Profile: Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainians expected to turn Zelenskyy, a comedian who plays the president in a TV sitcom, into a real-life leader.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a politically inexperienced 41-year-old comedian, appears set to win the presidency of Ukraine, a war-torn country riddled by corruption.
The star of the Servant of the People television sitcom, where he fights corruption as a teacher-turned-president, is poised to win Sunday’s presidential runoff vote, defeating incumbent President Petro Poroshenko by a huge margin, according to the latest polls.
In the first round of vote held on March 31, Zelenskyy came first among 39 presidential candidates with more than 30 percent of ballots – double of what Poroshenko secured.
The comic benefited from the support of Ukrainians tired of mainstream politicians.
Zelenskyy supporters who spoke to Al Jazeera during the first round of voting said they were backing him because he was not a politician.
They argued Zelenskyy would come to power “to fulfil his civic duty” and fight Ukraine’s endemic corruption from the country’s top seat.
Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, told Al Jazeera that Ukrainians did not realise they were electing a TV character instead of Zelenskyy.
“People projected the image of the fictional president in his movie into the real candidate. This is a psychological phenomenon,” he said.
“When Zelenskyy is starting to speak, he is making a lot of mistakes. That’s why the position of his team is actually to avoid any direct communication between Zelenskyy and journalists or experts.”
The lack of access to the frontrunner prompted about 20 Ukrainian media outlets to write Zelenskyy a critical open letter, calling on him to prove the principles of openness and transparency he proclaims “are not just empty words”.
The millionaire of Jewish descent especially appeals to young people and the Russian-speaking population.
The father-of-two from the industrial city of Krivy Rig in central Ukraine has shunned campaign rallies in favour of comedy shows, and prefers to get his message across through YouTube clips and social media updates.
One of the factors that make him popular among Russian-speakers is that he is not linked to the Maidan protests that deposed pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich.
However, Zelenskyy is unlikely to make any changes in Ukraine’s foreign policy if elected, Haran told Al Jazeera.
“[If he is elected], the situation will be very unpredictable depending on his team. But my assumption is that the general foreign policy of Ukraine will not change,” he said.
“Zelenskyy said that we will continue to drift towards the EU and he will not accept the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbass.”
His critics find his political programme vague and say the political novice will not be able to resist Moscow, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backed the separatists who seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east, also known as Donbass.
Dmytro Razumkov, Zelenskyy’s political aide, told Al Jazeera if the comedian wins the second round of voting he would stand by the Minsk Agreement.
The agreement was forged by France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia – the countries involved in talks known as the Normandy Format – to secure a truce.
“All sanctions put in place by the European Union against Russia are linked to the Minsk Agreement. If we try to annul it, we might lose these sanctions. It can’t be,” Razumkov said, speaking after Zelenskyy won the first round.
“Zelenskyy’s proposal is to add the United Kingdom and the United States to the Normandy Format as the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum to apply joint pressure on Russia like a laser beam.”
Under Zelenskyy, Razumkov said, Ukraine would continue to aspire to join the EU and NATO, but it would hold a referendum on the issues only when the chance of doing so was realistic.
“We will not be selling air. Even Germany’s [Chancellor] Angela Merkel said that the prospect is far. It doesn’t mean that we will stop aspiring to join the EU; we must keep following the path and one day achieve it,” he said.
“The story is similar with the NATO. We need to modernise the army and at the moment Ukraine is not in a position to do so.
“We will not be holding a referendum on these subjects 10-20 years ahead of time, but at a time when there is a realistic opportunity [to join the EU and NATO].”
Many people also fear if Zelenskyy becomes a president, the country will be run from the shadows by self-exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.
Kolomoisky, who has been living in Israel since Ukraine started investigating alleged financial wrongdoings in his now-nationalised PrivatBank, owns the television channel that airs Zelenskyy’s shows.
A study by Reuters news agency of vehicle registration databases, company ownership documents, and photographic records has suggested that Kolomoisky and Zelenskyy intersect in other ways.
According to the report, the two men have common business partners; Zelenskyy uses security staff who in the past were also seen accompanying Kolomoisky; a former Kolomoisky adviser is on Zelenskyy’s campaign team; and at least two vehicles used by Zelenskyy and his entourage are owned by people or entities linked to Kolomoisky.
Both Zelenskyy and Kolomoisky have said their relationship is strictly professional and centred on the comedian’s TV work. Both say no undue influence is being exerted by the oligarch.