Zelensky - from a fictional president to President-elect?
BY Georgi R. Chakarov
It is a beautiful sunny Sunday, a true spring 19-degree blessing in Kyiv which was smothered in a snowstorm just a few days ago. The long winter has finally come to an end. But the day is even more special as Ukrainians are coming out to vote in the first round of the Presidential elections which to a large extent would decide the future of the country for the next five years. Is this wonderful weather also a sign for better days in the country? Is change coming?
A few hours later, the preliminary results of the vote are in and it does look like the people are ready for a fresh start. The popular comedian and producer Volodymyr Zelensky got the majority of votes (over 30%). The polls predicted it but now it is a reality – the actor who played the country’s president in the popular comedy series Servant of the People is now one step closer to becoming Ukraine’s President-elect. This happened just three months after he entered politics and announced his candidacy – a truly unique achievement in the history of world politics. In mid-March, two weeks ahead of the elections, I set off to discover how Zelensky turned from a top entertainer into the leader of the first round of the presidential elections in such a short period of time.
We have all seen how campaigns are ran in America and Europe but things are a bit different in Ukraine. Zelensky’s campaign headquarters turned out to be a modern house in the elite Kyiv area Pechersk, and most of all totally anonymous – unless you know for a fact that this is the Ze!Komanda HQ, there is no way to find that out – no posters, no flags, absolute silence. Once I walk to the door and try to enter, a bodyguard comes out and starts asking what am I doing there, who gave me the address and so on. I take this protective approach as normal remembering that a few days ago a huge scandal broke out as it became known that the state-security service SBU had bugged the offices of Kvartal 95 – the production company making Zelensky’s TV shows.

“Is Zelensky really so dangerous to the state?” - I ask his political campaign adviser Dmitry Razumkov who responds: “Which one of the many cases are you asking about,” and adds that the SBU (which is directly under the control of the incumbent president) have been following them on a regular basis but that has not affected their daily work. Bugging is not really necessary as Zelensky has been showing everything he does on social media. Probably, that was one of the reasons why his YouTube channel was attacked by hackers and taken offline for a few hours while the digital stats speak for themselves: 3 million unique visitors to the official website of the campaign (10 times more than those of other candidates) and the biggest messenger Telegram channel with a weekly reach of 4-8 million people.

As Razumkov sees it, Zelensky is a “non-typical candidate for Ukrainian politics” who surprised his opponents with the record number of volunteers he managed to attract – over 560.000 people. Even though the campaign started in mid-January, the ratings of the comedian-turned-politician have been climbing week after week. Razumkov explains this with the transparency, fairness and openness of the campaign which among others has been showing meetings and discussions with experts and analysts with the aim to create a system of policies which would then be developed into new legislation with the ultimate goal “to turn Ukraine into a country where people want to live in, and not leave it as it is happening now.”

The political adviser even calls their candidate “a judgment for the political elite” and notes that they don’t to change his image according to the taste of the voters which makes the campaign easier and it simply shows Zelensky’s ideas, goals and challenges which would later help him to implement them. “Everyone who knows Zelensky knows that two years ago he was like this, now he is like this, and let’s hope that in two years he will be again the same person,” Razumkov says.

According to him, the other candidates were also surprised by the relatively low spending of the Zelensky campaign which has cost a total of 70 million hryvnias (close to $25.5 million), as the candidate revealed in an interview for 1+1 a few days later stressing that all money came from his own savings and the founders of Kvartal 95.

I then touch on the hot topic of Zelensky being “the clown of Kolomoisky” to which the political adviser responds jokingly: “He just left before you came,” and continues in a serious manner assuring that nobody controls Zelensky and nobody takes decisions instead of him; the business relations between 1+1 and Kvartal 95 are the only thing that connects them. Razumkov also notes that all Ukrainian channels are controlled by oligarchs and if we judge by the amount of time devoted to Zelensky on the channels owned by Poroshenko, it seems like the current president is working very hard in favor of Zelensky. Accordingly, an IMI study shows that two weeks before the elections Zelensky was covered in only 14% of 23.857 news related to the elections in Ukrainian media; only 90 aired on 1+1’s newscasts where Poroshenko had 442 and Tymoshenko – 135.

Servant of the people

These stats took me to my next interlocutor – 1+1 Media CEO Oleksandr Tkachenko. His channel boasts the most trusted news in Ukraine (according to Socis) and having a candidate who is among their biggest stars has certainly been a challenge for them. “Frankly speaking, it takes us some efforts to promote TV products with Volodymyr as our star in them and to remain neutral in news coverage at the same time,” the CEO says, but assures that they have never been a one-sided media and try to keep balance in the news coverage.

In his opinion, the success of the Zelensky campaign is certainly good news for 1+1 and explains Zelensky’s quick rise in politics in short: “it’s all about the current situation in the country – people have become completely disappointed in all the politicians, who had been in power for the past 27 years. The opinion poll at the end of 2018 defined two of the most trusted people by Ukrainians – the famous singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk and comedy actor Volodymyr Zelensky. What does it show? Again, it shows a complete disappointment and a will to see the new leader. This is not only the vote for Ze&Co but also the vote against the current political leaders.”

Tkachenko does not deny 1+1’s role in the launch phase of Zelensky’s campaign who made the announcement that he will be running for president on the country’s most-watched show of the year – the 1+1 New Year’s Special. The CEO even admits that it was his idea to air the announcement on the show. As regards to Servant of the People, he thinks that the comedy series reflects humorously on the real political messages people receive in daily life and could not be considered as propaganda in favor of Zelensky who stars as the president in the series: “If you delve a little bit deeper, you would remember that the series, where Volodymyr plays the role of President Goloborodko was created and filmed years in advance of the coming elections and exclusively for the purpose of further TV distribution as an entertainment show. At that time, even Volodymyr had no intention of running for the presidency. That is why any political manipulations seem completely inappropriate to me. The current president can also write a movie script and become an actor in that series. There is no problem in this kind of situation, I think.”

The CEO also assures that 1+1 owner Kolomoisky has never been involved in the content policy of Zelensky’s shows but has only taken part in business negotiations with Kvartal 95. A few days later, the leader of the first round of the presidential elections in Ukraine also commented that Servant of the People is just a popular series and it has nothing to do with his current campaign; the series was just a dream – showing the country which they see and they dream about. Three days before the first vote the final third season of the series reached 6.3 million viewers on 1+1.

In any case, Zelensky is all set to put an end to his TV and acting career. A week before the elections, he announced that he will leave the management and shareholding structure of Kvartal 95 regardless of the result of the vote as he is also planning to take part in the parliamentary elections with his Servant of the People party (currently leading the polls with up to 25% of the potential vote).

Well, that sounds like something quite normal: politicians should not be involved in any type of business (even though that has not been the case in Ukraine). But this is not simply leaving a company and quitting the showbiz but leaving behind a media empire which has created a number of international hit formats (Crack Them Up, Servant of the People, The In-Laws), record-breaking comedy festivals and events and some of the most-watched blockbusters in the former Soviet Union. Just one example – in early 2019 Kvartal 95’s original comedy feature I, You, He, She starring Zelensky became the highest-grossing film in the history of Ukrainian cinema with over 800.000 viewers and a box office of 71 million hryvnias (more than the cost of Zelensky’s campaign).

I guess he is really not kidding.
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