Opinion: With Ukranians set to vote in a snap general election next weekend, all eyes are on Volodymyr Zelensky to see if he can deliver on his promises

Ukraine's recent history has been characterised by cycles of tumultuous politics and three revolutions. The "Revolution on Granite" in 1990 eventually led to the breakaway from the Soviet Union and independence in 1991 and was followed by the "Orange Revolution" in 2004-05 and the "Euromaidan Revolution" in 2013-14. The hopes of millions of Ukrainians that each new phase would deliver a more transparent politics and the ability to live in a "normal" country, proved illusory. Formally a democratic state, Ukraine remained stuck in the limbo of the semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian hybrid political regime.

The main reason is that Ukraine’s fledgling state institutions were captured by the powerful and rapacious  ruling elite which came into existence in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet system. This elite is made up of a combination of various informal political-economic networks which are tightly interwoven with the state agencies at all levels from the local councils, police and courts, to the national parliament and the government.

Generally known as oligarchic clans, these informal political-economic networks constitute the most common feature of the majority of post-Communist, and especially post-Soviet, societies. Political scientists refer to them as clientelist or patrimonial networks. By "capturing" the state, these corrupt networks form the de-facto shadow or deep state which they typically use for financial extraction from the country’s economy. This leads to a highly disproportional redistribution of the national wealth in such a way that the elite grows richer and the great majority of the people are barely able to pay their bills.

The demand from Ukrainian society for a serious and permanent change is very strong and unambiguously clear

Despite high hopes, neither the Orange nor the Euromaidan revolutions produced system change. The main reason was that the new post-revolution presidents and the majority of the new deputies of the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) still belonged to the corrupt political elite who had little interest in getting rid of the existing system. Those few "new faces" who did not participate in the fraudulent schemes were not able to make any serious change. 

While the prospect of another presidential election in 2019 offered little hope of a decisive change for many, it did produce one change. Instead of taking to the streets, Ukrainians learned the bitter lessons of those earlier periods and decided to have a revolution at the ballot boxes.

In the presidential election in April 2019, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for Volodymyr Zelensky a complete outsider and political novice. So who is he? The dominant narrative in international media describes Zelensky as a "comedian".  Although this is partly true, labelling him as a comedian turned president significantly distorts the real picture of his career trajectory, which is more complex and nuanced.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Ukranian journalist Alex Kleimenov profiles new Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelensky

Zelensky has a university degree in law and comes from a highly educated background. A very successful entrepreneur and self-made millionaire, he is a co-founder, co-owner, producer and screenwriter of Kvartal 95one of the most successful television production companies in eastern Europe which employs 400 people. Since 2003, the company has produced numerous TV shows, cartoons, films and television comedy shows, which are popular both in Ukraine and internationally. Their satirical TV program Vecherniy Kvartal, which has aired on Fridays in prime time in Ukraine since 2005, has been outrageously popular. In sharp and often offensive parodies, the show regularly mocks leading Ukrainian and international politicians.

Between 2015 and 2019, Kvartal 95 produced the top-rated TV series Servant of the People in which Zelensky played the role of president of Ukraine. In this political comedy, his character was an honest and ordinary history teacher who, almost by accident, becomes president. The corrupt establishment continuously tries to corrupt him (unsuccessfully) and make him one of them. After a long fight, Zelensky’s character and his supporters within the country and abroad manage to radically change the political-economic system and Ukraine eventually becomes a truly democratic, corruption-free, successful and prosperous country.

In 2017, Zelensky created the Servant of the People political party. Many Ukrainians perceived the film as Zelenski's political statement and some political analysts believe that the TV show represented his de facto presidential campaign. After a campaign full of lies and smears, the cynical Ukrainian robber-barons, seemingly failed to fool the electorate, with 32% voting for "a simple guy who is one of us" in the first round of the presidential election against 17% who voted for the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko. In the second round, Zelensky received an extraordinary 73% of votes and Poroshenko got only 24%.

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Trailer for Servant of the People

In retrospect, the result seems even more astonishing as Poroshenko had put a powerful administrative and political machine into action. He also virtually bribed certain sectors of society dependent on state funding by raising salaries and payments during the electoral campaign. Poroshenko's smear campaign against Zelensky, in which the newcomer was accused of being a puppet of the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi and someone willing to sell Ukraine to Putin, did not convince Ukrainians.

Zelensky’s election manifesto did not explain in detail how he is going to achieve such goals as the resolution of the bitter conflict with Russia, which has occupied Crimea since 2014 and is also present in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. Up to 13,000 people have died in the conflict since 2014. The new president has also called for accelerated economic modernisation, the introduction of quality public services (free of corruption), reform of the political-economic system, increased security and many other structural changes.

READ: 8 reasons why comedians make good leaders

However, his main message in the election was clear: remove the ruling elite altogether and replace them with new people, not belonging to Ukraine’s parasitical oligarchic networks. Amongst other proposals, the new approach would give ordinary Ukrainians the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes through mechanisms of direct democracy. It remains to be seen if Zelensky will be able to execute this Herculean task and fulfil his promises to the Ukrainian people. But the demand from Ukrainian society for a serious and permanent change is very strong and unambiguously clear.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ