Volodymyr Zelensky, servant of the people?

I’m very curious what my politically diverse but well-informed Ukrainian friends think about their presidential election. It’s mostly framed in the West as: “comedian with no political experience is elected president.” That is a little misleading: it suggests a stand-up comic winning on the basis of one-liners. Volodymyr Zelensky is actually the founder and creative leader of a company that produces successful movies and TV series in which he stars.

His most recent show is Servant of the People, which is available on Netflix with English subtitles, and which my wife and I have been watching. Zelensky plays a high school teacher who goes on a profane rant against corrupt politicians that his students film and post on YouTube. They also crowd-source his campaign funds and get him on the ballot, and he’s elected president.

Ukrainians have now voted to make the writer/actor of this role their actual president. It is roughly as if Americans chose Amy Poehler for president because of her role as Leslie Knope on Parks & Rec–either selecting Leslie to lead our real country (a naive reaction) or choosing the creator of Parks and Rec because of the show’s values and its portrayal of America. Or it might be a little like electing Ronald Reagan as governor of California because of his fictional personas plus his political speeches (which made a seamless whole in the 1960s).

Servant of the People is well-made, well-acted, funny. I can totally understand why people would be interested in voting for its creator, who is utterly appealing on screen.

Of course, the show is also a powerful device for persuasion. In the controlled environment of a fictional world, Zelensky can construct events to make his character the good guy and to sideline difficult questions. Plato’s warnings about the power of theater come to mind. Instead of describing Zelensky as a “comedian,” I would call this entrepreneur/actor with a law degree a highly skillful rhetorician. On screen, he is without guile. But to create that persona took artistry.

Questions:

What is the political thesis of the show? The targets are corruption, hypocrisy, arrogant elites, and social unfairness. Those are very real problems in Ukraine and many other countries. It can, however, be misguided to treat integrity as the only goal while neglecting contested policy questions. Zelensky’s fictional character dodges policy questions from the press because they are ridiculously wonky and because he’s a a draftee into politics who doesn’t know the answers. The real Zelensky has avoided interviews and press conferences even though he seriously ran for president. This strikes me as problematic.

What does Zelensky stand for? Reading scattered quotes available in English, I would guess he’s basically a Europhile liberal, in the Ukrainian context: in favor of civil liberties, some market reforms, and tilting West. But not a hardcore nationalist–for example, Servant of the People is performed in Russian rather than Ukrainian. He’s ethnically Jewish, which should give no one a free pass but which rarely accompanies xenophobia in that part of the world. On the other hand, it’s not great to have to guess the president’s positions from scattered quotes.

Is he qualified? I don’t believe that political leaders must be, or even should be, policy wonks. They should learn from experts (and from others) while setting the tone and direction. Zelensky is a very capable person–again, not just a stand-up comic but the author of complex (if problematic) political fiction and the founder and leader of an enterprise. He did study law. I would think his resume is fine if he demonstrates an ability to share power, delegate, and learn.

Ukrainians have rolled the dice. Given the alternative, I fully understand why they took this risk. It’s not the textbook version of how a democracy should work, but the status quo has been intolerable, and at least the explicit values of Servant of the People are benign. Nor does the textbook account ever fully apply. My fingers are crossed.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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