The political career of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president with whom President Donald Trump had a now-notorious conversation at the center of the Democratic impeachment drumbeat, began with a role on television as an anti-corruption crusader. In that and several other ways, Zelensky’s rise mirrors that of Trump in the United States..
But while Trump built his brand over decades — real estate deals, golf courses, public bankruptcies, public affairs and finally, a popular reality show — Zelensky, a comedian and actor by trade, appeared to capture lightning in a bottle with a television show that was initially meant to be a comedy.
Zelensky, a 41-year-old father of two from Kryvyi Rih, earned a law degree from Kryvyi Rih Institute of Economics. He never worked in law, instead taking on the television role of an unassuming history teacher, Vasiliy Goloborodko, who was captured on camera ranting about corruption in the Ukrainian government.
“We only have a choice between two bitches,” he tells his class in a clip from the show. “We just choose the lesser evil. We’ve been doing this for 25 years.”
The video of Goloborodko’s impassioned speech went viral, and the history teacher soon found himself elected President of Ukraine on a platform of ridding his government of the corruption he had complained about.
The line between fiction and reality was blurred when Zelensky announced that he was actually planning a serious run for the presidency. “This isn’t fake,” Zelensky insisted. “I’m very serious about our country and the lives of our people.”
He later told the BBC that he was drawing at least some of his inspiration from the character he played, even naming his newly formed political party, “Servant of the People,” after the show.
“People want to see a president like Vasiliy Goloborodko,” he explained, capitalizing on the same anti-establishment sentiment that propelled Trump into office. “With the same moral values. They’re fed up with the establishment. People want something new.”
Where Zelensky greatly differed from Trump was his campaign style. While Trump preferred large, rambunctious rallies, his Ukrainian counterpart kept primarily to social media posts and continued to appear at small comedy shows even as he campaigned. Zelensky worked his opponent, then-President Petro Poroshenko, into his act.
France24 reported in January:
“Why is Poroshenko going for a second term? So that he doesn’t get a first,” Zelensky said, with the implication of a jail term for a leader who has been accused of corruption.
“That’s not funny,” his on-stage partner replied.
“Well, it wasn’t a joke,” Zelensky said.
Even as he ran on a platform to root out corruption in the Ukrainian government, it appeared that Zelensky might have ties to the very problem he was trying to fix — much in the same way that Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp,” has been accused of being part of it. His campaign received a large amount of television coverage on the same station that aired his shows, and that station was owned by an oligarch named Igor Kolomoisky.
Kolomoisky has an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion and lives outside Ukraine in Tel Aviv, Israel. There was no love lost between him and Poroshenko, so many assumed that he might be pulling strings in order to get Zelensky elected.
In addition, Kolomoisky was investigated by the FBI in early 2019 for a number of financial crimes — all of which he denied.
The Daily Beast reported at the time:
“Mr. Kolomoisky categorically denies that he has laundered any funds into the United States, period,” said Mike Sullivan, an attorney with the Ashcroft Law Firm who represents Kolomoisky. “He’s a businessperson. His bank was seized by the government, claiming the bank was on the verge of collapse. That information turned out to be false.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Ohio is involved in the probe, as Kolomoisky has investments there, according to the Kyiv Post.
The BBC asked Zelensky directly about his relationship with Kolomoisky, saying, “Why are you working for a man who the anti-corruption authorities say has stolen all this money from the people of this country?”
Zelensky’s reply was simple. “All TV channels here belong to oligarchs, and all big companies too. Does that mean that all Ukrainians, all 40 million who work there, have no principles?”
Then-candidate Zelensky also fired back at critics who suggested that he might be Kolomoisky’s puppet, saying, “I’m not Kolomoisky’s puppet. I wouldn’t be any of these peoples’ puppet.”
But while critics challenged Zelensky’s credibility on the campaign trail, he was able to make inroads where previous politicians were not: in addition to rooting out corruption, he chose to run on a platform of unification within Ukraine — and he was able to bridge the traditionally wide political divide between eastern and western Ukraine.
He won Ukraine’s runoff election against Poroshenko in April with 73% of the vote.
Just a few short months after his landslide win — and fewer than 100 days after he took office — Zelensky took a congratulatory phone call from President Trump that sparked a whistleblower complaint and kicked off renewed calls for Trump’s impeachment over what some alleged was a “quid pro quo” demand that Zelensky help dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running for president in 2020.
But Zelensky’s efforts to, as he said, “drain the swamp” in Ukraine began even before he spoke with Trump. (RELATED: Joe Biden, Donald Trump, And Ukraine: An Explainer)
“I am not afraid to make difficult decisions, I am ready to lose my popularity, my ratings if needed, or even my post as long as we achieve peace,” Zelensky said in his inaugural address.
President Trump made a strikingly similar statement at this summer’s G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, as he addressed the possibility of inviting Russia back to the summit. “I ran one election, and I won. It happened to be for president. I don’t care politically. I’m going to run another election. I think I’m winning based on polls that we see, whether I win or not, I have to do the right thing. I don’t do things for political reasons,” he said.
One of Zelensky’s first acts as president was the dissolution of parliament — an effort, he said, to bring in fresh voices who would join him in undoing decades of corruption and support his vision to unify the country.
Volodymyr Zelensky, a Ukrainian comedian who played an unlikely president in a hit television series, was sworn in as the country’s real president on Monday.
He then promptly dissolved parliament. https://t.co/tIbB6AXAhu
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) May 20, 2019
While the United States Constitution does not allow for a new president to dissolve Congress and start over, Trump has made other bold moves in order to secure the future of his agenda. He has appointed an astonishing number of conservative federal judges since he took office, essentially beginning to remake judicial circuits known for liberal activism.
Zelensky also appeared to respond quickly when journalists, who resigned from one media company when it fell under Russian control, called for action to protect Ukrainian television stations from Russian influence.
Journalists who resigned from the ZIK television channel after it came under the control of pro-Russia forces have published a statement calling on President Volodymyr Zelensky to protect #Ukraine‘s media from the influence of #Moscow. https://t.co/xgHctOt26f pic.twitter.com/TNWuGjC8HE
— Kyiv Post (@KyivPost) July 2, 2019
Just ten days later, Zelensky told the Kyiv Post in early July that he intended to address the issue as soon as a new parliament had been elected.
“President Volodymyr Zelensky has declared that television monopolies by pro-Russian oligarchs and politicians are unacceptable when #Ukraine is fighting off Russia. He has promised to tackle the issue after the parliamentary election…” https://t.co/EZJQqX83YO pic.twitter.com/YAmUyfBniL
— Kyiv Post (@KyivPost) July 12, 2019
Zelensky has also changed his tune somewhat with regard to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2014, he said he would “go down on his knees” to ask that Putin refrain from military action against Ukraine. But as recently as January, he said that he “would demand Russia end its occupation of territory in eastern Ukraine and pay compensation.”
Trump has taken a fairly hard line with Putin as well, keeping the channels of communication open while imposing tough sanctions on Russia.
On the precipice of another American election — with the added threat of impeachment hanging over his head — it remains to be seen just how closely Zelensky’s presidency will compare with Trump’s going forward.