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Opinion: Ukrainians wonder if their comedian-turned-president can handle the world stage


Flashy graphics and cool costumes framed a presentation that included a promise to offer deeply discounted smartphones and a preferential internet rate to every fully vaccinated Ukrainian senior.
The event could have been timed to distract from the current crisis, or perhaps simply as a follow-up to Zelensky’s election promise to turn Ukraine into a “country in a smartphone”. Whatever the reasoning, the smartphone announcement did not give the impression that Zelensky was keeping an eye on the most important ball right now, namely the greatest military threat against Ukraine in modern history. .
Almost halfway through a five-year term, Zelensky may be wondering why his leap from TV comedian to politics doesn’t mirror the ride to power depicted in his TV drama, “Servant of the People.” In it, Zelensky portrays an impoverished teacher who accidentally becomes president, setting off a dramatic power struggle between his character and greedy oligarchs.
The actual version was very different. Months after being elected in a euphoric landslide, Zelensky was embroiled in a quid pro quo scandal fabricated by fellow showman-turned-politician, former President Donald Trump. The US leader survived an impeachment inquiry into his attempt to pressure Zelensky to smear election opponent and current President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
The following years brought another kind of challenge to Ukrainian governance: Covid-19. Last month, Ukraine passed the 100,000 death mark and now has one of the highest per capita death rates in the world, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University. The country’s vaccination program has also lagged considerably behind the rest of Europe, including France, Germany and the UK, with just over 33% of the population fully bitten.
It was as brutal a baptism in politics as one could wish, probably made worse by Zelensky bringing into the halls of power cronies who had never served in politics before, such as the President’s aide Andriy Yermak.
Initially, there were legitimate questions about whether Zelensky was his own man, after his former billionaire backer Igor Kolomoisky helped propel him into office with cash and favorable coverage on his TV channels. . Those ties have frayed, but Ukrainian media continue to report on the influence of business figures and politically connected people on the neophyte politician.
Now, with the drumbeat of war ringing louder than ever with the threat that the Russians could seize more Ukrainian territory, Zelensky’s credentials for the job are coming under increasing scrutiny from a nervous nation. about the days and months to come; wondering if the former comedian will succumb to pressure to capitulate to a lopsided deal that was signed before he was elected.
And it could threaten the legacy of a man who promised voters during his election campaign to end the war in eastern Ukraine. It was a monumental promise that probably helped him defeat former President Petro Poroshenko.
Indeed, badly bruised by Zelensky’s victory, Poroshenko tweeted on election night that the Russian government would welcome the election of a “new, inexperienced president” of Ukraine who could be returned to the sphere of influence of Russia.
Putin faces the mud of Ukraine
There were other broken promises from Zelensky, such as not running for a second term and not cracking down on corruption in the much-maligned justice system.

Fast forward more than two years after his election victory, and Zelensky has made it clear that he hasn’t checked his bag of showmanship stuff at the gates of the presidential building.

One wonders if the policy of giving smartphones to seniors will be transformative. Older people in Ukraine tend to use simple flip phones rather than smartphones, and pensions are so low (around $80 a month) that a discount is unlikely to get them into an environment. in line. It is estimated that three million Ukrainians live in villages where there is no internet connection.
The smartphone announcement seemed out of place for a president facing war on his doorstep. Indeed, a recent survey by the Razumkov Center, a local non-governmental public policy think tank, found that more than 55% of respondents did not believe the Ukrainian government was doing enough diplomatic and defense efforts to prevent a full-scale Russian invasion. Of the 1,206 respondents across Ukraine (excluding the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions), more than 55% also believed that Zelensky would not be an effective commander-in-chief and would not organize the defense of the country, in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion. .
“Zelensky and his administration are paying the price for the mistakes they have made over the past two years,” Olga Rudenko, editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper Kyiv Independent, told a Frontline Online panel on Thursday evening. had the invasion taken place in 2019, a few months after he was elected president when his level of confidence was very high, that would have been a different story.”
Zelensky’s mixed messages about the Russian threat also failed to inspire confidence in his presidential abilities, Rudenko said. She pointed to a video address last month in which Zelensky said that despite dire warnings from Washington about the threat of an imminent invasion, Ukrainians should live their lives as normal, including celebrating Easter by hosting barbecues. But the next day, in an interview with The Washington Post, Zelensky said Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, could be occupied.

“It was completely situationally deaf and done in a very condescending tone… As a Ukrainian, I personally fail him from a communication perspective,” Rudenko said. “We don’t know what to believe.”

Zelensky is of course the latest in a long line of big and small screen showmans who have made the professional leap into politics, the most obvious being Trump. But let’s not forget B-list actor Ronald Reagan and original Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger. In Europe too, far-right French television pundit Eric Zemmour is a presidential hopeful this year. And long before becoming British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson made regular appearances on the satirical ‘Have I Got News for You’ panel as a journalist.
If there’s one quality that seems to unite most showmen-turned-politicians, it’s that they have a knack for shaking up scandals. Even Johnson has, at least temporarily, managed to switch channels over damaging coverage of his “partygate” scandal by focusing on the Ukraine crisis and visiting his capital. He is the first British leader to do so in more than two decades, offering $119 million to boost the Ukrainian government’s ability to end corruption and achieve energy independence.
But it remains to be seen whether Teflon will spare Zelensky from potentially deadly traps set before him by his predecessors and international diplomats. Many here view the 2015 Minsk agreement – struck in the Belarusian capital with the aim of ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine – as grossly flawed, with terms not in Ukraine’s favor . (Which might also explain why Putin is so keen on the deal).
If Zelensky follows through on the accords’ requirement to grant some autonomy to Russian-backed fighters who have occupied eastern Ukraine since 2014, it could spell the end of his presidency. It’s a no-go zone for any Ukrainian president due to the perception that a huge chunk of sovereign land would be handed over to Russia in exchange for very little.

Now, as Ukraine faces one of the most existential challenges in the country’s modern history, Zelensky must pull more out of the hat than smartphones and resist a rapidly fading television aura by pursuing his main opponent (Poroshenko). If there was ever a time for him to resist stunts and invoke a statesman-like style of leadership, this is it. For Ukrainians and the world, this is no laughing matter.


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Sara Adm

Amateur tv aficionado. Freelance zombie junkie. Pop culture trailblazer. Organizer. Web buff. Social media evangelist.
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