On Sunday, April 21, 2019 Ukraine had its presidential election–one with surprising results. Former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidency in a landslide victory, potentially, and surprisingly, giving hope for Ukrainians and for the rest of the world.
Ukraine has had a long and difficult history of antisemitism, so the new election of a Jewish president (in a context where there was already an appointed Jewish Prime Minister) is good news for Jewish people everywhere. More than that, Ukrainian alt-right attempted to stir up antisemitism around Zelensky’s non-practicing Jewish past, to no avail– in fact, support for Zelensky only grew.
Before running for the presidency, Zelensky had previously played a fictional Ukrainian president in a popular Ukrainian comedy series, Servant of the People. Ukrainians everywhere hope that the comedian-turned-politician has what it takes to bring Ukraine to one of the top five nations in the world, as it was in the political satire comedy, in which Zelensky plays a history teacher who unexpectedly wins a presidential election after a student posts a viral video of him ranting about corruption in Ukraine. Despite their hopes, many Ukrainians doubt Zelensky’s backbone and ability to stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Quickly after the election, he has begun to prove such skeptics wrong.
Putin attempted to undermine Zelensky’s authority, offering Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens. Candy-coated as a golden opportunity, Putin actually would be “stealing” Ukrainian citizens, as Ukraine does not allow for dual citizenship. For the time being, this opportunity would have only been seized by separatists in the Crimea, but this “offer” from Putin could open the door for civil war in Ukraine.
Zelensky was up to the challenge, rejecting Putin’s offer and proposing one of his own: Ukrainian citizenship to Russians who “suffer” under Kremlin leadership.
Zelensky received criticisms throughout his campaign and afterward for his vagueness. American news sources and global journals included headlines such as “No policies, no problem: Ukrainian comedian’s election success is latest warning for politicians” in NBC news in early April. In addition to Zelensky’s lack of clearly stipulated proposals and opinions, he received criticism for his being new to global politics. His pre-electoral program is admittedly, indeed, quite vague. It consisted more of a comprehensive list of his ideals than a timeline for specific goals, objectives and milestones he hopes to hit during his presidency. The overall themes present are those of anti-corruption and developing a strong Ukrainian identity, pitching himself as the poster child of a proud Ukrainian. His platform boasts a future Ukraine that no longer has advertisements to work in Poland and one with advertisements to Poles offering them jobs in Ukraine. He uses emotional experiences that are incorporated into the daily lives of some Ukrainians, such as shootings and other hardships, and explains how in the future, such things will be symbols of prosperity.
This may have been a strong strategy on Zelensky’s behalf, these being criticisms of the government held by Ukrainians throughout the nation. He has exemplified goals of bringing in all Ukrainians to create a cohesive national identity that still represents Ukraine’s diversity. In fact, in his inauguration speech, he flipped easily between speaking Russian and speaking Ukrainian. This way, throughout the speech, he both implied and explicitly stated his commitment to Ukrainians throughout the nation, especially those living on the border near Russia.
Although his platform may have been vague and he is relatively new to public office, perhaps this is exactly what Ukrainians need: a unifying force for the common Ukrainian and against corruption.