Ukraine Election: Comedian Dismissed By President Is Favored To Get Last Laugh

KRYVYI RIH, Ukraine — As a university student in Kryvyi Rih, a gritty industrial city in eastern Ukraine, the comedian who is now the strong favorite to win Ukraine’s presidential election showed an early grasp of what it takes to succeed when politics merge with entertainment: a flair for grabbing attention and scripting the narrative without getting tripped up by details.

The popularity of Volodymyr Zelensky, seen in a poster in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, has stunned the country’s establishment.

Volodomyr Zelensky, the 41-year-old comedian and political novice whose runaway popularity has stunned Ukraine’s establishment, was so adept at gauging and shaping his classmates’ mood, recalled his former constitutional law professor, Ivan Kopaihora, that he romped to victory in a mock presidential election held as part of his university coursework.

Mr. Zelensky, a nonpracticing Jew, called his campus party “Clean Ukraine,” foreshadowing what, more than two decades later, would be the main theme of his current campaign to defeat Ukraine’s corruption-tainted president, Petro O. Poroshenko, in Sunday’s second and decisive round of voting.

A few far-right nationalists have tried, in vain, to make an issue of the fact that Mr. Zelensky is Jewish.

But the near total silence on his Jewish background has demolished a favorite trope of Russian propaganda — that Ukraine is awash with neo-Nazis intent on creating a Slavic version of the Third Reich.

It also demonstrates how much Ukraine has shed its long history of deep anti-Semitism and pogroms, and set itself apart from its western neighbors, particularly Hungary and Poland, where anti-Semitism is on the rise.

At a debate with Mr. Poroshenko on Friday evening in Kiev, the capital, before more than 20,000 people in a sports stadium, Mr. Zelensky hammered away at the incumbent for tolerating and benefiting from corruption.

“How did it happen that Ukraine is the poorest state with the richest president in history? How are you sleeping at night?” the comedian asked.

“I am a simple person who has come to break this system.”

Dismissing Mr. Zelensky as a “bright candy wrapper,” Mr. Poroshenko repeated his favorite campaign theme: that the comedian is too inexperienced to stand up to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, who seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and sent spies and soldiers to foment unrest in the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country.

“An actor cannot fight the aggressor,” Mr. Poroshenko said.

“The price that will be paid by millions of Ukrainians may be very high.”

Mr. Poroshenko’s supporters, separated Mr. Zelensky’s by police and metals barriers across the middle of the field, jeered loudly whenever Mr. Zelensky switched from Ukrainian to Russian, which he speaks more fluently.

This ability to convince and connect with people made Mr. Zelensky a natural for the stage, television and now politics, said Alina Fialka-Smal, a friend from university days.

“He was always a whole pile of different characters,” she said.

But the character that stuck — and the one that many Ukrainians now look to to clean up their graft-addled country — is that of Vasyl Holoborodko, Mr. Zelensky’s role in a hit television series, “Servant of the People,” about an unwaveringly honest high school history teacher who is elected president after a viral video shows him ranting against corruption.

This image of righteous rectitude has frustrated weeks of effort by Mr. Poroshenko’s supporters to tar the comedian as a drug addict, a draft dodger, an agent of the Kremlin’s interests and a puppet of a self-exiled Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor V. Kolomoisky, who is accused of stealing billions.

While Mr. Poroshenko has traveled the country pressing the flesh, Mr. Zelensky has communicated with voters almost entirely through social media and performances of his comedy troupe.

Ms. Fialka-Smal, who said she had never seen Mr. Zelensky even drink alcohol, dismissed the drug claims as a “disgusting lie.”

By the time he stood in the campus election in 1997, Mr. Zelensky was already a local celebrity: a rising star in competitive comedy, a Soviet-era art form known as KVN, or “Club of the Funny and Inventive People,” a hybrid quiz and improv show.

A comedy team that included Mr. Zelensky won an international humor competition held in Moscow in 1997.

This triumph made him a big star in his hometown, Kryvyi Rih, a provincial backwater built around a string of iron ore mines and steel factories.

It is only 200 miles from Kiev but takes seven hours to reach by car from the capital because the roads are so bad.

His comedy team Kvartal 95 — named after the central district of Kryvyi Rih where Mr. Zelensky grew up in a sprawling apartment complex known as the “anthill” — became a profitable production company and formed the core of a successful entertainment business.

It led Mr. Zelensky into the orbit of Mr. Kolomoisky, an oligarch accused of looting billions from a major Ukrainian bank.

The oligarch’s Ukrainian television station, 1+1, became a big buyer of Kvartal 95 productions and broadcast Mr. Zelensky’s hit show “Servant of the People.”

Mr. Kolomoisky’s TV channel has given Mr. Zelensky, whose political party is also called Servant of the People, what amounts to hours and hours of free political advertising.

Its programing for Saturday, the day before the runoff vote, features two variety shows starring Mr. Zelensky.

Mr. Zelensky, according to travel records leaked to Ukrainian news media, has traveled 13 times since early 2017 to Geneva and Tel Aviv, two cities where Mr. Kolomoisky has lived since he fled abroad.

The oligarch left Ukraine after PrivatBank, which he owned and, the authorities say, looted, was nationalized.

The two men have also used the same cars, security guards and lawyer.

But none of this has so far dented Mr. Zelensky’s popularity.

He has shrugged off his ties to Mr. Kolomoisky as just business and has hammered home the message that while his production company certainly sold television shows to the oligarch, he is not, unlike Mr. Poroshenko, an oligarch himself.

The president, a conventional Ukrainian politician whose business and political agendas have long overlapped, has based his campaign on appeals to nationalism, with the slogan “army, language, faith.” 

Instead of being seen as a weakness, Mr. Zelensky’s lack of government experience has proved perhaps his biggest asset.

This, said Alexei Koshelenko, the owner of a small construction business in Kryvyi Rih who says he intends to vote for the comedian, “means thankfully that he has no experience in stealing.”

Olena Kryvoruchkina, a local organizer for the Servant of the People party, said she voted for Mr. Poroshenko in 2014, believing he would deliver on the high hopes raised by street protests that drove his kleptocratic, pro-Russian predecessor, Viktor F. Yanukovych, from power.

But “we have all been so disappointed.”

Mr. Zelensky’s popularity, she added, “shows that ordinary Ukrainians have started to believe again” in the idea that “a single person can change things.”

When asked who had ever done this, she came up with one example: Vladimir Lenin, the leader of Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

“Of course, we don’t want someone like Lenin,” Ms. Kryvoruchkina said, “but we need someone.”

So high are Mr. Zelensky’s supporters’ expectations of change and so varied and often incompatible their demands that the comedian, if he wins, has little chance of ever satisfying his voters, especially since he has no clear bloc of supporters in Ukraine’s powerful Parliament.

Mr. Zelensky’s program, vague promises to make things better, gives few policy specifics.

By avoiding concrete proposals, Mr. Zelensky “is trying not to disturb his supporters as they invent him in their own heads,” said Pavlo Kazarin, a commentator for Ukrainska Pravda, an online news website. 

Volodomyr Tyhnian, Mr. Zelensky’s physics teacher at a Kryvyi Rih secondary school for gifted pupils, remembers how his former student always had a knack for getting attention, sitting in the second row in class, which was the best place to be noticed.

“The first row is closer to the teacher, but no teacher sees the first desks,” Mr. Tyhnian said, adding that Mr. Zelensky did not get straight A’s but “always knew how to stand out.”

Source: The New York Times