Comedian Volodmyr Zelensky has romped to victory in the Ukrainian presidential election. Zelensky, age 41, has no political experience and no experience in any field of endeavor that seems relevant to holding high political office.
Zelensky came to prominence by starring in a television show in which he portrays the president of Ukraine, a school teacher who sweeps into office after his rant against corruption is caught on camera and goes viral. Zelensky’s success in the election was due in part to the fame the show brought him and in part to the unpopularity of the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko.
Poroshenko’s unpopularity stems from unhappiness over the economy, over corruption, and over the war with Russia in Eastern Ukraine. Zelensky promises to crack down on corruption. Good luck with that.
On Russia, Zelensky says he’ll be more flexible in negotiations with Putin, but will not give away any territory and will maintain Ukraine’s pro-Western direction. Even good luck won’t enable him to square that circle.
Zelensky’s election may not be laughing matter for Ukrainians, but Vladimir Putin is probably amused and delighted. He may not be able to steal Zelensky’s pants as easily as he stole Barack Obama’s (e.g. in Syria and Eastern Europe), but the Ukrainian comedian is unlikely to be a match for the Russian strongman. As a Ukrainian political analyst put it, “Putin is very dangerous adversary; there’s a lot of risk here.”
The Washington Post suggests, as Zelensky has, that the comedian’s victory in a fair and open election may create envy among Russians, whose political system is appreciably less fair, open, and free. Said one Russian newspaper of the election across the border, “We want it like in Ukraine.” There are some in Eastern Ukraine, though, who “want it like in Russia.”
Neither nation is doing particularly well overall these days, so it’s normal that some in both countries see the grass as greener on the other side. The difference is that Russia’s rulers are better positioned than Ukraine’s to thwart this sentiment.
With the election of Zelensky, one fears that Russia’s rulers also might now be better positioned than before to burn the grass on at least part of the other side.