In Depth

Who is Volodymyr Zelensky? From comedy to impeachment scandal

The Ukrainian comic-turned-president is back in the spotlight amid row over phone call with Donald Trump

When Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine earlier this year, no one could have foreseen that he would become a key figure in one of the US’s most seismic political scandals in decades.

But Zelensky, a former comedian and one of the world’s most unlikely political leaders, has been thrust into the spotlight by the fall-out from a controversial phone call with US President Donald Trump in which the pair appeared to strike a quid pro quo deal without the approval of Congress. 

The White House this week released a memo summarising the conversation, during which Trump appeared to suggest that Washington could release $400m of military funding being withheld from Kiev if Ukraine launched a covert investigation into the financial dealings of Democrat rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

But while the incident has caused shockwaves in Washington, dragging Trump and the House of Representatives into a likely protracted impeachment inquiry, the outlook for Zelensky is also grave. After running on what The New York Times calls a “life-mimics-art campaign that built his image as an anti-corruption crusader”, allegations of backdoor dealings with global superpowers are likely to severely damage his reputation at home.

Merely a comedian just a handful of months ago, Zelensky’s unenviable leap to being the focal point of a major international political scandal has seen opinion pieces surface accusing him of being “embarrassing” or “a bit out of his depth”.

But who is Volodymyr Zelensky and might a routine phone call with him spell the end of Trump’s presidency?

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Early life and election

Zelensky was born in the town of Kryvyi Rih in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1978 and studied as a lawyer prior to becoming a comedian.

He became famous among Ukrainians after landing a role in the sitcom Servant of the People, in which - ironically - he played a fictional teacher-turned-president. As the show grew more popular, he helped launch a political party of the same name and was selected as its candidate for the 2019 presidential election.

Initially lagging behind and seen as a “clown show”, as RT puts it, Zelensky slowly rose in the polls by appealing to voters fed up with entrenched corruption, low living standards and years of political upheaval, the BBC's Jonah Fisher said prior to the vote.

“He has torn up the rule book for election campaigning, holding no rallies and few interviews and instead using social media to appeal to younger voters,” he adds. “He appears to have no strong political views apart from a wish to be new and different.”

At the ballot box he ran against the controversial, fiercely anti-Russian president Petro Poroshenko, who came to power following a violent coup against his predecessor Victor Yanukovich in 2014. Despite Poroshenko warning that Zelensky was inexperienced and Ukraine “could be quickly returned to Russia’s orbit of influence” under the comedian’s rule, Zelensky stormed to victory in a landslide, taking 73% of the vote against the incumbent Poroshenko.

Record in power

Zelensky has been extremely busy since taking office, but his record is polarising.

Since taking office, The Atlantic reports, Zelensky been a “whirlwind of activity”, having travelled to the front line of the war in eastern Ukraine, to Brussels to meet with European Union and Nato leaders and “stood on the tarmac to welcome home 35 Ukrainians freed in a prisoner exchange with Russia”.

Writing in The Independent, Mary Dejevsky suggests that his impact has been remarkable. “It’s easy to be carried away by what feels like a tangible change of mood since Volodymyr Zelensky was elected Ukraine’s president just as the late winter turned to a frigid spring. But for once, this upbeat first impression may be more than just superficial.”

She adds: “Since his election, he has displayed a canny popular touch, with all the timing and carriage of a showbiz professional.”

But to others, he has been all bluster. Variety suggests that since his election, Zelensky has “struggled to make good on his promises for Ukraine”, a country which relies heavily on US and European aid and which is “bogged down in fighting against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country”.

The Atlantic notes that one important factor confusing matters in his polarising presidency is his unwillingness to “fuse together accomplishments and public relations”. According to the magazine, he and his allies have “openly said they do not need journalists in their efforts to communicate with the public”.

Furthermore, Zelensky has “yet to hold a press conference, his spokeswoman’s regular press briefings have been canned, and his government has closed cabinet meetings—previously open to accredited journalists—to the media”.

Role in the Trump scandal

In August, an unknown whistle-blower in the US intelligence service issued a formal complaint to the authorities over the conduct of US President Donald Trump. Of the allegations made by the whistle-blower, the claim that gathered the most traction in the media was that of Trump’s comments during a July phone call with an unnamed foreign leader, reportedly promising something to said leader in the hopes of a political favour in return.

After an investigation by The New York Times and The Washington Post, it was revealed that the leader Trump had spoken to in July was Zelensky. After a lengthy war of words between Republican and Democrat lawmakers in Congress, this week Trump authorised “the complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript” of his conversation with the Ukrainian leader, in which Trump congratulated him on his victory in the Ukrainian election.

After Zelensky thanked the US for its military support and said he was almost ready to buy more American weapons, Trump replied: “I would like you to do us a favor, though” and went on to pressure Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter in relation to the latter’s ties to a Ukrainian natural gas company.

Vox reports that Trump has admitted to discussing Biden with Ukraine, but insists that a phone call he had with Zelensky was “a very friendly and totally appropriate call”.

Quartz, however, says that although Zelensky has not commented directly on the matter, his spokesman says that the Ukrainian had told Trump that his administration “has a strict policy of not meddling with law enforcement”. This is not corroborated by the transcript released on Tuesday.

Possible impact of row on Zelensky 

While much can be said of the political ramifications of the phone call for Trump - condemnation, corruption allegations and potential impeachment - less has been said about the impact the issue may have on Zelensky.

For a start, the BBC’s Jonah Fisher notes that while many voters “assumed he’d take the straight-talking, principled style from TV to the office with him”, the call transcript “shows a very different side” to the president.

“There were frequent, embarrassing displays of flattery directed at President Trump,” Fisher says. “At one point Ukraine’s president told Trump he had modelled his election win on him, that he too wanted to ‘drain the swamp’ and cringingly said how much he enjoyed talking on the phone to him.”

For the most part, however, focus has been put on Zelensky’s inaction. In an article headlined “Let’s Check In on Ukraine’s President, Who’s Pretending None of This Is Really Happening”, Vice News reports that Zelensky has been hesitant to make any sudden movements or make any meaningful comments.

When questioned about the call by Voice of America in New York City this week, he simply replied: “I expect us to have awesome relations with the United States. I expect us to invite Donald Trump to visit Ukraine.”

But Vice believes this “happy-go-lucky routine” signals the “tricky situation in which the young, inexperienced Ukrainian president now finds himself.

“The former comic’s forced, white-knuckle calm reflects an apparent strategy to try to maintain support from both Republicans and Democrats through a dicey political crisis,” the news site adds.

It suggests that alienating the US in any way could see a withdrawal of military and financial support, potentially crippling its already ailing economy - Ukraine is one of Europe’s poorest nations - and opening the door to further influence from Moscow.

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