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Explained: Who is Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s unlikely wartime President?

After the first day of Russia’s strike on Ukraine, Zelenskyy hinted at the possibility of discussing a “neutral status” – in line with Russia’s demands against Ukraine’s accession to NATO

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (centre) arrives to attend a military drill outside the city of Rivne, northern Ukraine, February 16, 2022 (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

“We are not the ones who have started this war. But we are the ones who have to finish it.” Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s words from his inaugural address after he became Ukraine’s President in April 2019 gather a new significance in light of Russia’s invasion into its territory.

The actor-comedian-turned-President had then promised a ceasefire in Donbass – the territory under contention in this war with Russia. “I’m definitely not afraid to make difficult decisions and I’m ready to lose my fame, my ratings, and if need be — without any hesitation, my position to bring peace, as long as we do not give up our territories,” Zelenskyy had said.

Today, the Head of State finds himself facing these “difficult decisions”. After the first day of Russia’s strike on Ukraine, early Friday morning, Zelenskyy hinted at the possibility of discussing a “neutral status” – in line with Russia’s demands against Ukraine’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

In his speech, he stated that Ukraine had been “left alone” to defend itself as “everyone is afraid”. In fact, a glance through Zelenskyy’s Twitter timeline shows harried calls of sanctions against Russia and appeals to heads of states for effective and decisive action against the ‘aggressor’ ever since the Russian President’s announcement of a “military operation”.

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But who is Zelenskyy and how did he come to be Ukraine’s President?

Zelenskyy’s background makes him an ‘unlikely’ President, the reasons for which are abundant: He was a comedian who played a president on television but had no prior political experience in real life. He is a Russian speaker in a country that has increasingly come to define Ukrainian as part of its nationalist identity. Lastly, he is a Jew, a minority community.

However, his popularity, the resentment against his predecessor and his promises to battle corruption culminated in his victory in the 2019 elections. His religion hardly figured into the campaign.

‘Servant of the People’

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Zelenskyy started his career as a comedian and went on to become a popular face on Ukrainian television. Apart from his roles in at least six films like ‘Love in the Big City’ and ‘8 First Dates’ and appearances on the 1+1 television channel, his most popular act became his last one. As a high school teacher who unexpectedly becomes the President of the country, Zelenskyy’s fictional character in the political satire, ‘Servant of the People’, resonated with the masses.

The show premiered just a year after the events of 2014, which led to the exit of President Viktor Yanukovych following massive protests. The pro-Russian Yanukovych’s government was overthrown after he refused to sign a deal with the European Union. Fearing a lack of influence in Ukraine, Russia annexed Crimea, which then prompted pro-Russian supporters to rebel in eastern Ukraine.

A year later, ‘Servant of the People’ gave the people of Ukraine an incorruptible “president”, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko. It portrayed a common man whose rant against corruption and cynicism in the elite class goes viral, landing him in the President’s seat. Much like the character, Zelenskyy’s campaign – one aimed at young voters through social media with minimum media appearances – was focused on ending corruption.

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Though Zelenskyy avoided campaign rallies and interviews, he continued to appear on TV and his speeches over YouTube and Instagram pandered to the growing demand for change in the country. In fact, in one of the few interviews he did, Zelenskyy stated, “People want to see a president like Vasyl Holoborodko, with the same moral values. They are fed up with the establishment. They want something new.”

The production house of the show, Kvartal 95, which was founded by Zelenskyy, formed a political party named after ‘Servant of the People’ to back his candidacy. Members of Kvartal 95 went on to become advisors in Zelenskyy’s government. Despite his anti-elite stance, Ukraine’s controversial tycoon, Ihor Kolomoisky, who has been investigated for years of fraud and corruption, also backed the actor’s campaign.

Soon after he announced his candidacy in 2019, opinion polls projected Zelenskyy as a favourable candidate. This was also due to the resentment against Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president at the time, over reports of corruption within his government and the lack of decisive actions to end the war in Donbass. He went on to win the election with a whopping 73% of the votes.

Zelenskyy’s efforts for peace in eastern Ukraine

During his early days of Presidency, Zelenskyy took several steps to end the conflict as he had promised in his campaign. In October 2019, he signed on to the Steinmeier Formula. Named after the German President, the formula proposes elections under Ukrainian legislation in the contested region of Donbass, in line with the Minsk agreements. If the supervising body, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, finds the elections free and fair, Donbass will be given a “special status” and Ukraine will regain its borders. The move had met with protests within Ukraine as several people see the Steinmeier Formula as a “surrender”.

The development, however, did not lead to a breakthrough as Zelenskyy had also said that elections would not take place as long as Russia continues its military presence in the region.

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In November 2019, following talks with Vladimir Putin, Ukraine and Russian-backed rebel groups initiated a pullback of their troops from Petrivske, a city in Luhansk where they had been fighting since 2014.

In another major step towards the peace process, Ukraine and Russia also exchanged several political prisoners in September 2019. Zelenskyy had called it “the first stage to unblock our dialogue and on the first step to stop the war”. As many as 35 freed prisoners had returned to Kyiv.

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In July 2020, Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE reached an agreement on a full ceasefire between the military and separatists in eastern Ukraine. However, over the years, the region witnessed several violations of the ceasefire, culminating in escalated tensions in December 2021, with both sides pointing fingers at each other.

Zelenskyy’s involvement in Trump’s impeachment trial

As a new President, when Zelenskyy sought a meeting with the then-President of the United States, Donald Trump, to bolster his position against Russia, he was allegedly asked by the Republican leader for “favours”. This included investigating rival Joe Biden’s son, Hunter’s employment on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company. Trump was also accused of withholding $391 million in military aid till Ukraine agreed to investigate Biden.

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Reports show that Trump along with his lawyer Rudy Giuliani had put continued pressure on Zelenskyy, promising a meeting with the US President.

In a memo shared by The White House regarding a call between the two heads in July 2019, Trump tells Zelenskyy, “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike…”

Crowdstrike is the cybersecurity company hired by the Democrats to investigate an attack on their servers during the 2016 elections in the US. It concluded that they had been hacked by Russian groups.

“The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump says during the call, asking Zelenskyy to cooperate.

Ukraine, however, had reportedly refused to comment on the matter or testify in Trump’s trial. The Senate – where Republican had a majority – in 2020 acquitted Trump of the charges.

First published on: 25-02-2022 at 19:16 IST
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