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Will the Real Volodymyr Zelenskiy Now Stand Up

Does new information about the genesis of his TV show reveal that the favorite in Ukraine’s presidential election has a hitherto unsuspected genius for politics?

by Dmytro Babachanakh 10 April 2019

As Ukrainians get ready to vote in the second round of the presidential election on 21 April, more information about the favorite candidate is emerging. The details, however, only feed the whirlwind of questions about the man who appeared to be a clown, or a somewhat naive history teacher, but who is now emerging as a political strategist.


The biggest question is how long Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been planning to run for president, and how that affects the interpretations of his "Servant of the People" satirical television show – about an ordinary man turned president – which was first aired in 2015.


In a recent interview, Ihor Kolomoiskiy, a Ukrainian oligarch living in exile, stated that Zelenskiy revealed that he was planning to run for president at least as early as 2017. Kolomoiskiy’s channel has aired a number of Zelenskiy’s creative vehicles, and the business partnership between the two has been portrayed as a client-patron relationship by the media loyal to President Petro Poroshenko.


In the interview, on the Gordon news website, Kolomoiskiy added that although he was “not part of” the candidate’s decision-making process, the oligarch suspects that the idea to run for office came to Zelenskiy in 2015 when the first season of "Servant of the People" aired.


The final season of the show – filmed shortly before the 2019 election – was broadcast several days before the first round of the presidential election at the end of March. As usual, the show is strongly characterized by Zelenskiy’s deep understanding of Ukrainian issues, but the new material has a more aggressive, even an overtly campaigning, message.


Its details have been pored over, especially in light of the new information about how long ago Zelenskiy may have decided to participate in this election.


The story picks up where the last season left off. Prime Minister Dmitriy Surikov wins a rigged presidential election and sends Zelenskiy’s fictional counterpart, Vasyl Holoborodko, to jail. Back in real life, this plotline resonates strongly with Ukrainians concerned about the legitimacy of the first round of the election, and chimes with claims by Yulia Tymoshenko – who came in third – that Poroshenko rigged the election.


In the TV show, Surikov soon falls out with his shady business partners and, after being exposed by one of them – he is forced out of office due to corruption. What ensues is a series of seemingly different presidential administrations, ranging from a female candidate (resembling Tymoshenko), to a nationalist junta. Despite different agendas, none of these leaders retain power for long, and all of them depend on oligarchs, which leads to Ukraine collapsing and 28 different states emerging. Ultimately, Holoborodko returns to the presidency, reunites the country, and leads it to prosperity.


It is notable that the plot of the third season targets Zelenskiy’s key real-life opponent. Just like the oligarchs in the series, Poroshenko, the current president and one of the richest people in Ukraine, spreads misinformation and repeatedly buys the votes of the people in direct or indirect ways.


Ukrainian social networks are currently filled with false narratives about Zelenskiy that create a toxic online environment. The campaign official responsible for Zelenskiy’s YouTube presence recently accused Poroshenko of hiring shady political consultants who have flooded the media with confusing and negative messages. For example, various agenda-driven pundits advocating for the president have argued – apparently independently of one another, and of Poroshenko – that Zelenskiy is a drug addict, smearing him both online and on major TV channels. To prove their point, they say that Zelenskiy cannot speak straight for more than 15 seconds, citing one particular YouTube video by Zelenskiy, which is compiled of many short clips rather than the one long shot characteristic of Poroshenko’s campaign videos.


This third season is the last part of a trilogy, and it seems likely that Zelenskiy used it to strategically convey a message friendly to his candidacy. Assuming that Kolomoiskiy’s comments are accurate, Zelenskiy intended the show to be an integral part of his plan to run for the presidency.


The second season was aired at the beginning of 2017, and there was a pause of two years before the third season. It is striking that the third season only has three episodes – compared with 24 episodes in season two – and was released right before the election. Arguably, Zelenskiy used these two years to tailor his message, and timed the release of the third season strategically.


As noted above, the nuances of the plot show Zelenskiy’s deep understanding of Ukrainian politics. With its portrayal of dirty media campaigns and oligarchs affecting the election, it mirrors some of the real issues Ukraine has experienced between the first and the second election rounds.


Fortunately, the show hasn’t lost its humor. In one of the episodes, Poltavska Oblast (in central Ukraine) attempts to join Sweden (and the EU) by rewriting history. After Ukraine collapses into 28 regions, the oblast renames itself Swedish Volost, and the regional authorities retrospectively declare a defeat in the 1709 Battle of Poltava between Ukrainian Cossacks and the Swedish. This joke implies the willingness of citizens to escape Ukraine by any means possible.


Zelenskiy says his chief aspiration is for citizens to become “rich and decent Ukrainians,” but if his quest for high office succeeds, he will have to make use of his newly revealed talent for strategy to encourage people to stay in their home country.

Dmytro Babachanakh is a third-year student of philosophy and economics at Wesleyan University in the United States and a self-described supporter of Volodymyr Zelenskiy.


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