This Comedy Star Wants to Be Ukraine’s Donald Trump

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If any country has good reason to be disappointed with its elite, it’s Ukraine. That’s why the anti-elite candidate, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, who has launched a populist campaign with Donald Trump-like flair, shouldn’t be written off in March’s presidential election.

Despite President Petro Poroshenko’s formidable effort to secure a second term on a nationalist platform of support for the Ukrainian language, the military, and a church independent from Moscow, the race is wide open.

Polls don’t give any single candidate even as much as 15 percent of the vote. Many people in Ukraine don’t trust these surveys anyway – as Brian Mefford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, noted recently, it is widely believed the results are often skewed according to who pays. 

This atmosphere of uncertainty and distrust is fertile ground for a populist effort, and Zelensky is nothing if not clever at pandering to his audience. A native of the gritty steel and mining city of Kryvyi Rih, he began his career on KVN, a comedy contest on Russian TV that was massively popular in the former Soviet Union. In the mid-2000s, he and his team, known as Kvartal 95, launched their own comedy show on Ukrainian TV. It blossomed into a production business making millions of dollars a year. Zelensky, however, continued touring with his comedy shows and acting in kitschy but almost always profitable movies. Everything he touched turned into gold. Ukrainian TV channels competed for him and his product, which has often made fun of politicians. 

One of Kvartal’s most successful TV series, “Servant of the People,” cast Zelensky in the role of a schoolteacher who becomes president of Ukraine after his anti-corruption rant goes viral on the internet. So it has long been rumored that he coveted the role in real life, too.

He played coy until New Year’s night. Just before midnight, when all Ukrainian TV channels traditionally air the president’s New Year’s address, Kvartal 95’s home, the 1+1 channel, ran Zelensky’s short speech announcing his candidacy. The bold move set off a wave of condemnation on social media, primarily from Poroshenko’s supporters who argued that the “clown” was devaluing the institution of the presidency.

Zelensky was also accused of being the puppet of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns 1+1 from de facto exile in Israel. There, Kolomoisky is waiting out attempts by the current Ukrainian government to hold him responsible for plundering Privatbank Commercial Bank PJSC – a bank nationalized in 2016 at a cost of more than $5 billion. (Kolomoisky’s lawyers, for their part, have denied the claims, saying they are politically motivated.)

Whether or not Kolomoisky is really behind Zelensky – both have denied it – the comedian knows how to give the people what they want. He has advertised for team members, setting out one condition only: candidates must have no political experience. He makes a point of never wearing a jacket. On his Facebook page, he has posted endearing videos of himself talking about his campaign and Ukraine’s future; in a calculated show of ineptitude, the videos are filmed with a vertically-oriented smartphone, so Facebook shows them with blurry margins.

In his most recent video, Zelensky explains he won’t write a manifesto like old-time politicians do – because they all sound the same and the promises are never kept. Instead, he has asked Ukrainians to tell him what five problems they believe to be the biggest for the country; then, he proposes to crowdsource the solutions, too.

Direct democracy is a recurring theme with Zelensky. In a December interview, he described his solution to the war in eastern Ukraine: He’d let voters have the final word on a compromise with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Any talk of a compromise with Russia is dangerous for a politician in today’s Ukraine. It’s more acceptable to talk of a military solution, even if the government isn’t really capable of one. Besides, Zelensky’s history with Russia is troubling for nationalists. Though he speaks fluent Ukrainian, he is a native Russian speaker; his movies and TV series did equally well in Ukraine and in Russia, where the company had a busy subsidiary. 

But then Zelensky isn’t a professional politician, and he can hardly be described as pro-Russian or inconsistent: After Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Zelensky harshly condemned the land grab, closed the Moscow subsidiary and refused to tour in Russia or emcee oligarchs’ parties as he’d done in the past.

Zelensky’s naive contention that he could hold his own in any negotiation, even one with Putin, echoes Trump’s belief that previous presidents just weren't as skilled at negotiation as he is. Asked in a December interview if he could do well in talks with Trump, too, Zelensky replied with a laugh, “Sure, we’re from the same business!”

When it comes to TV, Zelensky’s credentials beat those of the U.S. president: He isn’t just a celebrity, but a successful professional. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify him to lead a nation at war, in crisis and in the grip of a political elite tightly linked to a business oligarchy. The sources of his campaign funding remain unclear. And Ukrainians have fallen time and again for promises of an easy, crowdsourced solution to problems that are obvious to everyone; Zelensky, like most populists, cannot explain why he can succeed where everybody before him has failed.

But after more than two decades of being ruled by different permutations of the same post-Soviet elite – Poroshenko is part of it, too, despite coming to power after an anti-corruption revolution – voters haven’ warmed to professional governance or technocracy. That’s why the president isn’t doing anything of the kind, opting instead for a nationalist message. 

Given Zelensky’s media savvy and his appeal to a key Ukrainian trait – respect for society’s collective wisdom – he will be a formidable competitor both for the unpopular incumbent and for former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who leads in most polls. The comedian is coming second place in many surveys. In campaign that promises to be full of surprises, he could have the last laugh. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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