Comedian as President Raises Serious Questions for Ukraine

(Bloomberg) -- If there’s one thing Volodymyr Zelenskiy seems to have learned from playing a fictional Ukrainian president on television, it’s that you shouldn’t make any firm commitments if you want to gain power for real.

The 41-year-old comic starred in stand-up routines, sketches and musical numbers while rival candidates in the country’s presidential election paced stages pledging things Ukrainians have long since stopped believing. Besides a promise to clean up one of Europe’s most corrupt nations, actual policies were all but absent during his campaign.

With polls showing life about to imitate art for Zelenskiy in this weekend’s run-off vote, what he would do as president remains hazy in a country on the geopolitical fault line between east and west and whose future is so critical to the world order.

Comedian as President Raises Serious Questions for Ukraine

Morgan Stanley called him “something of a mystery” for financial markets. Risk consultancy Eurasia Group said it was uncertain how he would approach the International Monetary Fund as well as economic and political reforms. But for many Ukrainians jaded by kleptocracy and hardship, it doesn’t matter, making Zelenskiy the latest wildcard in a volatile region.

“There was an opening for a new type of candidate from outside the existing political system and Zelenskiy has used this opportunity perfectly,” said Thomas Eymond‑Laritaz, managing director at public strategy firm Mercury who advised two previous Ukrainian governments. “While other candidates were debating ideas, Zelenskiy’s program remained extremely vague and his campaign focused on his personality as a new and untainted leader.”

Ukraine remains locked in a conflict with Russia-backed forces and reliant on billions of dollars of aid from the U.S. and Europe. After two revolutions, most Ukrainians say their country is on the wrong track. Zelenskiy has called his lack of political experience a “big fat plus.”

Unlike Italian comedian-turned-populist Beppe Grillo, Zelenskiy is more about the theatrical than the political, his razzmatazz deployed via TV, social media and in live shows. He now faces incumbent Petro Poroshenko on April 21 after gaining almost twice the proportion of votes in the first round.

“I don’t want to vote for old candidates,” said Artem Kozlenko, a 22-year-old waiter attending Zelenskiy’s show last month in the city of Brovary and who’s voting for the first time. “I want things to change. This is like a vote ‘against all.’ The last hope.”

Indeed, there have been broad assurances to end the war in the east, maintain Ukraine’s pro-European trajectory and press for the return of the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. Also, Zelenskiy doesn’t want to do anything that would torpedo cooperation with the IMF. He says referendums will decide key issues, and pledges to step down after one term to return to the entertainment business.

But specifics are hard to come by. Conversations with advisers helping Zelenskiy suggest he isn’t simply keeping his cards close to his chest – rather, he’s yet to determine exactly what he wants to do if he wins. The rapid expansion of his inner circle has raised more questions.

Comedian as President Raises Serious Questions for Ukraine

Zelenskiy has surrounded himself with reformists whose appetite for change saw them pushed out of the current administration. These are people like Aivaras Abromavicius and Oleksandr Danylyuk, former ministers for economy and finance. There’s talk of other pedigree names to help tackle corruption. 

Yet there are also suggestions that former officials from the team of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych – ousted by protesters in 2014 – are pushing to influence Zelenskiy’s agenda. Zelenskiy has denied that and promised to reveal his picks for five top positions before the runoff, though that looks unlikely to be fulfilled. 

He also has repeatedly denied political connections to exiled billionaire Ihor Kolomoiskyi, a vocal supporter whose TV channel airs Zelenskiy’s shows and who has been suing the central bank and government for nationalizing his Privatbank in 2016. A court in Kiev on Thursday ruled in favor of Kolomoiskyi, though there will be an appeal so it has no legal impact for now.

“I would like to see people who have good reputation, who either worked in state institutions or who are real activists, those able to fight against the corrupt system,” said Danylyuk, adding that he won’t participate otherwise. “A weak team would undermine the momentum that Zelenskiy has gathered. Such changes tend to also attract opportunists with questionable reputations. Those should be weeded out.” 

Meanwhile, Poroshenko has played on his opponent’s lack of experience and derided him as a puppet of Kolomoiskyi. He also poked fun at how Zelenskiy would fare when face to face with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has questioned his rival’s patriotism. While Zelenskiy is learning Ukrainian, like much of the population his first language is Russian.

Comedian as President Raises Serious Questions for Ukraine

Much of Zelenskiy’s entourage hails from his TV production company, 95 Kvartal. He started it with childhood friends after he finished a law degree at a local university and turned his attention full time to comedy. They’re also helping with his campaign, stepping into the murky world of Ukrainian politics, where past electoral strategists include President Donald Trump’s convicted former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Official declarations by Zelenskiy show 2017 income exceeding 7 million hryvnia ($260,000) as well as property including several Kiev apartments, luxury watches and Land Rover and Mercedes cars.

Ivan Bakanov, a lawyer who lived in the same housing block as Zelenskiy as the pair grew up in the industrial hub of Kryvyi Rih, is heading his campaign. He describes his childhood friend as a natural leader and expert negotiator who promotes anyone he considers talented.

“He knows how to unite people,” Bakanov said. “He trusts people, and that’s both his strength and his weakness.”

Should he prevail, it will be also down to comic timing and being media savvy. In Zelenskiy’s hit program “Servant of the People,” one of only a handful of Ukrainian shows to make it to Netflix, he plays a schoolteacher thrust into the presidency after a video of him railing against corruption goes viral.

New episodes were strategically released the week of voting on March 31. The day before, during the campaign blackout, re-runs of some of his other shows were aired back-to-back. He’s also capitalized on his showmanship, officially confirming his run just minutes before Poroshenko’s annual New Year’s Eve address to the nation.

And with corruption endemic since communism began to crumble three decades ago, most Ukrainians would be happy with a leader who could make inroads. As Zelenskiy quipped late last year: “Is it possible to be president and not steal? That’s a rhetorical question. No one’s tried yet.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.