Volodymyr Zelensky: The showman whose next act may be taking the Ukrainian presidency

Famous actor and comedian inches towards an unexpected victory – but questions remain about real character and his backers

Oliver Carroll
Dnipro Arena, Ukraine
Wednesday 27 March 2019 19:39 GMT
Mr Zelensky performs with his comedy group ‘95th block’ in Kiev
Mr Zelensky performs with his comedy group ‘95th block’ in Kiev (AFP/Getty)

Ukraine is the kind of place where the bizarre rarely has the capacity to shock.

In a presidential campaign that pits a man trying to find a wife against another trying to escape a suspect criminal history, and another trying to dupe elderly voters, the idea of a candidate holding a non-rally rally might also seem almost normal.

Few of the 15,000 crowd who attended a “concert” by comedian Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine’s fourth-largest city on Monday evening were particularly spooked. For many of them, it was an unexpected and free social occasion – emboldened by spirits and Mr Zelensky’s familiar if primitive brand of feel-good ditties and mother-in-law jokes.

But for Mr Zelensky, 41, things have come a long way from such humour.

Up until a month ago, his surprise candidacy was considered a technical one: a way, perhaps, for his backers to get leverage on the two front runners, president Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

At that point, the popular comedian’s presidential ambitions seemed limited to his fictional lead role in Servant of the People, a long-running TV series depicting a secondary school teacher who accidentally becomes president.

But Mr Zelensky seems to be repeating that trajectory in real life. According to the latest poll figures, the performer has the backing of 32 per cent of those certain they will vote —nearly twice that for Mr Poroshenko (17 per cent) and Ms Tymoshenko, on 14 per cent.

According to veteran pollster Volodymyr Paniotto, director of the International Institute of Sociology, it is now almost certain that Mr Zelensky will make the second round, scheduled for 21 April, if none of the candidates receive 50 per cent of the first vote this Sunday.

Given the enormous negative ratings of the other candidates, who are running neck and neck, the showman is favourite to win that too.

“Zelensky is so far ahead of both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko that they will go through [to the second vote] even if his electorate largely fails to turn up, which is possible given the young demographic,” he says.

The performer’s appeal is largely built on solid name recognition and social media presence. Even before the election campaign began, he had 2.8 million subscribers on Instagram and half a million on Facebook.

But perhaps his most effective weapon is his ability to mask a political persona behind his happy-go-lucky screen identity.

At the Dnipro concert, it was impossible to distinguish where the showman ended and the presidential candidate began. He was the man of the people. He was a man who talked about children and “the future”. He was the man who sang chirpy songs with names such as “Life is Beautiful”. And the man who paused the show to reunite a little girl who had become separated from her grandad.

What he wasn’t was a man of any discernible political policy. “This is a concert, not a political rally, remember,” Mr Zelensky teased. “Ha ha ha.”

Only at the end of the 90-minute gig did candidate Zelensky briefly emerge. In a short monologue, which also avoided any mention of policy, he declared he was ready to lead Ukraine “out of the darkness”.

“We’ve lived the last 28 years in a thick, dark forest, where every once in a while someone comes along and says they will show you the light. They promise so much, but they just take us round and round the woods. Raise your eyes, people, and find the light.”

We’re fed up with the dinosaurs who have been with us for 15 years

Valya Vladimirova

The comedian’s charismatic manner clearly played well with his audience, who howled his name in delight.

Student Valya Vladimirova, 19, says people like her could identify with a man like Mr Zelensky, and predicted he would “sweep the youth vote”.

“We’re fed up with the dinosaurs who have been with us for 15 years,” she says.

Alisa Rosenko, 53, said she had heard about the free concert from a colleague at the sewing factory where she works. Originally from nearby Krivoi Rog, the same industrial town where Mr Zelensky spent his childhood, she said all her working-class friends were rooting from him.

“We want him to save us from the selfish pigs who run this country,” she says.

When The Independent called in on Mr Zelensky’s Kiev campaign headquarters, his chief strategist Dmitry Razumkov insisted the decision to dispense of clear political messaging in favour of such concerts was an “accident” rather than planning.

The concerts had already been scheduled, he insisted; the team had “limited funds” and, besides, he said, it was “not certain” that they would have got permission to hold rallies. But later, the strategist conceded it was the plan all along. They wanted “to do things differently” and that meant “avoiding a traditional political campaign”.

But some question how different the campaign really is.

Little, for example, is known about the true extent to the comedian’s political relationship with controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whose animosity towards Petro Poroshenko is well known. Mr Kolomoisky has rarely been seen in Ukraine since the forced nationalisation of PrivatBank, where he was the main shareholder, in 2016.

Mr Kolomoisky’s 1+1 TV channel has been the principle home for Mr Zelensky’s creative output over the last 15 years. And a look at the channel’s schedule leaves little secret of where its sympathies lie.

This week sees the timely premiere of the third season of Mr Zelensky’s Servant of the People. Then, on Saturday, which according to Ukrainian electoral law is a day of campaign silence, the channel will present a whole day of Zelensky-themed programmes. These will include an hour-long profile of Ronald Reagan, actor-turned-president, voiced by none other than Mr Zelensky.

To be honest, I’ve ceased understanding what it is you need to shock the Ukrainian electorate

 Volodymyr Paniotto

On Wednesday, Mr Poroshenko said he had filed a libel suit against Mr Kolomoisky and his channel. In a statement, he said he “had done so to protect Ukraine from the attacks of a fugitive oligarch who sits abroad and thinks that he can control the strings of Ukrainian puppets”.

The speculation about the influence of oligarchs does not seem to have had a major effect on Mr Zelensky’s chances, says Mr Paniotto.

“Ukrainians seem to accept politicians are connected with oligarchs,” he says.

“Many larger scandals have failed to have an impact too. To be honest, I’ve ceased understanding what it is you need to shock the Ukrainian electorate.”

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