In Ukraine, a sitcom is turning into reality as Volodymyr Zelensky becomes the sixth president in the country’s post-Soviet history.
Before running in this year’s election, Zelensky starred in the political comedy Servant of the People, where he portrayed an ordinary teacher who had become president of Ukraine. His character’s attempts to fix the country run into strong opposition from corrupt oligarchs.
As president, Zelensky’s challenge will be much the same: defeating the oligarchs who have so far blocked reform in addition to managing Ukraine’s relations with Russia and building a political support base of his own.
Five years after the Euromaidan Revolution, Ukrainian politics is still heavily influenced by the super wealthy. If anything, oligarchs have become more politically entrenched. Ihor Kolomoyskyi, the billionaire owner of several airlines, served as governor of Dnipropetrovsk. Industrialist Serhiy Taruta was governor of Donetsk.
Besides political posts, these oligarchs control key sectors of the economy. The TV channels owned by the four most powerful men (Kolomoyskyi, Rinat Akhmetov, Dmytro Firtash and Victor Pinchuk) have around 80 percent of the Ukrainian market between them.
Not much is being done about this. Reforms have only gone through when the government faced immense pressure from Kiev-based civil society or Western donors. Many hope that the new president will be different.
The first signs are hopeful. Zelensky has surrounded himself with new faces. Nobody on his team has a connection to the old elite. Experts believe that this could be a chance to finally rein in the oligarchs’ power.
Russian president Vladimir Putin refused to congratulate Zelensky on his victory and instead announced days after the election that Russia would extend citizenships to the Ukrainians living in the separatist-occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.
It didn’t take long for Zelensky to respond. “We know perfectly well what a Russian passport actually provides,” he wrote. “It is the right not to have free and competitive elections. This is the right to forget about the existence of natural rights and freedoms.”
He then offered to give Ukrainian citizenships to everybody who is willing to fight Putin’s regime.
It may have only been a war of words, but it sent a message: Zelensky is not about to forgive and forget Russia’s aggression.
The fact that the 41-year-old Zelensky took 73 percent of the vote, with just under 25 percent going to the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, might suggest that the new president has overwhelming public support. This is not the case. Ukrainians voted against Poroshenko, a chocolate tycoon who failed to do much against corruption, more than they voted for Zelensky.
Now that he is the president, Zelensky will have to build a political base of his own.
With parliamentary elections due in October, it is crucial that Zelensky forms a political party that can lead the next government. Ukraine is only a semi-presidential republic, which means that without the support of parliament, it will be difficult for Zelensky to take down the oligarchs or get much of anything done.