Volodymyr Zelensky: Ukraine's Comedian President Rising To The Occasion When Needed The Most

Volodymyr Zelensky: Ukraine’s Comedian President Rising To The Occasion When Needed The Most.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, a comedian with no prior political experience when elected less than three years ago, has emerged as a credible war leader.

With his speeches and video selfies, he has mobilized the nation and given voice to Ukrainian rage and defiance of Russian aggression.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly unpredictable, accusing Ukraine of “genocide” in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics and talking about the need to “de-Nazify” the country, President Zelensky has remained dignified, steadfast, and eloquent.

Many detractors, including a significant portion of the intelligentsia, were caught off guard by these declarations.

In the early hours of Thursday, a few hours before Russia’s invasion, a significant event in the metamorphosis from a floundering leader who sometimes appeared out of his depth into a national figurehead occurred. He said he tried to phone Vladimir Putin to avert a war but was met with silence in a somber statement shared on social media, speaking partially in Russian.

He stated the two countries didn’t need a war, “not a Cold War, nor a Hot War, not a Hybrid War,” as he stood in front of a map of Ukraine in a dark suit. He did add, though, that if Ukrainians were attacked, they would defend themselves.

“When you attack us you will see our faces – not our backs, but our faces.”

Soon after, the invasion began, and for his next show, which took place in the middle of the day, he dressed in military fatigues, evoking the country’s David-versus-Goliath conflict. That evening, he delivered another speech, telling Western leaders that if they did not help, “war will knock on your homes tomorrow.”

“This is the sound of a new iron curtain, which has come down, and is cutting Russia off from the civilised world.”

On Ukrainian Twitter, Zelensky’s appointment as commander-in-chief appeared to hit all the right notes.

Yulia McGuffie, editor-in-chief of the Novoye Vremya news website, says she was disappointed when he was elected president in April 2019 because she didn’t believe he could manage a government.

However, she claims that Ukrainians have quickly warmed up to their president in the last week.

“Full support and respect came, I think after Russia started its war – all Ukrainians have closed ranks around Zelensky. He is playing a uniting and I would say inspiring role, partly by his own example. He is leading a government that is repelling Putin’s army, and for that many sincerely admire and respect him.”

The arrival of Zelensky on the political scene was an example of art mimicking life. His most well-known humorous part was in the TV series Servant of the People, in which he played a schoolteacher who was propelled to the president after a student shared a viral video of him raving against political corruption.

Some viewed his candidacy in the 2019 presidential election as a joke because his political party is called the Servant of the People. However, he went on to win with 73 percent of the vote, promising to battle corruption and restore peace to the country’s east.

The Ukrainian president wields considerable authority, but fulfilling these pledges has always been difficult, according to communications specialist Yaryna Klyuchkovska. The only way down for someone who began his presidency with such a high approval rating was down.

“It’s one thing to make such broad-ranging promises and another thing to execute these policies,” she says.

Key Zekensky Facts Before Politics

  • Born in the central city of Kryvyi Rih, east Ukraine, in 1978
  • Graduated from Kyiv National Economic University with a law degree
  • Co-founded a successful TV production company
  • Produced shows for a network owned by controversial billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky
  • Kolomoisky later backed his presidential bid
  • Until the mid-2010s, his career in TV and films was his main focus

During his presidential campaign, Zelensky benefited from the assistance of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, prompting fears that he would be exposed as a puppet of a guy under investigation in the United States for alleged fraud and money laundering.

He had shown himself to be more independent than the skeptics had suspected, refusing to accept the re-privatization of PrivatBank, which Kolomoisky had owned before it was nationalized.

READ ALSO: Full Text Of Vladimir Putin’s Speech On Invading Ukraine

On the other hand, corruption is still widespread in Ukraine, and there are fears that a new anti-oligarch law may be used to limit the operations of some oligarchs while leaving others alone. Some Western authorities believe that corruption charges against Zelensky’s major competitor, Petro Poroshenko, his predecessor as president, are politically motivated.

Zelensky’s attempts to negotiate with Russia in try to find a solution to the east’s conflict, which has claimed the lives of over 14,000 people, were similarly unsuccessful. There were some prisoner swaps and progress toward implementing sections of the Minsk agreements, but no breakthrough. Throughout the year of 2020, his approval rating steadily decreased.

Following that, Zelensky took a more forceful stance in lobbying for membership in the European Union and the Nato military alliance, a decision sure to enrage Russian President Vladimir Putin.

However, Yaryna Klyuchkovska claims that until recently, Zelensky’s language on the eastern war and relations with Russia was too cautious for many Ukrainians.

Even as Ukraine reported a significant increase in ceasefire violations along the front line, Putin announced a Day of Peace and continued to emphasize his hopes for a diplomatic settlement as the drumbeat of war became louder.

“He avoided the subject of war, warfare, anything military. It was a topic outside his comfort zone and he was not willing to go there in his public rhetoric,” Klyuchkovska says.

He also slammed the US and other Western nations’ daily warnings of an impending Russian strike, saying the US communication approach was “very expensive for Ukraine.”

Klyuchkovska claims that a lecture he gave at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, February 19, changed his mind and converted her from a skeptic to a believer. He began by recounting a visit to a kindergarten in the country’s east that had been hit by a missile just days before.

“When a bomb crater appears in a school playground, children have a question: ‘Has the world forgotten the mistakes of the 20th Century?'” he said.

“Indifference makes you an accomplice,” he told the guests from the West’s diplomatic and defence elites. He reminded them of Vladimir Putin’s rejection of a US-led world order at the same conference exactly 15 years earlier, and his assertion of Russia’s resurgence. “How did the world respond? With appeasement.”

Klyuchkovska says no Ukrainian leader had spoken so bluntly to the West before.

“For me the moment of pride in Zelensky came during his brilliant speech at the security conference in Munich,” says Yulia McGuffie. “It was then that many of Zelensky’s political opponents in Ukraine decided that now is not the time for rows and conflicts.”

Western intelligence claims that Zelensky’s name is the first on a list of people Russian forces aim to kill. He says his family is second on the list, but that he and they remain in Ukraine.

His presence is confirmed by the video selfies he has been shooting outside the presidential administration and the very distinctive House of Chimeras opposite it, adorned with representations of exotic animals and hunting scenes.

In response to one of these, British writer Ben Judah tweeted: “If you’d told many of our great-grandparents in the Pale [the area of the Russian empire in which Jews were mostly confined] that a Jewish man would be a Ukrainian war leader against a Russian invasion they would have blinked incredulously.”

“Of course, he is an actor. I don’t know whether it’s his true persona or not. But whatever he’s doing, it’s working,” says Yaryna Klyuchkovska. “His speech writers have found their stride. They come from the entertainment business, but even writing a Netflix show is different from writing presidential speeches.”

Ukraine still faces overwhelming odds. Russia’s invasion force is huge and well-armed. But the 44-year-old law graduate, a political newbie, has found a voice that has helped to bolster Ukrainian morale.

“One of my good friends has just written, ‘Zelensky has suddenly grown cojones of cosmic proportions’,” says McGuffie. “And this really reflects the attitude to him right now.”

By BBC and Kateryna Khinkulova

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