That Ukraine would elect a comedian/actor to be their president seems to baffle everybody outside of Ukraine, but no one in Ukraine is surprised. Before I give you a link to an excellent article that sums up how this happened, I thought I would give you my viewpoint as someone who has lived in Ukraine for many years.
Before the election, I was often asked who I was going to vote for and I would reply “It isn’t for me to decide who will be Ukraine’s next president, but personally, I wouldn’t mind giving (the actor/comedian) Volodymyr Zelensky the opportunity to disappoint us.” Usually this was met with laughter as the local with whom I spoke knew exactly what I was saying. Probably every president in Ukraine since the days of Leonid Kuchma has succeeded in becoming a huge disappointment to the average Ukrainian.
The Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005 saw Viktor Yushchenko become president, and there was much hope that Ukraine would shed its corruption and have the chance to flourish socially and economically. Probably due to his political inertness, Mr. Yuschenko left office five years later with a 6% approval rating.
The next president, Viktor Yanukovych, had promised to bring order to the country. Many people were hopeful that this would actually happen, but as time went on, it became apparent that the people had elected a greedy monster that abruptly turned the country away from Europe and toward Russia. His presidency was ended during the Maidan (pronounced My-Don) Revolution of 2013 – 2014 and he fled the country after bloodshed and in disgrace.
Oleksandr Turchynov, the new interim president did a good job of holding the country together and even building it up during his short tenure, but he didn’t run for president when his tenure was up and chocolate factory magnate, Petro Poroshenko, became the next president of Ukraine. As president, Poroshenko accomplished much. His administration strengthened the military, weeding out Russian plants, sleepers and sympathizers. The notoriously corrupt traffic cops (ГАЙ) were done away with and a new modern police force took its place. He defended Ukraine’s right to autonomy on the world stage and lobbied for sanctions against Ukraine’s oppressive neighbor to the north. He secured an edict giving the Ukrainian Orthodox Church official status, and most importantly for Evangelical believers, there was freedom and even encouragement to show and share their faith as evangelicals had never experienced in Ukraine before.
In spite of all of his successes, Poroshenko’s presidential tenure became known more for what it didn’t do then for what it did. He failed to root out corruption when doing so was easily within his grasp. His presidency also became viewed as yet another disappointment and ended with single digit approval ratings. Thus capped a long succession of very disappointing presidencies in Ukraine.
I was talking to a wise friend who asked me about my political view point and so I gave him my standard answer. He laughed and replied, “You know, if we weren’t at war, I would agree with you. It might be nice to experiment with an unknown figure like Zelensky, but during a time of war, we need to go with someone who has proven he can stand up to Putin.” After this conversation when I was asked who I wanted to be Ukraine’s next president, I simply and humorlessly replied, “I don’t know.”
…we need to go with someone who has proven he can stand up to Putin.
Then two days before the election, there was the highly anticipated presidential debate. It was held in the Olympic stadium in Kyiv so more people could be there and of course, it was broadcast publicly as both candidates hurled accusation after accusation, and charge upon charge. This was a new fiery form of politics Ukraine had not seen before. Many people felt worse about both candidates when the debate was over. Two days later, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected to be the next president of Ukraine with more than 73% of the votes in his favor.
A new style of politics… for Ukraine.
I was discussing the debate and the election with some friends a few days later. One said he had heard that Poroshenko had hired an American advisor to help run his campaign. They seemed ashamed of the way he had conducted himself during the campaign. He had labeled his rival a puppet and a clown… a jester and a hack for Putin. I put in my two cents, “When I watched the debate, I thought that Poroshenko still had a chance, but he needed to do what nobody expected of him, i.e. to apologize. If he had taken a fatherly stand and said, ‘Citizen Zelensky, I’m so sorry I have disappointed you and that my presidency didn’t meet your expectations. When I was given the reigns to this country, this was the shape it was in … , and this is what we have succeeded in accomplishing in five short years… , but I know there are things I left unfinished and even ignored. Now if the Ukrainian people will give me the opportunity to serve them again, this is what I plan to do…’ If Poroshenko had been so transparent and had acted in a fatherly manner instead of attacking his opponent, he would have made Zelensky appear to be inexperienced and too young for the job without actually building more sympathy for the young actor. If this had happened, I believe the election outcome may have been more balanced.” I know Ukrainians to be a people with a great capacity for forgiveness.
“You know Eric, when Zelensky (age 41) came out with insults and accusations, we could excuse him (saying), ‘He’s young.’ ‘He doesn’t know better.’ However when Poroshenko (age 53) came out hurling insults and calling names, we thought of how he is old enough and experienced to know better, and that he shouldn’t be doing that. It wasn’t becoming of a man his age,” one of my wise friends replied.
Maybe former president, Poroshenko, was being advised by the same people who labeled Trump a clown, a buffoon, a jester and so much more. Zelensky was an actor and comedian… not a clown nor a jester, but rather a serious contender. Now, of course, he is President of the largest country fully situated in Europe and commander and chief of one of Europe’s largest armed forces. We wish him the best and will be praying for him and for Ukraine.
For more perspective, read this excellent article by Peter Dickinson, Why a Comedian Won Ukraine’s Election in a Landslide