Cat in the sack
At least no one will be able argue that Ukrainians knew little about they person they gambled on to become the country’s sixth president.
Volodymyr Zelensky — who calls himself Ze —since late February has been the odds-on betting favorite to win the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election on April 21.
The three-month campaign of the 41-year old from Kryviy Rih has featured upbeat video clips and choreographed remarks, almost exclusively from television screens and smartphones. His social media messages on Facebook and Instagram range from pink unicorns to bare-breasted calisthenics. They have resonated with ordinary Ukrainians much more deeply than sensible arguments made seriously by his opponent, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko.
In a bizarre three-and-a-half hour interview posted to YouTube days before announcing his candidacy on January 1, 2019, Ze said he was newcomer to politics, that he had not prepared a platform to run on, acquainted himself with international leaders or foreign policy matters or otherwise prepared himself to govern the country.
Since then, Ze explained away why he failed to declare multiple accounts in Cyprus and a 15-room villa in Forte dei Marmi. He has also acknowledged ties to Ukrainian businessman Ihor Kolomoisky, whom he visited more than a dozen times in Geneva and Tel Aviv during 2017 and 2018.
Results from the first round of the presidential election show most Ukrainians truly support Ze, who won 30% of the vote in a first round of the election, compared to Poroshenko’s 16%.
Ze is close to his people, their expectations and aspirations. Most importantly, he understands what many people desire, so he tells them what they want to hear.
Ukraine’s intellectuals, on the other hand, are unenthusiastic. Many regard Ze as a symbol of national degradation. Each new pink unicorn reinforces their alienation.
“Ukrainians are champions at cyclical suicide… We have shown this repeatedly throughout our history, and we might repeat the feat again,” Les Podervianskyi said on March 30, the day before the first round of the presidential election.
Death of discourse
In theory, the conflict between the thesis espoused by the incumbent and antithesis Ze represents could give rise to a synthesis. But the challenger, so far, refuses to debate. How Ze could improve on Poroshenko’s response to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and occupation of Crimea remains a mystery.
“I don’t know if dialogue with Poroshenko is possible in any debate. It will be his long monologue and my response. One thing is for sure, I won’t let him insult me,” Ze said.
On the evening before his scheduled April 12 meeting with French President Emmanel Marcon at Élysée Palace, Ze hung up on Poroshenko during a live broadcast of a popular television show. He said the next day the is reason for cutting the call short was because he felt disrespected.
Less than one week left
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry on April 13 said on Facebook that Ze had ignored four draft notices sent to his address during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — in April, June and August of 2014 and in May of 2015.
The news came as calls for Ze to debate Poroshenko on April 14 in Kyiv intensified.
“Do not hide from voters and do not run away from the press,” Poroshenko said in a 24-second video uploaded to YouTube. “Communication with millions of Ukrainians is more important than a weekend in Paris.…Don’t be afraid of your opponent. Don’t hang up the phone.…See you on Sunday.”
Ze did not appear.
Speaking the next day at a meeting of the European Business Association in Kyiv, Poroshenko said figuring out Ze and his team is like “solving a complicated equation with all unknown variables.”
“Their campaign is like a silent movie, where the actor is moving fast, is very active, but doesn’t say a word. It’s very difficult, even for me, a person who is very knowledgeable in economic and in political realities, to relate” he said.
Less than one week left
With days remaining before Sunday’s run-off, Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation Director Iryna Bekeshkyna said polls show more than 70% of Ukrainians want Poroshenko and Ze to debate.
“Poroshenko is famous person many don’t like, Zelensky is an unknown quantity on whom different voters can project different desires,” she said.
“There should be a debate, if only to get voters to start thinking.”
It’s not rare for incompetent people to think they are amazing, or for skilled people to underestimate their abilities. It is, however, uncommon to find someone who personifies both the Dunning-Kruger effect and the Imposter Syndrome at the same time.
So far, that’s Ze.