Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Volodymyr Zelensky: Ukraine’s Servant of the People?
Volodymyr Zelensky: Ukraine’s Servant of the People?

Volodymyr Zelensky: Ukraine’s Servant of the People?

In the first scene of Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky’s hit sitcom Servant of the People, three faceless oligarchs stand above Kyiv’s Maidan Square one week before the presidential election. They agree to stop competing with one another to buy the election, and to instead let the best man win. “Unsupervised democracy,” one oligarch comments, “I like this kind of game.” From the show’s outset, its message is clear: Ukrainian politics have long been dominated by corrupt oligarchic interests. But with the election of Volodymyr Zelensky’s honest, middle-class protagonist, that era is over.

This message formed the basis of Volodymyr Zelensky’s wildly successful presidential run. With no political experience and minimal campaigning, the comedian swept to power in the country’s runoff elections on April 21 against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. The president-elect won 73.2% of the vote compared to Poroshenko’s 24.5%, and all but one of Ukraine’s 26 regions. To be sure, Zelensky was not elected for his shrewd policy proposals. Throughout the campaign, the comedian declined to comment on policy specifics, promising instead to crowdsource from the Ukrainian people. He shirked from debates until two days before the runoff, and even then, the stadium event was more of a spectacle than a serious discussion.

Zelensky was elected on a sensation. He had a potent message that the Ukrainian people bought into: Servant of the People come to life. Zelensky’s team surely capitalized on the sitcom’s popularity. Campaign billboards read “Servant of the People is the President,” and the comedian’s newly created political party, which will run in October’s parliamentary elections, bears the show’s moniker. The sitcom’s third season premiered just days before the election’s first round, prompting observers to re-interpret the show as three-year political campaign. When Zelensky finally debated Poroshenko, his key soundbite was a declaration of the show’s very premise: “I’m not a politician—I’m an ordinary person who came to break this system.” Practically borrowing a line from the sitcom, Zelensky asked, “How is it that Ukraine is the poorest country with the richest president?”

Given the predominance of Servant of the People messaging in Zelensky’s campaign, what does the show promise Ukrainians in a Zelensky presidency? And when reality sets in, what are they likely to get?

The Servant versus the Establishment

Servant of the People’s surreal humor derives from the clash between two exaggerated archetypes: Ukraine’s establishment politicians and Zelensky’s man-of-the-people, history teacher Vasyl Petrovich Holoborodko. The audience is introduced to Holoborodko when three suited men arrive at his family’s Soviet-era apartment and inform him—dressed only in his underwear because his niece was hogging the bathroom that morning—that he has been elected Ukraine’s next president. The bizarre turn of events occurred after a video of Holoborodko cursing the Ukrainian political system went viral (Episode 1, 11:40-13:13).[1] Holoborodko’s expletive-filled rant claimed that Ukrainian politics could never change because the public has accepted that every election is a choice between the “lesser of two a**holes” who will inevitably swindle the country. He proclaims, “If I could have just one week in office. . . . I would show them! F*** the motorcades, f***the perks, f** the weekend chalets.” The president, Holoborodko believes, should live like a teacher, and a teacher should live like the president. On this rant alone, Holoborodko wins the election with 67% of the vote, mirroring Zelensky’s real-life win.

Upon Holoborodko’s election, the audience meets Ukraine’s political establishment, embodied by well-dressed Prime Minister Yury Ivanovich Chuiko, who is concerned only with the optics and perks of political office. Chuiko’s first order of business is to refine Holoborodko’s image. A selection of watches (Patek Phillip, Vacheron Constantin, Breguet, and Hubolt) is brought to Holoborodko, followed by high-end colognes, shoes, and suits (Episode 1, 14:42-16:16). When Holoborodko wants to discuss his inauguration speech, Chuiko tells him not to worry: “We have special people for that, so you don’t have to clutter your mind with minutia” (Episode 2, 7:30-8:05). More important is that the president-elect meet the several hundred servants—the personal motivator, the architect of his tan, the shaman, and the ostrich keeper, among others—who are to serve his every need in the presidential mansion (Episode 2, 8:06-9:49; 14:40-16:50; 22:19-23:50)

Holoborodko’s character is as exaggerated as Chuiko’s, yet in the opposite manner. Despite his newfound power, Holoborodko maintains his modest roots. Shunning the perks of the office, he insists that he personally visit the bank to pay bills, and he wants to give a niece only a CD for her 18th birthday. In dramatic fashion, the president-elect ditches his motorcade, arriving at his inauguration in a taxi (Episode 3, 21:19-22:30). Most importantly, however, Holoborodko cares about doing right by the Ukrainian people. When Chuiko gives the president-elect a copy of the Gettysburg Address for his speech—the Americans will love it and we need their money, Chuiko explains (Episode 3, 5:38-8:05)—Holoborodko ad libs. He tells the Ukrainian people that, as someone with no political experience, he will not make dishonest promises. Instead, he will promise the one thing that he knows: to “act in a way that doesn’t evoke shame when looking into children’s eyes” (Episode 3, 25:21-26:49).

Reality Bites

Yet, while President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky promised the Ukrainian people to dismantle the country’s system of corrupt politics, à la Holoborodko, reality will likely thwart this endeavor. The first obstacle Zelensky must face is his own connections. Though not an oligarch himself, Zelensky may well be a servant of some, most notably Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky. Zelensky and Kolomoisky, a titan of Ukraine’s finance, aviation, energy, and media industries, have long-standing ties through the oligarch’s 1+1 television network, which broadcasts Servant of the People. Throughout the campaign, the president-elect repeatedly insisted that the two have a strictly professional relationship. Over the past two years, however, Zelensky reportedly visited Geneva and Tel Aviv, where Kolomoisky has split his time since leaving Ukraine in 2015, 13 times.

That this relationship may be closer than the comedian previously indicated has serious policy implications. Ukraine’s largest commercial bank, PrivatBank, was wrested from Kolomoisky’s control in 2016 on charges that its owners pilfered billions from the Ukrainian people. A Kyiv court recently ruled that the bank’s nationalization was illegal, paving the way for Kolomoisky to regain control, although Ukraine’s Western backers strongly oppose any such move and have made it clear that continued funding is contingent on the issue.

Noting this connection is not to say that Zelensky will sacrifice his presidency to aid Kolomoisky’s interests. Indeed, Ukraine’s former Finance Minister Oleksandr Danylyuk, who devised the nationalization, has emerged as one of Zelensky’s key advisors. Furthermore, Zelensky has affirmed the need for maintaining support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which may end should Kolomoisky regain his empire. Rather, the point is simply to note that Zelensky is not the squeaky-clean Holoborodko. And when the outsider’s lack of political capital presses him against a wall, he may need to turn to friends in high places for a helping hand.

This leads to the second obstacle with which Zelensky must contend: an unfriendly parliament. Despite his landslide victory, Zelensky’s Servant of the People party is only polling around 25% in October’s parliamentary vote. While the presidential election demonstrated that much can change in a matter of months, it is hard to imagine that Zelensky’s popularity, and thus his party’s poll numbers, will rise dramatically as the reality of the presidency sets in. True, some members of parliament may defect to Zelensky’s party for financial benefits (these would-be MPs are elected via single-member districts, and are typically less ideological). But even so, Servant of the People will need to make many concessions to cobble together a parliamentary majority. By having to cut deals with existing oligarch groups and political networks, Zelensky’s ability to dismantle the system is substantially curtailed.

In sum, Zelensky’s Servant of the People presents a damning indictment of Ukraine’s political system. This narrative—that of the people’s man, who disrupts Ukraine’s oligarchic rule by returning honesty to politics—comprised Volodymyr Zelensky’s campaign platform. Yet, while Holoborodko is a true outsider, the real Zelensky is not. He may not be part of Ukraine’s political establishment, but he certainly is a member of the elite—with all the oligarchic connections that Ukrainians voted to cast off. He may not serve as the puppet of Kolomoisky that some onlookers fear, but the reality of Ukraine’s political system remains: it will be difficult for Ukraine’s new, anti-establishment president to get much done without conceding to those with money.

We can take Poroshenko as a cautionary tale. The chocolate oligarch swept to power with 54.7% of the vote in the first round of Ukraine’s 2014 presidential election. His newly created political party then easily formed a ruling coalition after parliamentary elections five months later. While Ukrainians’ frustrations with Poroshenko today center on issues largely out of his control—namely his inability to end the war in the Donbas—the widespread belief that he failed to transform Ukraine into a modern, European country stems in part from parliament’s resistance. Reforms demanded by Ukraine’s Western partners, such as fighting graft via an anti-corruption court and decentralizing the economy, challenge those who benefit from the current system. Despite his financial and political connections, Poroshenko’s efforts to progress IMF-mandated reforms were stymied. Zelensky’s radical promise to dismantle the system will very likely suffer a similar fate.

[1] Servant of the People is available on Netflix.