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Smash Or Flop, Ukraine's Zelenskiy Steps Into Role Of A Lifetime

President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy

KYIV -- Check your jokes in at the door. Volodymyr Zelenskiy is about to step into the biggest role of his life.

A political novice whose only relevant experience has been playing a schoolteacher who stumbles into the presidency in a popular TV series, the 41-year-old actor and comedian won Ukraine's presidential election by a wide margin on April 21.

With more than 99 percent of all the ballots counted, the Central Electoral Commission reported the next day that Zelenskiy had won 73.2 percent of the vote, compared to 24.5 percent for incumbent President Petro Poroshenko.

Zelenskiy will likely be inaugurated in early June.

After his swearing-in, he will take the reins of a country of roughly 44 million people that requires radical reform to root out corruption, remains ensnared in a war with Russia-backed separatists, and is at the heart of the West's geopolitical fight with Russia.

In other words, he will face many of the same challenges as Vasily Holoborodko, the fictional president he has played for three seasons on his TV show Servant Of The People. This time, however, the stakes are real and not every episode will end in victory.

Zelenskiy performs with his 95th Block comedy group in Kyiv on March 13.
Zelenskiy performs with his 95th Block comedy group in Kyiv on March 13.

His success could depend largely on support from the team he builds around him and if he manages to bring professionals on board that can compensate for his lack of personal experience, experts say.

"Zelenskiy has received votes from all across Ukraine. This is a big asset which gives him carte blanche to carry out reforms and purge the state apparatus," independent political analyst Konstantin Skorkin wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Zelenskiy, a native of the industrial southeastern city of Kriviy Rih, carried every region of Ukraine but Lviv in the west, a cradle of Ukrainian nationalism where Poroshenko beat him by nearly 30 percent.

But Zelenskiy's initial fortunes may also depend on the outgoing president's willingness to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

In his concession speech, Poroshenko pledged cooperation and that he would respect the will of the Ukrainian people. But he also used the opportunity to warn that Zelenskiy's victory was a win for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"You may just look at the celebration in the Kremlin on the occasion of the election," he said in English at his campaign headquarters. "They believe that with a new, unexperienced (sic) Ukrainian president, Ukraine could be quickly returned to the Russia orbit of influence," he added, calling on the international community to continue supporting the country.

In Zelenskiy's camp, that dig at the president-elect prompted some to doubt Poroshenko's promise of a smooth transition.

Poroshenko has said the transition will be smooth and that Zelenskiy can count on him for assistance.
Poroshenko has said the transition will be smooth and that Zelenskiy can count on him for assistance.

"In Ukrainian politics, what they say and what they do [are] not always the same," Dmitry Razumkov, Zelenskiy's campaign chief, told reporters on April 21. "Let's hope that in this particular case those promises that were voiced correspond to reality."

For their part, Western governments that have sanctioned Russia over the annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its backing of the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine signaled that they would continue their support for Kyiv, congratulating Ukrainians on an election that international monitors deemed competitive, free, and fair.

U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among the many leaders who sent messages of support to Zelenskiy after his win.

"I would be glad to welcome you soon in Berlin, and I wish you good luck and success for the tasks ahead of you," read a telegram from Merkel to the president-elect that was published by her office on April 22.

Merkel's message wasn't lost on Servant Of The People fans who recalled a scene in which the chancellor calls Zelenskiy's TV president, Vasyl Holoborodko, with an offer of European Union membership only to revoke it after realizing she had meant to dial the president of Montenegro.

Ukrainians are already looking to three seasons' worth of episodes for insight into how Zelenskiy might govern.

Zelenskiy said in the wake of his real-life election victory that one of his first priorities would be to immediately address some of the same challenges Holoborodko faces in Servant, such as the conflict with Russia.

Specifically, he said, he would work to secure the release of 24 Ukrainian sailors who were captured last year by Russia along with their three vessels while trying to pass through the Kerch Strait near Crimea.

Zelenskiy celebrates strong exit poll results with his wife Olena.
Zelenskiy celebrates strong exit poll results with his wife Olena.

And members of Zelenskiy's team said bills would be introduced in parliament that are aimed at eliminating corruption and assigning more accountability to public servants. They should include bills on the removal of immunity from the president, lawmakers, and judges, as well as an impeachment law.

Promises like those appear to be giving Ukraine's vibrant civil society, long frustrated by Poroshenko's perceived foot-dragging on many issues related to the fight against corruption and law and justice, some reason for hope.

"There is a chance for positive changes," Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Kyiv-based watchdog group Anti-Corruption Action Center, told RFE/RL. "But we have to watchdog his every step and not let him relax."

She predicted that "every message, every person he appoints to his team will be very thoroughly assessed by journalists and civil society."

She and other anticorruption activists with whom Zelenskiy's team met ahead of the election said he had been supportive of the priorities they had communicated to him.

But some of those messages have changed in the past week. For instance, Kaleniuk said that after promising a full "reboot" of the country's specialized anticorruption-prosecutors office, which has been plagued by allegations of corruption, Zelenskiy's team has backtracked.

Mustafa Nayyem, whose calls to protest the government when he was a journalist and activist in November 2013 helped spark the Euromaidan uprising that ousted Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, said Zelenskiy would be smart to heed the advice of civil society.

Now a lawmaker, Nayyem addressed the newly elected leader in a blog post. "Remember what happened to Poroshenko," he said, urging the president-elect to listen to the 73 percent of voters who elected him. "Don't make the same mistakes."