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Crowdsourcer In Chief: Ukrainian Funnyman Takes Unorthodox Path To Top Of Presidential Pack

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy's unorthodox campaign style has helped him rise to the top of the polls. (file photo)
Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy's unorthodox campaign style has helped him rise to the top of the polls. (file photo)

KYIV -- Staring straight into his smartphone and speaking in the guttural voice that has helped distinguish him as Ukraine's top funnyman, Volodymyr Zelenskiy asks his 2.7 million Instagram followers: "Who likes when the president appoints his cronies or army comrades to top positions? Why has this been happening for 28 years?"

Then Zelenskiy offers a unique solution: "Let's create a dream team.... Suggest who, in your opinion, should be the prime minister of Ukraine, the prosecutor-general, the head of the security service, the foreign minister, the defense minister, we will do it together."

The proposition may have been taken as another of his jokes a year ago. But today, it is no laughing matter.

In a life-imitating-art moment, the 41-year-old comedian whose schoolteacher character on a hit TV sitcom becomes Ukraine's president after a video rant goes viral, is the front-runner in its actual presidential race.

The first-round vote is slated for March 31, and there are a record 44 candidates on the ballot. Unless one wins an outright majority -- something polls suggest is unlikely -- the top two finishers will face off on April 21.

At stake for a country mired in economic woes and corruption and embroiled in a war with Russia-backed fighters that has dragged on for nearly five years, is possibly its survival.

'A Listener'

By Ukrainian standards, Zelenskiy's campaign style, which amounts to touring with his comedy troupe and addressing followers in selfie videos on social media, is highly unorthodox.

But with Ukrainian voters deeply dissatisfied with veteran leaders who have failed to deliver on crucial reform promises and eager for fresh faces, observers say it may just win him the presidency.

"You can call what he's doing populism, but Ukrainians want someone to relate to," Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace whose research particularly focuses on Ukraine, told RFE/RL.

In Jarabik's view, crowdsourcing a prospective cabinet and a political platform is appealing for an electorate that is rarely asked for its input.

"Refreshing for the Ukrainians is the listening," he explained. "Other politicians are doing the explaining."

In many ways, but especially on social media, Zelenskiy's is a strategy that aims to capitalize on the kind of frustration that helped propel political outsider Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency and, more recently, "socialist" Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the U.S. Congress.

And, according to Zelenskiy campaign adviser Dmitro Razumkov, it is completely of his own doing.

"Honestly speaking, the idea...belongs to Volodymyr Oleksandrovich Zelenskiy," Razumkov told RFE/RL.

But he is quick to draw contrasts between Zelenskiy's use of social media and Trump's. He claims that "[Zelenskiy] is more open" than the U.S. president and poses questions to Ukraine's electorate directly through social videos rather than engaging in one-way dialogue through discursive tweets.

As for crowdsourcing his potential cabinet, "in our Ukrainian reality, politicians typically appoint people to positions under a friend-or-foe principle," Razumkov said. "They don't take into account how good or bad it could be for the state."

Top Of The Polls

That behavior is what Zelenskiy's corruption-averse character, Vasyl Holoborodko, cleverly fights against in the TV series Servant Of The People.

Blending that into his real-life campaign, the Russian speaker from the southern industrial city of Kryvyy Rih is betting that the same type of populism and railing against the status quo will propel him to victory.

So far, it appears to be working.

"I think he's a lot like his [TV] character in real life," Ihor Bidenko, a 21-year-old bartender at a hip Kyiv cocktail bar told RFE/RL. "But for me, it matters more that he is someone new."

Volodymyr Zelensky performs on a Ukrainian TV show in 2016.
Volodymyr Zelensky performs on a Ukrainian TV show in 2016.

Opinion polls seem to reflect that attitude.

A survey this week by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) shows Zelenskiy leading all candidates with 26.4 percent voter support.

Another recent poll, by the Center for Social and Marketing Research (SOCIS), also put Zelenskiy in the lead with 23.8 percent of eligible Ukrainians saying they would vote for him.

Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko was behind him in both polls, followed by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Should Zelenskiy finish in the top two on March 31, polls suggest he could defeat either Poroshenko or Tymoshenko in a runoff.

Inexperience A 'Benefit, Not A Burden'

Zelenskiy's candidacy has not been without scandal and criticism.

In January, an investigation by Skhemy (Schemes), a joint project by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and the Ukrainian TV channel UA:Pershy, connected Zelenskiy to three Russian film and TV production companies.

The revelation came after Zelenskiy told Ukrainian media that he had shut down all his businesses in Russia in 2014 after Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea and armed and supported separatists in Ukraine's east.

Critics have also expressed concern over the comedian's lack of political experience, with some going as far as saying his presidency would be a "disaster."

Indeed, Zelenskiy would have his hands full with the simmering conflict in the east (he has said he would be willing to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring an end to it) and negotiations for key economic deals with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

But Iryna Venediktova, an adviser to Zelenskiy who heads the civil-law department at V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University and is currently touring European capitals to stump for her candidate, told RFE/RL by phone from Vienna that his inexperience is a benefit, not a burden.

Because Zelenskiy is "open-minded," she said, "it allows him to find new solutions."

Aivaras Abromavicius, a former minister of economy and trade who takes a skeptical view of Zelenskiy's candidacy and said he would have preferred to support the candidacy of Ukrainian rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, has played the unofficial role of fixer for Zelenskiy in setting up meetings with some high-profile Western officials in recent days.

On February 23, Abromavicius joined Zelenskiy in discussions with representatives from the IMF and The World Bank, as well as French Ambassador to Kyiv Isabelle Dumont.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy with the French Ambassador to Ukraine Isabelle Dumont on February 23.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy with the French Ambassador to Ukraine Isabelle Dumont on February 23.

"I can tell you that in those three meetings on Saturday he did well," Abromavicius said without providing details. He added that Zelenskiy, who was raised in a family of scientists and studied law at a Kyiv University before creating the Kvartal 95 comedy troupe and becoming a businessman, "took pressing questions basically head-on" and gave "impressive answers."

The IMF, World Bank, and Dumont's office did not respond to requests for comment about the meetings. Zelenskiy's press team, through which the candidate declined RFE/RL's interview request, sent a statement saying he and Dumont discussed "ensuring fair and democratic presidential elections" and "bilateral cooperation" between Ukraine and France. The statement included a photo of Zelenskiy grinning beside the ambassador.

"He is a good listener, he's ready to take advice," Abromavicius said of Zelenskiy. "The big question is from whom is he going to take this advice."

Oligarch Connection

Another cause of concern critics point to is Zelenskiy's business connection with oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, who owns the television channel that airs Zelenskiy's Servant Of The People and Kvartal 95 comedy shows.

Accused of acting as the oligarch’s puppet, Zelenskiy has maintained that his relationship with Kolomoyskiy is strictly business, telling Reuters that he would not return ownership of PrivatBank, Ukraine's largest lender, to the oligarch if he became president.

An election campaign poster in Lviv showing Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Ihor Kolomoyskiy and implying that the presidential candidate is a "servant of the oligarch."
An election campaign poster in Lviv showing Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Ihor Kolomoyskiy and implying that the presidential candidate is a "servant of the oligarch."

PrivatBank, which was found to be used for large-scale fraud and money laundering, was nationalized in 2016. The move infuriated Kolomoyskiy, who alleged it was cooked up by Poroshenko, former head of the National Bank Valeriya Gontareva, and the IMF to lessen his political influence.

"Am I that crazy? Do I want to lose my life, [my] reputation?" Zelenskiy told Reuters when asked whether he would hand PrivatBank over to Kolomoyskiy.

Don't Count Out The Competition

The connection does not appear to have hindered Zelenskiy's candidacy so far. But, as he wraps up a recent comedy tour and filming of the third season of Servant Of The People and faces more difficult questions as the election nears, Zelenskiy will increasingly come under the type of public scrutiny that has seen his main competition take hits in recent days.

Abromavicius said this week it was too soon to call any races despite Tymoshenko struggling in the polls following public gaffes and a corruption scandal involving the family of a top Poroshenko ally in the National Security and Defense Council that has sucked in the incumbent.

"Zelenskiy's strongly in the lead now, but Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are fighters," he said. "They're very experienced....and Ukraine is a country of comebacks."

Regardless of what happens on March 31, Zelenskiy is assured of being a president one way or another.

The release of the third season of Servant Of The People and the return of TV President Vasyl Holoborodko is set to debut as Ukrainians prepare to cast their votes.

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