Interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

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“I ALWAYS NOT feel comfortable here, ”said Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, as he quickly entered a lavish presidential meeting room. A former successful comedian TV series “Servant of the People”, which tells the story of a humble schoolteacher who became president by accident, he is still, it seems, more accustomed to a studio than to a palace.

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But two years ago, his nerve and the failures of his predecessors won him nearly 75% of the vote in the second round of a presidential election. In a country where politics have long been dominated by oligarchs and treated as a means of personal gain, the victory of a man whose only trump card was his popularity seemed a miracle. “People saw a Cinderella story and identified with the life behind the screen,” says Zelensky The Economist.

He promised to overhaul the political system. “I’ve been headstrong in my quest for change, but I’m not the type of person who starts with an exit strategy,” he says. Despite all his good intentions, he came to power without political experience or even with a coherent plan. His presidency has been eventful, but reform has been slow and the results are mixed.

On the positive side, fears that Mr. Zelensky might be manipulated by oligarchs like Ihor Kolomoisky, who funded the TV channel Mr. Zelensky appeared on, and which is under investigation in America, have not been confirmed. Nor are the fears that Mr. Zelensky will be jostled by Russia. He remained loyal to his red lines during negotiations over the future of Donbass, the region in south-eastern Ukraine which was plunged into war in 2014 by Russian-backed separatists; and he kept his cool when Moscow massed troops on its border a few weeks ago.

He showed courage when he faced Viktor Medvedchuk, a powerful oligarch and friend of Mr Putin. M. Medvedchuk, including TV chains peddled pro-Kremlin propaganda while the pipeline he controlled pumped Russian diesel into Ukraine is now under house arrest on charges of treason. His TV the chains were closed and his assets were frozen. (Mr Medvedchuk, who also heads the most popular opposition party, denies any wrongdoing.) Vladimir Putin, who is said to be the godfather of Mr Medvedchuk’s daughter, has vowed to respond “quickly and correctly” to the arrest.

On the other hand…

Yet although Mr. Zelensky’s worst expectations did not come true, nor did he hope that he would bring an effective team of reformers. Although Zelensky’s government passed a law establishing a market for farmland, the country’s legal system has still not been reformed and the rule of law is more unequal than ever. On the occasion of the second anniversary of the inauguration of the President, Novoe Vremya, a weekly, summed up the sentiment in a headline: “Not as bad as we thought… but still bad enough.”

After firing a first shot at Mr Medvedchuk, Mr Zelensky has now introduced a new anti-oligarch law. He wants to create a legal definition: that an oligarch is someone who controls a large corporation, funds a political party, and controls major media channels. He wants to create a registry of oligarchs that he hopes will make them toxic to investors and lower the value of their assets if they refuse to change their ways.

Most Ukrainians would agree that their country’s oligarchs are too powerful. They have typically used their wealth to take over the state, making deals involving the country’s resources that benefit them and not the taxpayer. However, Zelensky’s critics fear he is simply trying to subdue individual tycoons and grab their media assets, rather than opening up the economy to real competition. A leaked version of the new law suggests that it will not grant greater powers to the anti-monopoly body or force the oligarchs to reduce their market dominance. Yet it prohibits anyone worth more than $ 80 million from owning media assets. In the meantime, he says, the state needs its own TV channel.

Mr. Zelensky has no obvious rivals at the moment and seems to like him that way; he is, some say, driven more by vanity than by greed. He is trying to eliminate another celebrity turned politician: Vitaly Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing world champion who is now elected mayor of Kiev. Mr. Zelensky accused his office of corruption and sent law enforcement agencies to carry out dozens of searches. Mr. Klitschko says he’s still standing. “I am an independent political actor with a track record of success. I am building my party before the next legislative elections, ”he said.

Some of Mr. Zelensky’s critics detect a hint of authoritarianism in his actions. Yet Ukraine is not Russia, and attempts to seize too much power there seldom succeed. Faced with a threat, the Ukrainian oligarchs could work together so that Zelensky never feels comfortable in the presidential office. But that’s not necessarily good news for a country in desperate need of reform.

Mr. Zelensky made his presidency a quest: he stepped into a closed political system and stood up for ordinary people. They encouraged him. His attack on the oligarchs is popular, as is his challenge to Russia and his government’s big investment in new roads. He is still by far the most trusted politician in Ukraine: 30% say they would vote for him today, the same number as in the first round two years ago. As summer approaches, despite covid-19 and the continuing war in the east, there is an atmosphere of well-being in Kiev. “People are always in love with Zelensky, or rather his character,” says Yulia Mostovaya, editor-in-chief of Zerkalo Nedeli, an online journal. â– 

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “The comedian becomes serious”



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