"It's like a vicious circle," fictional Ukrainian president Vasyl Holoborodko observes in the country's popular television comedy Servant of the People. "If someone's honest then he must be a fool, and if he's smart he must be a thief." Now the actor who plays him, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, must prove his character wrong by showing that as Ukraine's real head of state he can fulfil his promise to fight corruption while outwitting a discredited elite and holding his own against Russian president Vladimir Putin.
While hapless teacher Holoborodko is pitched into power by a viral video showing him ranting against graft, Zelenskiy parlayed his popularity as a comedian into a landslide victory over incumbent Petro Poroshenko in Sunday's presidential election run-off. Zelenskiy's campaign appealed strongly to a nation disillusioned with established politicians, by replacing the normal routine of rallies and long speeches with snappy messages and short clips posted on social media.
When he finally met Poroshenko for a debate it was also on his own unorthodox terms, in front of 22,000 spectators at Kiev's biggest football stadium, where he skewered his rival with the kind of points that Ukrainians make over a beer and at the kitchen table. "How come Ukraine is the poorest state with the richest president?" he asked of a man who has combined a 20-year career in politics with the creation of a billion-dollar business empire. "I'm not a politician, I'm just an ordinary person who came to break this system," Zelenskiy told the crowd. And after taking 73 per cent of votes he will now have a chance to make good on his pledge.
Could the free and fair election of Zelenskiy finally force Putin to change the script?
Zelenskiy’s team says his priorities include relaunching Ukraine’s faltering anti-corruption drive, naming new heads of the national security service and prosecutor general’s office, and asking parliamentary deputies to back a presidential impeachment process and the removal of their own immunity from prosecution. If he really threatens vested interests then he will face fierce resistance from powerful businessmen and their political cronies, as well as intense scrutiny of his own links to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.
At the same time, Zelenskiy must quickly grow his own nascent Servant of the People party before autumn’s parliamentary elections, in which the big beasts of Ukrainian politics will seek to shackle the new leader.
Zelenskiy also wants to bring home all Ukrainians captured by Russia during five years of undeclared war, and negotiate an end to the conflict with a Kremlin that has not accepted Ukraine's pivot to the West in its 2014 revolution. Moscow portrays Poroshenko's Ukraine as a failing state dominated by Russophobes and fascists; could the free and fair election of Zelenskiy, a Jew who speaks better Russian than Ukrainian, finally force Putin to change the script?