In a case of life imitating art, the comedian who stars as the fictional head of state has upended Ukraine’s political establishment by ousting the country’s president in a landslide victory.
Zelensky triumphed in the election despite having no real-world government experience—a reflection of widespread dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s political class. In the capital, Zelensky supporters said they were eager for change.
“I voted for the future, not the past,” said Gleb Litvin, a salesman in Kiev. “To me, this election means the possibility that things will get better and that there will be economic and social change in the country, and, most importantly, that we might see an end to the war,” he said, referring to the conflict with Russia.
For many of his supporters, Zelensky, 41, represents a new political generation. But he has been criticized as a political novice with a platform that has been notably short on policy details. Throughout the campaign, Zelensky largely avoided news interviews, opting instead to post videos on social media and appear on the television channel that airs his series.
Some of his opponents have worried that Zelensky’s inexperience and more conciliatory tone toward Russia could leave him open to manipulation by the Kremlin and might derail Ukraine’s path of European integration. Russian media has given Zelensky less negative coverage, and he has been seen as the preferred candidate in Moscow, which has tried to undermine the current government’s agenda since 2014, when mass protests ousted Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.
However, Valerii Pekar, a lecturer at Kyiv–Mohyla Business School, said hopes in Moscow that Ukraine’s pro-Western stance could come to an end are overblown and that Ukraine is unlikely to change course.
“They [Russia] are celebrating the end of the so-called ‘anti-Russian regime,’ which is not what it is at all,” Pekar said. “Ukraine is anti-war, anti-occupation, and anti-annexation. It is for international rule of law and peace, not for bad relations with Russia. My feeling is that relations with the United States and the European Union will be preserved because it is the clear will of the absolute majority of the people. The people who stand for Euro-Atlantic integration are the most active groups and they are ready to go the streets to protect their choice.”
Since 2014, the two countries have been locked in a de facto war in Ukraine’s southeast, where more than 13,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million have left their homes.
Zelensky has said he is open to negotiating with Vladimir Putin, but he has also said that he intends to continue European integration efforts.
The April 21 runoff election capped several unpredictable and contentious months of campaigning. Zelensky and incumbent President Petro Poroshenko moved forward after the first round on March 31, which saw a record 39 candidates on the ballot. The two politicians soon launched into bitter attacks and political stunts, which saw the candidates take drug tests, and culminated in a debate in the country’s largest soccer stadium on April 19 that attracted thousands of raucous supporters and became an international media spectacle that looked as much like a rock concert as a presidential debate.
Poroshenko conceded on April 21 as exit polls showed Zelensky winning an overwhelming majority of votes, but the outgoing president promised to remain in politics, likely foreshadowing a role in fall parliamentary elections.
After five years in office, Poroshenko leaves behind a complicated legacy. He has won praise for moving the country away from Moscow’s orbit, rebuilding Ukraine’s military, and stabilizing a shaky economy, but he has also been criticized for a slow pace of domestic reforms and for failing to aggressively tackle endemic corruption.
Zelensky has said that his first moves after taking office will be to secure the release of Ukrainian servicemen imprisoned in Russia and in the country’s east, and to tackle corruption. He has been vague on specifics, although on April 21, he announced his intention to replace the country’s top prosecutor, who has been heavily criticized at home and abroad for his failure to pursue high-level criminal cases and to address corruption in the justice system.
Zelensky’s ties to Ihor Kolomoisky, a powerful businessman who is active in politics and owns the television channel that airs the president-elect’s show, has also cast a shadow over his promise to be an independent-minded leader.
Lyudmila Mikhailovna, a pensioner in Kiev, said she doesn’t think Zelensky is qualified to be president but she expects that Ukrainians will carry on.
“I don’t have a good opinion of him,” she said. “He hasn’t even announced his team. He seems like he doesn’t know what he is doing. But we have survived other presidents, and we will survive this one.”