Since 1991, Ukraine has had five presidents who proved to be controversial and largely unpopular. Each of them managed to disillusion the impoverished Ukrainian population, not just with their hit-and-miss political and economic decisions but with their perpetual involvement in nasty political intrigues, corruption and playing to the tune of oligarchs or foreign powers. Ukraine’s outgoing president, Petro Poroshenko, is widely known as the “chocolate king” for his thriving chocolate brand, Roshen, and is often accused of misusing his status to advance his business projects.
Zelensky, on the other hand, a young, quick-witted, charismatic “outsider” who communicates with his electorate via the social media and on stage, is a breath of fresh air. Born in a Jewish family to a mathematician and an engineer in Ukraine’s industrial south-east, he kicked off his career in the entertainment industry performing in a popular televised comic student-led quiz show, commonly known in the post-Soviet countries as the KVN. The success of Zelensky’s KVN team led him to other projects on television and cinematography.
His latest, and by far the most famous project, is the TV series Servant of the People, in which a high school history teacher, Vasili Holoborod’ko (played by Zelensky), becomes Ukraine’s president thanks to the efforts of his students who secretly record his passionate outburst against the system and post it on social media. Zelensky’s character is an idealistic reformer who tries to change the old ways of government and wedges himself between the deeply corrupt political old guards and skimming oligarchs, the de-facto rulers of the country.
To Ukraine’s relatively young population (an average Ukrainian is about 40 years old), Zelensky was scratching the itch for reshaping Ukrainian politics and new mentality. Although little is known about his true political views and intentions, on the screen he portrays himself as a kind, honest, selfless person who is immune to bribes, nepotism and any kind of dodgy dealings with the oligarchs.
To what extent is Holoborod’ko similar to Zelensky remains to be seen. His real views and political objectives largely remain a mystery. The pre-election debates on April 19 revealed very little information about either candidate’s program, but it gave a tiny sneak peek into Zelensky’s views. His main argument was based on the premise that he, a political nobody, has come to politics to “break the system” and is a result of Poroshenko’s mistakes and promises.
Zelensky is no doubt a talented and highly charismatic personality, but for now, his election to presidency still feels like one huge practical joke, poorly timed in view of Ukraine’s difficult political and economic turmoil. But, then again, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Go Holoborod’ko, I mean, Zelensky!
Oksana King is a Ukrainian born, Melbourne-based language teacher, educator, researcher and writer.