KYIV—Exit polls show a television comedian backed by a shadowy billionaire has won Ukraine’s presidential elections by a landslide after securing almost three-quarters of the vote.
This is no joke, as headline writers have been saying ever since the possibility of a victory by Volodomyr Zelensky over incumbent Petro Poroshenko loomed on the electoral horizon.
Ukraine is a country at war, shorn of territory by Russian covert and overt actions, with corruption a massive problem, and a hopeful but still fragile attachment to democracy.
There is little question that the vote for Zelensky was a vote against the status quo—Poroshenko had failed to solve the key problem, the war, and was blamed for pervasive corruption. But what exactly people thought they were voting for remains unclear.
Zelensky is a clown whose humor is, to say the least, broad. Not long before election day, in one of his comedy skits that aired on Ukrainian television, Zelensky played a sex-obsessed middle-age husband so overwhelmed by the sight of a popular young singer’s breasts that he dared not stand up. “It’s as if I am stabbed with a sword,” he told his wife, alluding to his unwanted erection.
Not so funny, really, but the now soon-to-be president of Ukraine does not care if his old jokes were a little crude and more than a little salty. He knows people love him.
The comedian’s fans have seen him on screen wearing the dress and scarf of a babushka’s outfit; they’ve seen him “drunk,” and terrified, and playing a variety of idiots. His signature role was playing a fool who wound up as president of the republic in the popular TV series, Servant of the People.
A few minutes before the exit polls were announced, Zelensky appeared before hundreds of journalists with music from the TV series in the background and a big smile on on his face that told us he knew he had won.
In real life Zelensky—his face stone serious—has promised “to break the old system” that he portrayed on TV. On Sunday night he kissed and thanked his wife, his parents and friends for their “strength.”
“If she knew what we would go through, she would not have married me,” he said about the mother of his two children, Olena Zelenska. Ukraine’s new first lady looked happy and above all relieved.
He addressed all post-Soviet countries with authoritarian regimes: “Look at us, everything is possible,” he said. Using the opportunity, the newly elected president encouraged dozens of reporters at the press center to join the information war against Russia.
In addition to his televised familiarity, 41-year-old Zelensky also has the appeal of youth at a time when a new generation of politicians has been making its mark, from Emmanuel Macron in France to Pete Buttigieg in the United States. And he played up his youthful style even as voters went to the polls.
The leader of “the old system,” President Poroshenko, wearing a white shirt and black suit, chose to begin election day with a trip to church on what is, in the Orthodox calendar, Palm Sunday. Zelensky started his day pulling on a white T-shirt. He had a cup of coffee and his wife played some Eminem for him. Flashing smiles at the polling station, the comedian assured reporters: “Everything will be good.”
Everything about Zelensky irritated right-wing Ukrainian nationalists. “His behavior on election day shows how radically opposite he is from our leader, Poroshenko,” Sergiy Parkhomenko, an analyst with the right-wing To Protect Ukraine movement, told The Daily Beast on Sunday. “While the country is fighting a war with Russia, he is playful and full of jokes.”
Parkhomenko added ominously, “We are going to raise a new Maidan revolution if he makes a single step away from our course,” alluding to the uprising that brought down pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. “He is weak, he does not have a religion, he does not have a nationality.”
On that last point, things are bit more complicated. Zelensky says that he is a Ukrainian of “Jewish origin,” which is also an unusual feature for a politician in Ukraine, a country where as many as 1.6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during German occupation in World War II.
Today, Jews number only about 200,000, and anti-Semitism is far from over. Last year, the Jewish Committee reported more than one hundred cases.
“We have more than 180 Jewish politicians in power, but Zelensky is the first one among the leaders who is openly speaking about that,” Oleg Vishnevetskiy, the leader of Jewish community in the town of Uman, told The Daily Beast.
Thousands of Hasidic Jews arrive in Uman every year to visit the holy grave of Rebbe Nachman, and the community hopes that with Zelensky as the president, the environment for the community will grow more positive. “I hope that Zelensky will unite Ukraine and make peace between East and West, because so far we see Kiev allowing far-right marches with torches and think that the Germany of 1939 begins again,” said Vishnevetskiy.
Zelensky's television patron, billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, currently lives in self-imposed exile in Israel. On the week of Passover, Uman Jews received boxes with matzah from Kolomoisky’s United Jewish Community. But many Ukrainians may not regard the oligarch’s influence as benign. As The Daily Beast reported earlier this month, the FBI in the United States is actively investigating Kolomoisky for a number of possible financial crimes. His lawyer has firmly declared that Kolomoisky is innocent.
Given the country’s history of anti-Semitism, the fact that such a powerful majority of Ukrainians voted for a Jewish candidate shows Vishnevetskiy’s right-wing view is out there on the fringe one.
A former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, found it interesting Zelensky’s Jewish heritage and preference for speaking Russian (another black mark for Ukraine’s nationalist right) has played such a minor role in the campaign.
“Ukraine has always been accused of being anti-Semitic and nationalistic in regard to the Ukrainian language and Russian language, and here is a guy who is Jewish, speaks Russian and he comes in first, so far,” Taylor, executive vice president of United States Institute of Peace, told The Daily Beast last week.
With passions high and political theater so unprecedented, the elections have been an exciting time for many Ukrainian voters, who sincerely want to have fully functioning democracy. According to the National Democratic Institute monitoring the election, up to 80 percent of people say that democracy is important to them—that is not a divisive issue.
A skeptical part of Ukraine’s electorate cannot imagine how Zelensky, an entertainer with no leadership or managerial experience political or otherwise, could manage to run a deeply corrupt country where millions are affected by the ongoing war against Moscow-led forces. But Zelensky seems to be sincere and fearless when he speaks about his feeling for the victims of the war.
“I am ready to kneel before every mother who did not see her son return from the frontlines,” he said during the presidential debates on Friday, and knelt down on the stage. Poroshenko followed him and also knelt in the most dramatic scene of this presidential race.
To many in Ukraine, living with daily news of soldiers killed in the east of the country, the two rivals kneeling down came across as a rare sign of reconciliation. But many continue to wonder: is Zelensky a really a Kremlin project?
“I don’t think so,” Ambassador Taylor told The Daily Beast. “I see no evidence that he is; he seems to be the guy who wants to unite Ukraine to make it strong.”
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Zelensky’s close friend and fellow comedian at Studio Quarter-95, Yevgeny Koshevoy, said the presidential campaign was “painful” to watch.
“It is just unbearable to face so many accusations. For three months I have been reading disparaging nonsense, lies about Zelensky, about our team being ‘the Kremlin’s prostitutes,’ ‘the Kremlin’s lapdogs,’” Koshevoy told The Daily Beast. “Pro-Poroshenko media groups attack us and never say that Russia has opened a criminal case against Zelensky.”
That probably is because it’s not at all the Kremlin connection that Zelinsky’s critics were looking for.
In 2015 Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against Zelensky for financing “punishment battalions fighting against Russian speaking population” in eastern regions of Ukrainian. If charged, Zelensky could be facing up to 20 years of jail in Russia.
After so many years living the life of a TV star performing in front of thousands, Koshevoy found suffering a kind of sympathetic stage fight as he watched his best friend take on the new role of a serious presidential candidate.
When Zelensky presented his campaign team on national television, said Koshevoy, “I was standing by the TV set, drinking, terrified that some journalist would insult him.”
Koshevoy met Zelensky in 2002, and appreciates how tough he can be.
“Once he got terribly sick with salmonella from a bad egg but still came out on stage to perform a concert—we carried him to the stage,” Koshevoy recalled.
When the war began in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, in the spring of 2014, Zelensky, Koshevoy and other members of the Studio Quarter-95 troupe traveled around the front line. They performed in front of the soldiers fresh from combat. “People told us that they were smiling at our jokes—smiling for the first time in weeks—that night,” Koshevoy remembered.
“All Zelensky wants to do is to unite Ukraine, make it stronger—cooler—and nothing can stop him—he is stubborn, believe me.”