending a chain of rumours stipulating whether he will dare to enter the campaign.

The news sparked discussions in Ukraine on whether the channel and Zelenskyy had a right to do this and whether “a clown” can run for the chair of president. In spite of criticism, his ratings say that he can. But is he an independent and real politician?

So far, Zelenskyy is either in second or third place, either after Yuliya Tymoshenko or after her and incumbent President Poroshenko, depending on the pollster.

His relatively high ratings underline two trends – local and global ones. The local one is that Ukrainians are disappointed in current politicians and tend to place their hopes on a messiah who would save Ukraine. Or, in this case, “break the system.” The global trend is that virtual life knocks on our doors, corrupting or transforming reality. And here Ukraine is not alone – look at the US. How much did the showbiz past of Donald Trump influence the decision of his voters?

The Waldo Moment, an episode of British science fiction anthology series Black Mirror, describes the situation best. It tells the story of a failed comedian who voices over the blue cartoon bear Waldo. The bear interviewed different politicians in an offensive manner. Once, the show’s producer decided that Waldo should run for the chair of the town’s MP. Offending politicians helped the bear get public support. However, when the comedian finally has to act on behalf of himself, not his cartoon hero, he fails.

The situation with Zelenskyy is different and similar at the same time. It’s different because Zelenskyy is running for the chair of president of a whole country, not a town. Also, he is not a failed comedian, but a successful businessman and showman. But it’s similar because he is not the hero he plays in the TV series “Servant of the People.” The series tells about an ordinary teacher, Vasyl Holoborodko, who accidentally managed to win a presidential campaign and, due to his honesty, breaks the system. But who is Zelenskyy, if he is not Holoborodko?

Seizing the comedy Olymp

A screenshot from the new year statement of Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy was born in Kryvyi Rih, a city in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, in a family of a teacher and a mathematician. He started his career as a comedian there, forming his team of actors. The team became a successful participant of  KVN, a comedy sketches championship for post-Soviet countries. The main games took place in Moscow. Zelenskyy’s team was regularly among the leaders until a conflict with the managers of the championship. Afterwards, he organized Kvartal 95, his own studio which produced comedy content. For several years, the studio cooperated with the TV channel Inter, considered to be the most popular channel of the country at that time. Zelenskyy even became its general producer, but misunderstandings with the management made him switch channels. Since 2012, he works with Kolomoiskyi’s 1+1.

The jokes of Kvartal 95 are highly politicized and usually go in line with the current political events. They give people what they want and poke fun at incumbent President Poroshenko, the most popular candidate to date Yuliya Tymoshenko, and other key political figures of Ukraine. Also, Kvartal 95 regularly presents their comedy shows at the concerts across Ukraine.

Additionally, Kvartal 95 produced about a dozen full-length comedies. The majority of them were made in active collaboration with Russia and aimed at post-Soviet countries.

In his recent interview, Zelenskyy said that they started the last work with Russian colleagues in 2012. It was to be broadcast in 2014 but was not.

“Some people appeared in Moscow with posters saying that I am a fascist-banderite and that I feed those bastards who kill peaceful people in Donetsk. We were one of the few companies with a subsidiary in Russia – a company producing commercial films and TV series. It skyrocketed after the success of the 2008 full-length film, we had an office in Moscow – until 2014,” said Zelenskyy.

That is how his colleague Olena Kravets, one of Kvartal 95’s main actresses, described Zelenskyy’s managing skills.

“Zelenskyy has a great talent – to remain creative, as an artist and an author, and to manage a big business. I wouldn’t be afraid to call it even an empire. He balances between creativity and business.”

Yuriy Romanenko, a political expert and a co-founder of Ukraine’s Institute for the Future also draws attention to managing and creative skills of Zelenskyy, praising the fact that the Servant of the People is the only Ukrainian product which you can find at the American media services provider Netflix, which spends billions of dollars a year on its products.

What is so catching about the Servant of the People

Ukrainian streets are full of billboards saying: “The president is the Servant of the People.” The premiere of the third season of the series is expected in March 2019. It turned out that the advertisement for the series slowly became a presidential campaign. Photo:

About 20 million Ukrainian viewers watched the first season of the Servant of the People. Probably, it gained so much popularity with Ukrainians because it touches upon extremely painful topics – the lack of money for everyday life, low living standards, and eternally lying and stealing politicians. Holoborodko, the hero played by Zelenskyy becomes the president who deals with the modern challenges that Ukraine faces. The topics in it are real, but the facts are not.

Ihor Hrabovych, an author of the Ukrainian media watchdog Detektor Media, stresses that all the creative products with the participation of Zelenskyy only remind about reality, but in fact are not realistic.

“The main issue lies in the plasticity of reality, which can be changed in any way, and the position of one honest, incorruptible, principled person [the hero Holoborodko] who can implement these changes. It turns that these are the only things needed for political activities. But everything there does not correspond to Ukrainian political reality. […] The strangest things there are the ‘additional conditions’ of providing an IMF loan. Like – extraction of shale gas, a fifty percent reduction in agricultural production and a nuclear waste storage facility in the Chernobyl zone […]. What are these wild fantasies? Where do they come from?”

Nevertheless, the hero of the series finds the needed solutions without losing face.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian streets are full of billboards saying “The president is the servant of the people.” The premiere of the third season of the series is expected in March 2019. It turned that the advertisement for the series slowly became a presidential campaign. As well as all the creative products of Kvartal 95 with Zelenskyy’s participation.

“If Zelenskyy became a candidate in the US, the new ‘Servant of the People’ season should have been canceled. As well as all the programs of Kvartal, including the old ones with Zelenskyy’s participation, and the films with his participation. It is related to the American standard of equal opportunities,” said Taras Shevchenko, co-founder of the coalition of NGOs Reanimation Package of Reforms.

Show me your channel and I’ll tell you who your oligarch is

Ihor Kolomoiskyi. Photo:

TV channels still have a huge influence on Ukrainians. That is why local oligarchs put so many efforts into maintaining a media. In the rating of Ukraine’s channels, 1+1 is in the top three. Its news content is usually emotional and patriotic. The channel also broadcasts such popular shows as “The Voice” and “Dance with the Stars.”

The channel 1+1 is the main asset of oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi. The oligarch is perceived as pro-Ukrainian. In 2014, when Russian aggression had just started, Kolomoiskyi was considered crucial to preventing the separatist movements from overtaking Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. From 2014 till 2015, he served as the governor of the oblast. Kolomoiskyi resigned after the conflict around one of his main assets – the oil-extracting company Ukrnafta. The parliament deprived Kolomoiskyi of control over it. It was the start of Poroshenko’s policy of de-oligarchization, the only target of which was Kolomoiskyi. The next step of it was the nationalization of another one of Kolomoiskyi’s key assets – Privatbank, the largest bank in Ukraine. It is still a question what Kolomoiskyi managed to bargain during that deal, but the president’s actions towards him were in any case hugely offensive.

Since the rumors of Zelenskyy’s intention to enter the presidential campaign appeared in the start of 2018, experts connected the comedian to Kolomoiskyi. Before announcing the news, Zelenskyy kept the intrigue for about a year. The experts assumed that in fact, this was Kolomoiskyi bargaining with Poroshenko.

Both Zelenskyy and Kolomoiskyi deny any political connection. Zelenskyy commented on the rumors during a concert a month and a half before New Year’s Eve. He joked that everyone is so sure that Kolomoiskyi will sponsor his campaign, but if people knew Kolomoiskyi well they would also know that he never gives money knowing that he will not return it.

Kolomoiskyi, in his turn, said that Kvartal 95 creates projects and sells it to 1+1 without editing rights: “They do what they want; we don’t control them”.

However, at the channel, the figure of Zelenskyy goes far beyond the Kvartal 95 products.  Detektor Media analyzed the newscasts of 1+1 and concluded that Zelenskyy was often artificially brought to the agenda. In particular, the November monitoring said that since October the channel broadcast six questionable materials (standards-wise) regarding Zelenskyy’s ratings. They stressed Zelenskyy’s position in the presidential ratings.

The audience and the voters

Tymoshenko Outruns Poroshenko, Zelenskyy Goes to 3rd Place, according to the survey, conducted by the Centre for Applied Studies. Photo:

According to the last opinion polls, Zelenskyy is second after Batkivshchyna party leader Yuliya Tymoshenko, or third after her and the current president Poroshenko. Some experts tend to dismiss Zelenskyy’s chances, as his main electorate are disorganized young people from south-eastern Ukraine: when it comes to elections, they simply will not vote. But is it really so?

Valeriy Kucheruk, head of Hryhoriy Skovoroda Analytical Group and a political consultant, has doubts. He says there is a systematic mistake in describing Zelenskyy’s potential voters.

“One should not confuse a KVN team from  the 1990s and a serious TV business of the 2000s and 2010s. Zelenskyy’s potential voters are people over 45-50 years, mostly women, mostly patriotic, but without extremes to the right side of the political spectrum. People who still remember the Soviet Union (and mostly their youth in it), they mostly supported Euromaidan and its values (but not actively), have a request to establish social justice and are critical towards the current situation in the country.”

Zelenskyy’s supporters are dependent on TV and are not familiar with its manipulative technologies, the expert says. The portrait of such a voter is similar to the audience of 1+1.

“Zelenskyy’s participation in elections and this channel’s active support for him should alert the technologists of ‘patriotic’ candidates, because he would take away the ‘centrists patriotic votes.’ These voices may take away someone’s chance to enter the second round and win in it,” concludes the expert.

What is his political stance?

A few days before the new year, Zelenskyy gave a big interview to Dmytro Hordon, a journalist and a founder of the media Hordon. It touched upon Zelenskyy’s personal life, career, politics, and his possible actions in case he becomes president.

In it, Zelenskyy mentioned that Poroshenko once suggested him a place in his party before the parliamentary elections of 2014. According to the comedian, he put one condition before the president – to give him powers to create a team.

“After a few years, when I see that I can do that, I’ll come to you by myself and ask to join your party,” said Zelenskyy, adding that the president answered that things don’t work this way. So the comedian refused.

In December 2017, the party Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People) was officially registered. Zelenskyy explained that it was done to prevent other people from using the name of the brand. A year later, he told that the party will be campaigning during the parliamentary elections.

Vitaliy Kulyk, director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies states that the allocation of franchises of the Servant of the People party in the regions shows that Zelenskyy’s team will consist not of “new faces” and “fighters with the system,” but of the old corrupts.

“Do you want to see how Zelenskyy’s faction will look like in the future? Take a look at the [parliamentary] group Vidrodzhennia and Kolomoiskyi’s part of Narodnyi Front [the party of the ex-prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk].”

In the interview, Hordon also asked Zelenskyy about his possible policy towards Russia and resolution of the situation in Donbas. The comedian answered in a manner in which Ukrainian populists used to answer.

Zelenskyy: I would put people’s lives in the first place: ‘This is our aim – to protect the people’. So I refuse any option like going there with the army.

Hordon: Should we build the economy?

Zelenskyy: First, yes. Second, we would have to talk. Whether we want it or not, we should go past ourselves. I am ready to deal even with the devil so that nobody dies. We need to make the first step – to stop shooting and to develop our country.

And here is his answer to the question on whether Ukraine needs to enter the EU and NATO.

“I never go to visit someone if I am not invited…It would be cool to enter it [the EU] and if it was possible, then I, as a smart person… But I would not offend others, they are also not stupid. I have a question regarding NATO. What is this? Troops which will defend us from aggressors?…If if will be needed – Ok, then I will negotiate with NATO. However, they have such conditions… We have a war on our territory, this prevents us from entering the alliance.”

There was nothing specific in his words regarding the IMF loans and other political aspects. But do Zelenskyy’s potential voters want to hear anything specific? The next three months prior to elections is high time for the sweet populism in which Zelenskyy, with his humor, can excel.
Edited by: Alya Shandra
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