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4 March, 2020  ▪  Alla Lazareva,  Olha Vorozhbyt

The post-democratic president

What kind of image has Volodymyr Zelenskiy created for himself abroad?

It’s hard to say how the international crises and scandals that swirl around Volodymyr Zelenskiy on a regular basis despite his best efforts affect Ukraine’s image in the world, but there’s no doubt that the constant stream of news fuels interest in him and, by extension, in Ukraine.

“Zelenskiy’s story is unlike any other,” says Renaud Rebardy, a French writer. “Some would like to follow suit and also take advantage of that successful mechanism. I’ve heard that people close to Macron fear that a similar candidate could pop up in the next presidential election with similar consequences. Zelenskiy is a symbol of politics as spectacle. The truth is that political ideas matter little to most voters. Ideological doctrines are dying. Many voters decide whom to vote for at the very last minute, ultimately choosing personality over ideas. Such voters also tend to change their minds quickly. In effect, Zelenskiy is what you might call a post-democratic politician.”

The French press generally reports about Zelenskiy cautiously. “So far, Zelenskiy has not made any major mistakes,” political reporter Gerard Bonnet comments. “He doesn’t come across as a disaster, although he hasn’t produced any impressive results, either. His real intentions are still not clear. If he finally started working instead of taking so many vacations, we might learn more about him.” Interestingly, during his campaign, Zelenskiy was dubbed a clown, but now he is now presented to readers as a comedian, producer, humorist, and a novice in politics. “It’s hard to imagine that Volodymyr Zelenskiy could force Vladimir Putin to back down,” Le Parisien wrote recently in its analysis of the Normandy summit in December.

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Like other EU countries, Zelenskiy’s victory caused a sensation in Germany. Yet, interest in his personality evaporated quickly, leaving behind dry analysis of his actions. After his visit to Germany last summer, Marieluise Beck, an expert on Ukrainian politics in Germany and director of the Eastern Europe section at Zentrum Liberale Moderne, a think-tank, wrote in her article for Die Zeit Online, “A democrat Zelenskiy would be a blessing for Ukraine.” Yet, she went on, a president who covered up those in power and the shameless kleptocratic class would be “the worst thing that could happen to the long-suffering country.” Beck carefully monitors the actions of Ukraine’s new president, including the fact that a friend of his and business partner was given the title of lieutenant and appointed chief of the Security Bureau of Ukraine overnight, and the controversial role of Ihor Kolomoiskiy. In fact, all German publications initially noted the positive aspects of the Zelenskiy phenomenon despite his similarity to populists in the EU, but they have not overlooked the controversial aspects or the skeletons in his closet.

The shooting down of a UIA plane in Teheran made German media reflect once again on the position that Ukraine’s president takes. Die Welt’s Pavel Lokshin compared the reaction of Petro Poroshenko to the shooting down of MH17 in 2014 and Zelenskiy’s response to the attack on the Ukrainian plane in Iran: he found Zelenskiy’s reaction feeble, noting that Zelenskiy was on vacation at a luxury hotel 230 kilometers from Iran when the incident took place. Overall, many German observers are positive and inspired by the youth of Zelenskiy and his team, yet their assessments change dramatically when they get down to the details of his team’s work and practical moves.

In Poland, interest in Zelenskiy peaked in spring and summer 2019. Some Polish media compared Zelenskiy and his team to Robert Biedroń and his party Wiosna (Spring), which Ziemowit Szczerek wrote about in Polityka. Comparing the two politicians, he focused on their similar calls for a bright future without talking about how that might be accomplished. Simply put, they are both populists. “People who do not deal with Ukraine on a daily basis are now less excited about the new President,” says Łukasz Jasina, an analyst with PISM, a Polish think-tank, in a comment for The Ukrainian Week. He says that there is nothing new in Zelenskiy’s approach for Poland. Still, he notes that Zelenskiy’s visit to Poland in September left a positive impression on both local politicians and the press.

On January 27, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was in Poland again, attending the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, called Oswiencim in Polish, and meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda. According to Jasina, what mattered for the Poles and the Polish government was that Zelenskiy was coming to Poland shortly after his visit to Jerusalem for a commemoration on January 23 that Duda refused to attend because the organizers had invited Vladimir Putin to speak while not offering the same opportunity to representatives of any other country that fought against the Nazis. “Had he not come to Poland, commentators would immediately have jumped on it,” Jasina says.

Some Polish papers now speculate on whether their country might have its own Zelenskiy. JournalistSzymon Hołownia is seen as one possible candidate for that role, even if he does not yet enjoy the kind of support in the polls that Zelenskiy does. According to the latest IBRiS poll, just 5.7% of Poles would vote for Hołownia in the presidential election scheduled for this year. Jasina notes that media personalities have popped up in presidential elections in Poland since the 2000s.

While Zelenskiy’s image in Western and Central Europe is shaped outside the Russian-speaking information environment, public opinion in countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan is influenced by his film career. FSU audiences have seen his Servant of the People series and Kvartal 95 online. “Belarusians know Volodymyr Zelenskiy better as an actor,” writs Valeriy Kalynovsky, a journalist with Belarusian Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, in a comment for The Ukrainian Week. “Belarusians were definitely paying attention to the last Ukrainian election and see him as a real politician now. It seems that Aliaksandr Lukashenka himself was not sure about Zelenskiy’s victory at the beginning and de factoplaced his bets on Poroshenko, but he quickly established contacts with Zelenskiy after the election, meeting him at the Ukraine-Belarus Forum of Regions.

“Belarusian officials and MPs have taken the choice of Ukrainians in stride while the local press is careful, offering Zelenskiy neither much criticism nor much praise, and tending to report both the positive and the negative in his actions,” adds Kalynovsky. “Belarusian society is probably still assessing Zelenskiy and the new administration in Ukraine. Belarusians watch Russian media, so there is some tendency to echo Moscow’s positions. Ordinary Belarusians mostly seem to think that little has changed in Ukraine since the elections.”

Belarus’s small expert community is also drawing its first conclusions. In his interview with Belgazeta.by, Andrey Vardomatsky, head of the Warsaw-based Belarusian Analytical Workroom (BAW), projected the inevitable decline of Zelenskiy’s rating despite his electoral success. “The series had an enormous impact on public opinion,” he points out. “Poroshenko’s vision of priorities among voters was completely out of tune with what people really wanted. The Servant of the Peopleis a genius spin-doctor invention, but it can’t be repeated. The point of spin is that it’s a disposable tool. The Servant of the People serial had many effects, and the biggest one was transforming the virtual into the real. This was the primary reason why Zelenskiy won. The second reason was that his image was embedded in the mass mind and was able work its way into the public imagination through television. This produced a sleeper effect: the viewer doesn’t necessarily accept the information being given, as it lingers in their minds it becomes real and truthful to them. Zelenskiy became everybody’s homeboy. And not just any homeboy, but a nice one. Still, his ratings will inevitably go into a dive.”

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The press in Kazakhstan is cautious in its descriptions and assessments of Zelenskiy’s politics. “Nazarbayev’s proposal to use Astana as a platform for direct talks between Zelenskiy and Putin suggests that Kazakhstan, in the person of its new leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, hopes to see Ukraine and Zelenskiy actively engaged in the Eurasian space,” writes Ramzan Isliamov, a Kazakhi journalist, in his comments for The Ukrainian Week. “Our press publishes flattering reports from the home of Zelenskiy’s parents in Kryvyi Rih, reports about ‘Zelenskiy’s brilliant gas victory,’ at the same time as our diplomats and politicians talk about the ‘common past and future of Kazakhstan and Ukraine.’” Even the Kazakh opposition sees Zelenskiy as a peace-loving politician compared to their new president. “Compare Zelenskiy and his actions with Tokayev and his arrests of young and old on the day of his ‘election’,” Yerzhan Dosmukhamedov, leader of one of the opposition parties in Kazakhstan, wrote on his Facebook page.

The world is watching Ukraine’s new president closely, trying to understand whether his victory ushered in a new era in which technology dominates over humans. “Is he a harbinger of a new time when computers will run us, producing images of a perfect president?” a French colleague ponders. “I am your verdict!” Zelenskiy proclaimed at the stadium before the second round of the presidential election. He is indeed a verdict and a challenge. And not for Ukraine alone. 

 

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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