President Donald Trump is falling into a hot skillet surrounded by blue and yellow flames—the colors of the Ukrainian flag—as the much smaller Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, looks on with outstretched hands and a look of consternation on his face. It’s the cover image of the latest issue of newsmagazine Novoye Vremya in Ukraine, under the headline “Burned at Work.”
Zelensky, the former comedian and political novice who was elected as Ukraine’s president in April with more than 73 percent of the vote, arrived in the United States on Monday for the U.N. General Assembly and stepped into the middle of a complex, fast-moving news maelstrom as Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry of Trump, based largely around what was said during conversations between the two leaders.
Back in Ukraine, coverage was a bit slow to build around the whistleblower complaint late last week, but the story has ramped up in recent days. A sampling of recent news headlines in Ukraine includes “Biden, Zlochevsky and Manafort. How an Old Ukrainian Story Can Destroy Trump,” (Mykola Zlochevsky, a former Ukrainian minister, serves as the head of energy company Burisma, which is at the heart of the scandal involving Biden’s son, Hunter) and “Impeachment in the USA? Scandal Around the Trump-Zelensky Call”.
There’s an ongoing debate over how Zelensky has handled the scandal and his awkwardly timed trip to the U.S., but regardless, “it’s not good Ukraine has fallen into this scandal,” says Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
For Ukrainians, who have lived through over five years of struggles for sovereignty from the revolution, through Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the ensuing, still-active Russian-backed war in eastern Ukraine that has left over 13,000 dead, Zelensky’s attempts to play along with Trump during their phone call have touched a nerve, adds Anastasiia Stanko, a journalist for Hromadske, one of the independent media outlets that was born out of the 2013–14 revolution.
The release of a reconstructed transcript of the call between Trump and Zelensky from July (Zelensky has strongly objected to the White House’s decision to release the transcript of his half of the conversation) shows the American president telling Zelensky that “there’s a lot of talk about [Joe] Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.” Zelensky responded by saying that since his political party, Servant of the People (named after the TV show on which he used to play the role of the president), won a majority in the parliament in July, “the next prosecutor general will be 100 percent my person, my candidate,” and that person “will look into the situation.”
The “100 percent” comment regarding the prosecutor general has prompted a lot of discussion because “the topic of justice and law enforcement reform is very sensitive for Ukrainians,” Stanko said. Fighting corruption has been a long-running struggle in Ukraine. It featured heavily in the country’s election this year and was among the factors that sparked its last revolution.
These latest allegations of corruption within Ukraine’s judiciary have highlighted how far the country still has to go in its efforts to establish a truly independent judiciary where prosecutors aren’t beholden to political forces, internal or external.
Experts in Ukraine have generally viewed Ukraine’s new prosecutor general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who took office just last month, positively, Haran says. But now Zelensky is facing a tough task.
“The question is, how as prosecutor general will Ryaboshapka be truly distanced from politicians? This is very important,” Haran said. “Because all the prior prosecutor generals were tied to politicians. This is the real question. I think we will fight with this, but the main thing is that Trump not press us … the main thing, and I think Zelensky understands this, is to stay out of domestic U.S. politics.”
Keeping track of all the key players in Ukraine might be confusing for an American audience, but Ukrainians are likewise baffled by how this situation is playing out in Washington. “All the internal U.S. political context that is important for the U.S. media is mostly missing from the coverage” in Ukraine, said Kyrylo Loukerenko, executive director at Hromadske Radio in Kyiv.
Instead, Ukrainians are asking questions about what the phone call will mean for Ukraine’s relations with the European Union (on the call, Zelensky agreed with Trump’s suggestion that Germany and France were not doing as much as they should to aid Ukraine), what the implications will be for the rule of law with the prosecutor general, and how independent the Ukrainian president will be from U.S. influence, Loukerenko said. Pro-Russian politicians and media are using the story to “bring their audience the idea that Zelensky is a ‘puppet of the U.S.,’ ” he adds. This is a little ironic given that former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s supporters accused Zelensky of being a Russian puppet during the campaign.
Aspects of the story, including Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani’s meetings with various officials and the early departure of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, have been news in Ukraine for some time. “It’s only now that it became a breakthrough for U.S. media,” said Yevhen Fedchenko, director of the journalism school at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
The impeachment story being at the top of the U.S. media agenda will influence Ukrainian media to continue covering the story, Fedchenko said. But this comes at a time when average Ukrainians are concerned with many other issues.
“Within Ukrainian political culture, it’s very difficult to surprise people with anything, so I would even say [this story] is within norms, no matter how weird that may sound,” Fedchenko said. “Ukrainians are much more preoccupied with the war, with how the new government will be dealing with the economic situation as well.”
While Trump’s political future in the U.S. is unclear, there is no talk in Ukraine of Zelensky not serving his full term in office, Stanko said. The Ukrainian president’s approval rating remains high, hovering around 70 percent as of last month.
Ironically, given the events of the past week, Zelensky earlier this month fulfilled a campaign promise signing a bill into law allowing for Ukrainian presidents to be removed from office through impeachment proceedings.
Despite the gravity of all the events of the past week, Ukrainians are poking fun at the situation with social media posts making reference to “Monica Zelensky”—a wink to America’s last impeachment process under then-President Bill Clinton. Another columnist joked that the writers of House of Cards and Zelensky’s own Servant of the People must have been swapped.
Ukraine’s former-comedian-turned-president might now be the person who could determine the future of the American presidency or what comes during the U.S.’s 2020 election. And that’s no laughing matter.