On March 31, a politically inexperienced comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, secured 30.3 percent of the vote in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections. This was almost twice as many votes as the runner-up, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. The two men will compete for the presidency in a run-off on April 21.
Western media is abuzz with tales of Zelensky’s background—his only experience in anything resembling politics comes from playing a schoolteacher-turned-president on a popular TV show. Yet, as the possibility of Zelensky actually becoming the next president of Ukraine looms larger, we still know very little about his politics and policy proposals. So, what does Zelensky actually believe?
When Zelensky announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve, Ukrainian and Russian media pegged him as catering to the Russian-speaking southeast of Ukraine. He was born in the Dnipropetrovsk region, which borders what is now the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and is under the control of pro-Russian separatist rebels. His production studio, Kvartal 95, puts out Russian-language content and used to export shows and movies to Russia. During the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, Zelensky was even accused by Ukrainian nationalists of participating in “Moscow’s cultural occupation” and contributing to stereotypes about Ukrainians. On the other hand, he actively supported the Maidan movement and even performed for Ukrainian soldiers fighting the pro-Russian forces.
The conflict with Russia was a major part of every candidate’s platform this year, and in Zelensky’s case, it seems to be the only topic he could discuss in concrete detail without resorting to sweeping generalizations. In an in-depth profile for the Ukrainian Pravda, Zelensky emphasized that his first objective is to stop the killing of Ukrainians on the eastern front. He wants to revisit the Minsk agreements—signed by Ukraine, Russia, and the separatists in 2014 and 2015 to put a stop to the fighting—by negotiating directly with Moscow. Although Zelensky is convinced that he can re-negotiate a ceasefire on better terms, he categorically refuses to consider granting amnesty to Russian fighters should Putin ask for it.
Zelensky is an outspoken opponent of the current Ukrainian government policy that denies Russian actors, artists, and performers entry into the country. He also wants to revise the language policies that seek to eliminate the use of the Russian language in eastern parts of Ukraine. “We should not marginalize those who speak other languages,” he told Russian newspaper AIF. “Everyone knows Ukrainian, if they don’t know it in the east—they’ll learn it. There’s the Ukrainian language, it’s the federal language. But you should be able to speak whatever you want.”
Beyond issues involving Russia and Russians, however, Zelensky’s platform is all about combating corruption. His campaign slogan, plastered on billboards across the country, is, “Spring will show who stole where,” taping into widespread frustrations with political elites who routinely pocket government funds. If elected, he says he will work to reduce the influence of Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs in politics. When asked how he plans to accomplish this, he gave a rather ambiguous answer: “We’ll institute the same rules for everyone. There’s one law for everyone. Just like I learned in law school…We’ll institute the same rules, let them live by the rules. We’ll ask Great Britain, set up a High Court of Justice.”
Given his promise to take on the oligarchs, it’s ironic that Zelensky’s campaign has been mired in accusations about the role of Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky’s bank was privatized by the government, and he’s heavily criticized Poroshenko’s administration. He also owns 1+1, the channel that puts out Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 show. In fact, when Zelensky announced his candidacy on 1+1, President Poroshenko’s official New Year’s address was aired late to make room for Zelensky’s spoof. Zelensky, of course, claims to have had nothing to do with the convenient timing.
Other than that, Zelensky doesn’t seem to have much of a platform. He emphasizes the need for fresh faces in politics and criticizes political elites, but the only thing he has to offer Ukrainians is his youth (Zelensky is 41) and a recognizable face. He has cited both Brazil’s far-right Jair Bolsonaro and France’s centrist Emmanuel Macron as inspirations, which suggests he cares more about anti-establishment credentials than ideology. In a little over two weeks, he will try to replicate their surprising success.