Ukraine: Can a comedian president defeat corruption?
The man who played the Ukrainian president on a hit sitcom will now take that office for real, said Radu Magdin in the Kyiv Post (Ukraine). Comic actor and political neophyte Volodymyr Zelenskiy won a landslide victory this week in the runoff against President Petro Poroshenko, taking more than 73 percent of the vote and a majority in nearly every region. A secular Jew and married father of two, Zelenskiy, 41, is living out the plot of his show Servant of the People, in which his teacher character becomes president after a video of him ranting against corruption in Ukraine goes viral. In his real-world victory speech, Zelenskiy acknowledged the improbability of his win, telling other post-Soviet countries: “Look at us. Anything is possible!” Now comes the hard part. During the campaign, Zelenskiy gave very little indication of how he would govern, preferring to remain a blank slate so he could appear all things to all people. “Managing the colossal expectations” of the electorate will be an enormous task.
Zelenskiy prevailed because his opponent was “a victim of his own success,” said Oleg Sharp in Vysokyi Zamok (Ukraine). Poroshenko, 53, managed to contain Kiev’s ongoing war with Moscow-backed militants in our country’s east, so most Ukrainians remain untouched by the conflict, “never realizing the depths of the abyss that once yawned before the country.” Still, Poroshenko did run on fear: He tried to convince voters that Zelenskiy was a front for oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV station that aired Servant of the People and lives in exile in Israel. Poroshenko also claimed the Russian-speaking comedian would deliver the country to Moscow either through duplicity or naïveté. “This is a bright candy wrapper,” Poroshenko said of Zelenskiy at their only debate. “There are Russians inside, and fugitive oligarchs.” But in the end, voters were fed up with Poroshenko’s own failure to rein in oligarchs and reform the justice system, and were willing to take a chance on the unknown.
Zelenskiy may be just the man to unite the country, said Pavel Lokshin in Die Welt (Germany). A bitter division exists in Ukraine between Russian and Ukrainian speakers, and Poroshenko furthered that split with a Russophobic campaign centered on Ukrainian ethnic identity. Zelenskiy, by contrast, campaigned both in his native Russian and in clumsy Ukrainian. He could forge “a new consensus,” and move Ukraine beyond its old split “between pro-European west and pro-Russian east.”
That’s a tall order, said Shaun Walker in The Guardian (U.K.). Zelenskiy has promised the same crackdown on corruption that his predecessor failed to deliver, yet he’ll have to work with “a potentially hostile parliament” at least until legislative elections in October. Zelenskiy faces many challenges—not least, how to deal with the experienced and powerful Russian President Vladimir Putin in negotiations. And when that happens, Zelenskiy won’t have “a team of scriptwriters to make sure he comes out on top.” ■