How Ukraine’s comedian-president is reshaping national identity

What is the future of Ukraine's wary yet hopefully electorate?

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The image shows Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Zelensky engaging in a debate on the 19th of April 2019. They are in front of a blue background.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unfamiliar with Ukraine’s newly elected president? Head to Netflix, and you can see him conquer the hearts of a nation as president in a three-season, (prophetically titled?) comedy show, ‘Servant of the People’. No, seriously. On April 21st, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine with 73% of the vote, beating the president-in-office, Petro Poroshenko by a landslide.

The 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine have been rife with tension and expectation. They are the first Ukraine has faced since the 2014 revolution, annexation of Crimea, and the start of the war in the Donbas. They are also the first in the country’s democratic history to present an anti-establishment candidate as winner, in fact the first in which this has even been a remote possibility. In the five years which have passed since the Euromaidan revolution, in which a corrupt Russia-backed puppet government was overthrown in a series of violent events, a harsh ethnic and linguistic duality has defined Ukraine, which has struggled to come to terms with a bipolar reality within its confines.

As is so often the case in complex histories composed of heterogenous ethnicities, national identity is an easily inflamed yet blurry sentiment. Until now, Petro Poroshenko, traditional oligarch and now ex-President, had taken a starkly pro-Ukrainian, anti-Russian stance. Perhaps the only stance it was possible to take at all in the wake of an anti-Russian revolution, and which has shaped political discourse since. But Zelensky, the newly baptized comedian-cum-president does not fit the expected mould. Zelensky’s utter lack of a political program makes the country’s future uncertain, but some there may be hope that Ukraine’s latest political showdown may be a symptom of changing tides for a country which has struggled to define itself since the retreat of the USSR.

The showdown between Zelensky and Poroshenko, entrenched political figurehead versus up-and coming ‘voice of the people’, may seem like a familiar trope to European readers. Poroshenko truly is a politician of the old Ukrainian style. Founder of Ukraine’s leading confectionery company, he is a perfect representative of the establishment and Ukraine’s political system, operating on the ‘funding for votes’ model that has prevailed in the country for the past 25 years. His challenger, Zelensky, is everything you might imagine him to be: anti-establishment, anti-corruption; a liberal populist taking his natural place opposite the oligarchical incumbent.

And, naturally, Zelensky too is backed by one of Ukraine’s most prominent oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoisky leading partner of Privat Group. Many of his critics have pompously pointed this out, claiming he is but a puppet to Kolomoisky’s business interests. This may well be, and it is a stark reminder that whatever changes voters might expect from Zelensky’s presidency, these will not venture to shake the country’s oligarchic foundations. However, backing is a prerequisite for presidential candidacy, and even a self-proclaimed ‘voice of the people’ as is Zelensky must succumb to the political realities of a country in which power is concentrated in few, jealous hands. How much of a role this will play in his presidency is, for now, a matter only of speculation.

Zelensky’s political personality throughout the electoral campaign has merged, in the popular imaginary, with that of Vasyl Holoborodko, the character he plays in ‘Servant of the People’, a satirical show recently picked up by Netflix. Vasyl, Zelensky’s character, is an everyman teacher who unexpectedly becomes president of Ukraine and leads a heroic campaign against corruption and excess in government. Zelensky’s fictional persona has brought him a reputation as an anti-corruption hero without requiring any of the real action that this role would require in a starkly non-fiction world.

Ukraine has a deeply rooted history of making heroesof individual figures: the individual as leader and representative of a group is worshipped, and we need look no further than the transparently named ‘Hero of Ukraine’ award to see how the Ukrainian state has an enshrined system of glorification, making the presidential elections all the more significant. Amongst so many heroes, the rebel leader battling on behalf of the people against the wicked established order happens to be a national favourite: the Cossacks Bohdan K hmelnitsky, leader of the K hmelnitsky Uprising, and Ivan Mazepa; Symon Petliura during the Russian Civil War; Stepan Bandera in the 1930-40s.

Who the leading figure of the country is has the potential to mould Ukrainian national identity, which is in many ways still in the process of being imagined following a period of disorder and uncertainty, following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. It’s easy to see, then, how Zelensky’s charisma and popularity, not to mention a show which seems to prophesize a glorious presidency, made him an easy target for the hopes of so many Ukrainians, despite the lack of a credible political platform.

Zelensky is a national hero of the digital age: his appeal crafted not through ideology or action but through online campaigning that blurs the lines between Zelensky the man, and Holoborodko the character.

Ukrainians have chosen their rebel hero, but for now at least, he is a rebel without much of a cause. In fact, what is peculiar and interesting about Zelensky is that he seems to not be interested in ethnic identity politics at all, beyond conceding that he is willing to speak in Russian as well as Ukrainian. That said, it is very hard to pinpoint a clear political stance on any issue whatsoever from what he has said, written or otherwise expressed throughout his campaign. His only expressed goals are eliminating corruption and restarting the peacemaking process in Donbas, but there is little substance to these slogans, no concrete details for what structures will replace the current kleptocrat-oligarchy, or how the tensions that caused the war in Donbas will be resolved.

The departure from a discourse based on the country’s problematic ethnic divide in particular is a far step away not only from his predecessor, Poroshenko, but from Ukrainian political culture more widely. Ukrainian nationalism post-W W2 has been essentially negative and nostalgic: it often reverts to what Ukraine is not in its search for a stable identity. A true Ukrainian is not a Russian, a true Ukrainian is not a Pole, Ukrainian culture is not Russian or Polish culture. This is combined with a peculiar nation-wide, though perhaps unconscious, refusal to see or admit the many similarities between Ukrainian and Russian/Polish culture, and the idea that the Ukrainian is an entirely separate and distinct entity to the Russian or the Pole. This whole parade is grounded in nostalgia: it is forever the Ukrainian independent states of the past that are looked to, rather than creating a vision of a future Ukraine.

The Decommunisation Laws, introduced by Poroshenko in 2015, reflect this exclusionism and nostalgia, and involved the renaming of many Soviet towns and streets, as well as the obliteration of any Soviet imagery not relating to W W2. This effectively tore many people away from a part of their personal identity and something they were proud of, especially those who had lived and worked within the USSR for the majority of their lives. The ever-stricter language laws have also had this effect: by gradually forcing everything to be in Ukrainian (the latest bill seeks to outlaw any media published in other languages if it is not also accompanied by a Ukrainian version), minority languages, and even Russian, which is used as the primary language in everyday life by around 45% of Ukrainians, are being forced into obscurity.

Those accustomed to European political developments might recoil – a populist with no plan for the future and an appeal based on fiction? Yellow gilets and Five Star movements flash before our eyes. But perhaps a blank slate is precisely what Ukraine needs. After all, Poroshenko’s politics, being starkly anti Russian are based on the exclusion of a significant portion of those currently residing in the nation. A blank state allows for inclusivity, the only peaceful counter to group identity politics.

Zelensky might offer a better chance of creating a Ukrainian national identity simply by not doing anything at all. This may give the nation the space to develop freely without imposing a top-down, state-wide narrative on what is and what is not part of the Ukrainian culture, as Poroshenko attempted to do with the 2015 Decommunisation Laws. The absence of a vision of Ukrainian identity makes Zelensky the antidote rather than the antithesis to Poroshenko’s conservative nationalist ideology.

That there is no detail in his political program seems to be unimportant to most Ukranians. This is largely due to dissatisfaction, especially in recent years, with Poroshenko’s actions which have failed to move the peace process in Donbas in any quantifiable direction, as well as allowing for high-level to go largely unpunished. Zelensky proposes a Ukraine without corruption and without war – this has been enough to get him elected.

A political project which moves away, as Zelensky’s does, from the traditional restrictive discourse of nationalism must necessarily leave space for a new discourse to be created. Non-existent ideology may be more an antidote than poison to Ukrainian politics.

The lack of nation-wide ideological confrontation beyond ethnic division in Ukraine can most likely be explained by the perceived sense of freedom and democracy in the country, as well as the lack of a long-term stable government. Amongst Ukrainians there is, generally speaking, a feeling that there is more democracy and people are allowed more freedom than in other post-Soviet states (chiefly Belarus and the Russian Federation). Theoretically, Ukraine is a free country in the most significant senses of the word. In practice however, the imaginary liberal bubble is often burst, something which Poroshenko has entirely failed to address. There are no legal restrictions on civil liberties, and people are mostly able to express themselves freely, but various nationalist paramilitaries may respond violently, shutting down or disrupting any sort of event held by people holding these ‘liberal’ views unless it’s under police protection. IZOLYATSIA in Kiev has had numerous events investigating and criticizing the far right disrupted by radical right-wing activists from C14, the same group responsible for violent attacks on Romani camps.

Anti-government protests in response to these issues have only broken out in response to blatant corruption or perceived unjust interventions in the democratic process at the highest level (as was the case in the 2004-5 Orange Revolution and the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests and revolution). These successful revolutions are also crucial to creating an idea of Ukraine as truly democratic because they offer the appearance of a substantial change in government. Even if the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan both produced some positive changes in Ukrainian society and net-positive changes in Ukrainian politics, the political system and many of the people within it remained largely unchanged.

Every new president since independence has proclaimed to offer something different to his predecessor. In practice what this has meant is that the new president was backed by a different group of oligarchs than the previous one. This has generated low expectations amongst voters, as there is a feeling that whoever comes into power will simply use their position to serve the interests of their group of associates rather than working towards the common good. Ukrainian politics in its current state lacks any form of dialectic: the politicians range from populist centrists through populist right-wingers to far-right ultranationalists. Zelensky’s advantage is that he is has created a persona which sets him apart from the traditional Ukrainian political or business elite, and is therefore expected to more likely act in the best interests of the people than Poroshenko.

However, Zelensky’s campaign money comes from – the billionaire owner of PrivatGroup, which was until recently in control of Ukraine’s biggest bank, PrivatBank, forcibly nationalized by Poroshenko in December of 2016. Poroshenko‘s decision was been overturned in this past weeks. This kind of power play at the highest level of government may give the reader a flavour of why it is that Ukrainians have opted for someone who seems to be set apart from it all, and of how misguided this hope may turn out to be. Nevertheless, a president who is not a politician may at the very least shift the focus for policymaking from presidential to parliamentary, and in turn shift the policy targets from oligarchic to popular.

If Zelensky delivers on his promise to stop corruption and reform government institutions, as well as restarting the peace process in Donbas, he will create a space in which Ukraine can move into the future rather than stagnating as a state that is still very much post-Soviet yet is stuck in limbo between Russia and the EU. His actual identity is yet to be seen, leaving Ukraine’s future a blank slate: the repeal of certain laws passed under Poroshenko which limit Ukrainian politics may regenerate a dialogue around the ideological problems in the country and the development of a full political spectrum.

Zelensky presents a blank slate. We must hope that it is filled with inclusivity rather than incompetence, so that we might be proven wrong about the capabilities of a comedian attempting to run a country. A political project which moves away, as Zelensky’s does, from the traditional restrictive discourse of nationalism must necessarily leave space for a new discourse to be created. Non-existent ideology may be more an antidote than poison to Ukrainian politics.