Post-Soviet Ukraine has not been a placid place.
Its chaotic politics and sclerotic economy since independence in 1991 have resulted in enduring upheaval.
Among the country’s convulsions was 2004’s “Orange Revolution” protesting President Viktor Yanukovych, whose election was rigged. A re-vote led to a victory for Viktor Yushchenko, who soon suffered a diabolical dioxin poisoning, allegedly by pro-Russian operatives.
Yushchenko survived. But not politically. Yanukovych eventually became president in 2010, only to be ousted in the violent 2014 “Euromaidan Revolution” after he resisted Ukraine’s tilt toward the West. Just a month after the pro-Kremlin Yanukovych fled to Russia, and a month before the election of his replacement, President Petro Poroshenko, Russia annexed Crimea. And soon thereafter it aided pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine who sparked a conflict that has killed some 13,000 and displaced 2 million, along with shooting down a Malaysian airliner, killing 298.
Today, Ukraine — and East-West relations — remain volatile. So late last month, how did Ukrainians respond to these serious times?
They elected a comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, as the country’s next president.
But this wasn’t just any stand-up comic standing for election: In a particularly postmodern media moment, Ukraine’s president-elect starred as a teacher-turned-accidental president in a hit TV show called “Servant of the People,” which is the name of his political party.
And he just didn’t win, but beat Poroshenko in the runoff with 73% of the vote, the largest margin since democracy dawned on the former communist entity. What’s more, Zelenskiy defied divisions often endemic to the region: He’s a native Russian speaker, and Jewish, just like the prime minister, meaning Ukraine soon will be the only nation outside Israel to have Jewish heads of state and government.
Zelenskiy, of course, isn’t the first media figure to parlay celebrity into political office: U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump are just two of several worldwide examples. But he may be the first to stick to a literal script, by continuing production on his program, stating innocuous internet bromides and rarely engaging with opponents, let alone voters.
This stealth strategy protected the president-elect from exposing the fact that neither he nor his close associates are deeply steeped in policy or politics. Many voters seem to have projected presidential qualities on Zelenskiy based mostly, or even solely, on his TV character’s crusading anticorruption persona.
“That identified him with the issue which was most upsetting to voters,” said John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
Corruption, continued Herbst, “is systemic and not easy to fix,” but Zelenskiy has “the bully platform to push hard against this. It doesn’t guarantee victory because there are entrenched interests, but I think he’s got more of a fighting chance.”
Zelenskiy “has a completely different trajectory than anybody,” said Alina Polyakova, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. “He came out of the blue with no political experience” and at 41 years old “belongs to a generation that didn’t really come of age the same way someone like Poroshenko would have during the Soviet period.” And as for the Kremlin’s perception, he’s “somebody who doesn’t have such clear levers.”
Not that Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t trying to push them.
Just as he tested the West with an incursion into Georgia, the Crimean crisis and destabilization of Eastern Ukraine, Putin immediately provoked the president-elect and other Western leaders by offering Russian passports to Ukrainians in breakaway eastern regions.
“Passportization” was also used in Crimea and Georgia, and is “purely a humanitarian matter,” the consistently inhumane Putin said at a news conference.
Actually, it “shows Russia’s intention to further destabilize Ukraine and to exacerbate the conflict,” said the European Union in a statement. The State Department concurred, saying the passport gambit was “a serious obstacle to the implementation of the Minsk agreements,” the multilateral 2015 accord negotiated to resolve the conflict.
Zelenskiy, however, had the best retort.
“Ukrainians are free people in a free country,” the newly elected president posted on Facebook. “But what sets Ukraine apart is that here we have free speech, media and internet. And that is why we know what a Russian passport really means: the right to be arrested for peaceful protest; the right to have no free and fair elections; the right to forget that the inalienable human rights and freedoms even exist.”
In turn, Zelenskiy offered “Ukrainian citizenship to representatives of all peoples who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes. In the first place — the Russians, who today suffer probably the most.”
The comic turned more serious when he later indicated his willingness for talks while warning Russia not to speak “in the language of threats, military and economic pressure.” “From our side,” he added, “we are ready to discuss new conditions for the coexistence of Ukraine and Russia. With the understanding that true normalization will occur only after complete de-occupation. Both Donbass [Eastern Ukraine] and Crimea.”
Even though Putin clashed with Poroshenko, “from the Kremlin’s perspective they got exactly what they didn’t want in these elections,” said Polyakova.
This was “Putin’s first test for the president-elect,” Herbst said, adding that Zelenskiy “more than passed the test, and demonstrated to Putin that he may be a formidable figure in the information wars.”
More tests await. From Putin and international institutions like the International Monetary Fund requiring reform, as well as domestically in upcoming parliamentary elections and from powerful oligarchs, including one in Zelenskiy’s corner, Igor Kolomoisky, embroiled in a banking scandal.
It’s a lot for a novice — a novelty, really — who now must move beyond playing a president to being one.
But maybe there’s not such a big difference.
In 1980 a reporter asked then-candidate Reagan: “How can an actor run for president?”
“How can a president not be an actor?” Reagan responded.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.