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From zero to hero: How a mediocre actor became the president of Ukraine

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Ukraine Elects Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy to Be Next President
Ukraine Elects Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy to Be Next President

On the 21st of May Ukraine had the second tour of presidential elections. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, comedian and actor is going to be a President of one of the largest countries right next to the EU, a country, which struggles hard to become a part of united Europe.

The parallels between the successor to Poroshenko and the current occupant of the White House are striking. Neither has had significant prior experience with national politics prior to launching a bid for the supreme executive office of their respective countries. Giving credit where credit’s due, Trump has had extensive experience in managing large businesses. Zelenskiy has none.

Both evaded mandatory military service citing health issues. Each owes his political success to their country’s population being worn down by a costly, endless war, and many-sided economic problems compounded by growing corruption and crony capitalism.

“How could I, a simple guy from Kriviy Rih ever imagine, that one day I’ll be fighting for the president’s chair?”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Those were one of the first words a then-candidate for the President of Ukraine said during official debates before the second round of elections. 2 days later, he received congratulations from his opponent, at the time, current President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko.

Although official results of the election weren’t announced yet, according to National exit-poll, Zelenskiy has gained an ultimate victory with more than 73% of votes. So just how could a comedian with no political experience win a President’s chair? In order to find out, we looked into key factors that led to Zelenskiy’s election.

Who’s Mr. Zelenskiy?

Because he was never involved in politics before, we could call Volodymyr Zelenskiy a black sheep in the Ukrainian presidential election. A comedian, an actor, a producer and owner of one of the largest production studios in the country, Zelenskiy certainly is a high profile public figure in Ukrainian society. But, was this popularity enough to lead him to victory? Is it the sole reason?

Zelenskiy was born in 1978 in an industrial city of Kriviy Rih, in a Soviet middle-class family. His mother worked as an engineer, and father was a professor and Head of the Department of Information technologies at a local technical university. After school, Zelenskiy entered the Department of Law at the Kriviy Rih’s branch of a major university of economics in Kyiv. There, he first became a part of a KVN team, which resulted in a complete life-changing experience for him.

Ukraine: The studio "Quarter 95" in its humorous form reacted to rumors about the participation of the showman Vladimir Zelensky in the presidential election.
The studio “Quarter 95” in its humorous form reacted to rumors about the participation of the showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the presidential election.

KVN is a famous intellectual and humor show, which was invented in USSR and outlived it in most of the post-soviet states. It looks like kind of night show, where teams from different cities battle in humor scenes, created and written by themselves. After being invited to the team in his hometown, Zelenskiy quickly became not just an actor, but also the writer of screenplays and jokes.

Later, Zelenskiy has also created a production studio which has created a wide range of TV-shows and comedy films, distributed not only in Ukraine but also in other countries of ex-USSR. In 2012, his main product – night show “Vecherniy Kvartal” has returned to its original TV-Channel, “1+1” without changing the concept – it remained as the most important humor show with a solid part of political and social topics on Ukrainian national TV.

A YouTube Candidate

In 2016, Ukrainian YouTube users found a new series, which very soon became mega popular and started to attract millions of viewers. The show’s name is “The servant of the People” and it tells a story of a simple history teacher who suddenly and surprisingly becomes the President of Ukraine. He rules the country in a completely new way, fighting corruption, oligarchs and false reforms for the good of common people. Rings a socialist bell much?

This show was, obviously, written and filmed by the “Kvartal” studio, the one owned by Vladimir Zelenskiy. The most popular actors of “Vecherniy Kvartal” played certain roles in it as well, and Zelenskiy himself performed the main role of Vasiliy Goloborodko, the president. This was the start of Zelenskiy’s plot to overthrow Petro Poroshenko and subjugate the government.

Back in the world of real politics, both Trump and Zelenskiy received support from major Jewish economic players with close ties to Israel (Igor Kolomoysky in Ukraine and Sheldon Adelson in the United States), with Trump subsequently repaying the debt of gratitude by transferring the US embassy to Jerusalem, designating it as the capital of Israel, and recognizing the annexation of the Golan Heights.

For New Year’s Eve, at the time of traditional annual speech of the President, one of major Ukrainian TV channels suddenly canceled the broadcast of the speech and instead aired a video in which Zelenskiy wished people happy holidays. The TV channel in question was the “1+1” channel, the same one that had already aired 2 seasons of “The servant of the People” and had intended on broadcasting the third one.

The Social Media Influence

Way before the official announcement, some of the major companies dealing with statistics included Zelenskiy in their election surveys. Before the first round even begun on the 31st of March, Zelenskiy was already among the top-3 candidates. Unlike the others, he didn’t tour around the country to meet his potential voters, nor has he held long speeches on political issues or participate in political TV-shows.

Instead, he and his team published videos on YouTube, mostly filmed on his own smartphone, shared on other social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Zelenskiy also never explained his political program. In one of the most famous videos he made during the campaign, he asked people to list top-5 problems of Ukraine in order to help him create a program.

Ukraine: Volodymyr Zelenskiy taking a selfie with his smartphone.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy taking a selfie with his smartphone.

One of the main mottoes of his campaign was that he’d refresh Ukrainian political system with some new faces, despite the fact he’d announced his team only a few days before the second round, without even telling who’s going to take which position.

Other slogans he used seemed to align to some of the endless wishes of Ukrainian voters – to fight the corruption, to punish all the corrupted politicians, to decrease prices for utilities and increase salaries and social payments… To vote for Bernie Sanders, bring back socialism.. Okay, I exaggerated this last part, but you get the picture.

He also constantly referred to himself as a “simple guy”, “a man of the people and from the people”, and later during the official debates he stormed then-current President Poroshenko with tonnes of provocative questions which he described as “questions from the people.”

Conclusion

How big of an impact did the social media have on Zelenskiy’s campaign, and what does this mean in terms of the future of the political battlegrounds? Will all the future presidential campaigns take place on our TV screens, our smartphone displays and in our virtual reality headsets? Are the presidential elections of Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelenskiy becoming the new standard and is the social media heading that way too?

Given all of the above, while there are a few reason for optimism, one should also curb one’s expectations. Granted, the very fact of Zelensky embarrassing Poroshenko and the rest of the Ukrainian establishment is a cause for celebration. But since when does the will of the people affect Kiev’s policies, given the very direct influence Western governments have on shaping Ukrainian policies, both in the domestic and international realms? Just how easy has it become to bend the will of the people using social media tools?

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