It wasn’t supposed to be a surprising election. Everyone expected a hard-fought presidential contest between two seasoned veterans of Ukrainian political battles: incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

But then on New Year’s Eve, a third strong candidate threw his hat into the ring: popular comedian Volodymyr Zelensky.

In his famous television series, Servant of the People, Zelensky plays an ideal Ukrainian president: an outsider resistant to corruption. And Zelensky’s Vecherniy Kvartal (Evening Block) comedy show, in which he has mocked Ukraine’s top politicians for years, casts him in the image of an anti-establishment candidate.

Now, as he likely attempts to court Ukraine’s Russian-speaking southeast, Zelensky may prove a thorn in the side of everyone: Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, and even the Kremlin.

With no prior political experience, Zelensky began to rapidly gain popularity in Ukrainian public opinion polls in the second half of 2018. Finally, by December, he captured second place—still behind Tymoshenko, but already ahead of Poroshenko—without even announcing his candidacy. 

There are two general explanations for Zelensky’s popularity. The first is that the global trend toward anti-establishment leaders has finally reached Ukraine. The public is tired of old elites and endorses populists and other “friends of the people.” Thus, the United States elected the eccentric Donald Trump, comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement won the last parliamentary election in Italy, and satirist Marjan Šarec became prime minister of Slovenia.

The second explanation presents the Zelensky phenomenon as a political ploy by one of Ukraine’s true masters: billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, whose goal is to throw off the leading candidates. According to this logic, Zelensky is a fake candidate under Kolomoisky’s control.

The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution has failed to bring fundamentally new national leaders to power, and the public has grown tired of the post-Maidan elite and its endless corruption. As a result, Ukrainians are supporting a man with no political past—effectively, the “against all” candidate.

Modern Ukrainian democracy has a history of populism. For many years, the city of Kyiv was managed by banker Leonid Chernovetsky, whose Protestant preacher-like manners and blatant buffoonery won him several mayoral elections, despite numerous accusations of corruption. Oleh Lyashko, who leads the Radical Party, secured a seat in the Ukrainian parliament with demagogic speeches and unprincipled behavior. In keeping with this tradition, Zelensky is painstakingly cultivating the image of the “guy next door.”

Kolomoisky must be pleased with the comedian’s rising political star. Zelensky’s high popularity rating undermines Poroshenko’s position and makes Tymoshenko more amenable to compromise. It also brings uncertainty to the ongoing election campaign, worrying the main candidates and potentially causing them to make mistakes.

One can only praise Kolomoisky’s wit. Instead of the traditional presidential New Year’s greeting, the oligarch’s 1+1 television channel broadcast Zelensky’s announcement. Poroshenko pulled the same stunt on December 31, 2004, when his Channel 5 aired presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s greeting instead of incumbent Leonid Kuchma’s.

In actuality, Zelensky likely has enough resources to independently run his campaign, but his contracts with Kolomoisky’s television channel place him in a vulnerable position. Zelensky is hardly the oligarch’s obedient puppet. But should his actions go against his patron’s wishes, Kolomoisky could make the new candidate’s life much more difficult.

Despite that risk, the key question now is whether Zelensky’s popularity will translate into real election results. The outcome will depend on his campaign. At the moment, he lacks a stable base of support and a clear program.

Zelensky owes his sensational ratings to his acting skills rather than his political dexterity. But even his artistic talent has at times failed him: during a recent conversation with journalists, Zelensky already managed to display the typical aggression of a post-Soviet politician, hardly suitable for a “new leader.”

At the same time, unlike traditional Ukrainian politicians, Zelensky is running an interactive campaign, seeking to attract voters with the help of social networks. Meanwhile, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are rolling out familiar campaigns reliant on administrative resources. Zelensky’s approach may succeed if the active segment of society agrees to cooperate with him and believes that the comedian candidate is no joke.

Zelensky’s political statements suggest he is carefully testing the waters beyond obvious issues. And it appears that besides occupying the “new leader” niche, he will also try to present himself as the candidate of the Russian-speaking southeast.

Zelensky’s background has prepared him for this role quite well. He hails from the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in the eastern Dnipro region. Programs produced by his Kvartal 95 studio are generally presented in Russian. And, until 2014, exporting comedy shows to Russia brought the studio a significant share of its profits. (More recently, Ukrainian journalists discovered that Zelensky still owned stakes in the Russian movie industry, which drew some ire.)

Zelensky has been attacked by nationalists many times for being an accessory to “Moscow’s cultural occupation” and for caricaturing Ukrainians. And despite his support for Ukraine’s new regime, after 2014 Zelensky spoke out against severing cultural ties with Russia and infringing on the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. In a recent long interview, Zelensky paid particular attention to the issue of the Donbas war, claiming that he is ready for direct negotiations with Russia on the matter and to hold a popular referendum on the negotiations’ results. This might win him some sympathy with voters from the southeast, who are tired of Poroshenko’s belligerent rhetoric.

Zelensky’s statements on rethinking cooperation with the International Monetary Fund and his skepticism about European integration (“I’m not used to crashing a party to which I wasn’t invited”) further amplify his southeastern slant. Polls suggest this will hardly attract voters from the Western regions of Ukraine. Therefore, it is only logical that Zelensky will focus on Russian-speaking Ukraine, which sees him as one of its own.

With the Party of Regions’ collapse after Maidan and the breakup of the Opposition Bloc party in the last months, the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine lack political representation. This gives Zelensky a strong shot at attracting southeastern voters who support neither pre-revolution revanchists nor pro-Maidan candidates. And strong presidential election results may later translate into a successful parliamentary campaign for Zelensky’s political party.

Research by the respected Rating pollster in November and December of 2018 confirms that Zelensky can potentially become the candidate of Russian-speaking Ukraine. In a hypothetical second-round matchup between him and Tymoshenko, the country would again be split along the traditional west versus southeast fault line. The Russian-speaking regions would clearly pick the showman, leading to a hair-thin margin between the candidates.

Both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko would much prefer a former Party of Regions member as the second-round opponent. This would allow them to rally voters against a comeback of the “criminal regime.” With his blurred populist platform, Zelensky appears a far less convenient adversary.

Zelensky also puts Moscow in a difficult position. He encroaches on the territory of Yuri Boiko, a protégé of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s associate Viktor Medvedchuk. This undermines the entire premise of Russia’s propaganda: that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking southeast is struggling against the “anti-Russian Kyiv junta.” At the same time, the more popular Zelensky advances a pacifist agenda vis-a-vis the territories occupied by Moscow. That benefits Russia.

Zelensky’s success in the southeast testifies to the bankruptcy of the traditional Russia-friendly camp and to the former Party of Regions members’ inability to create a functional alternative to the government in Kyiv. As a result, they are now joining the anti-Zelensky campaign. For instance, political analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky, who is close to Medvedchuk, writes that Zelensky is dependent on a “very experienced manipulator” (i.e., Kolomoisky). 

In the conspiratorial mindset of the Russian leaders, this will certainly outweigh all of Zelensky’s statements about protecting the Russian language. The Kremlin will again support its safe, albeit unpopular, candidate, ignoring the true political reality in Ukraine. 

  • Konstantin Skorkin