“The West Wing,” a television show that ran from 1999 to 2006, featured Martin Sheen playing an idealized American president. Imagine if Sheen had then actually run for president … and won. Implausible, you say? In Ukraine, life imitated art in just that way.
Just over a year ago, Volodymyr Zelensky was a comic actor. His popularity soared thanks to a TV show called “Servant of the People” in which he played a history teacher who lives with his parents and rides his bike to work. One day, the teacher’s rant against Ukrainian politics and politicians, surreptitiously recorded, goes viral on social media. The result: He’s elected president of Ukraine with 67 percent of the vote.
In real life, Zelensky went on to organize a political party which he named, naturally, Servant of the People. The result: Earlier this year, he was elected president of Ukraine with 73 percent of the vote.
Inaugurated in May, he knew he had no time to waste, and that he couldn’t initiate serious reforms without strong support from the Verkhovna Rada, the country’s unicameral parliament. So he called for an early election and, on July 21, his party won an absolute majority, the first time that’s happened since Ukraine gained its independence in 1991.
As a volunteer election observer for the International Republican Institute (IRI), I spent a week in Ukraine, talking to people of various political persuasions, drinking vodka infused with honey and pepper, and traipsing from one polling station to another in Dnipro, a large city in the country’s southeast that in the Soviet era had been a military/industrial center closed to foreigners.
Was there Russian meddling in the election, for example, or disinformation campaigns? Absolutely, but the impact was minimal. The pro-Russian party, Opposition Platform-For Life, received 13.5 percent of the ballots, about what the polls had predicted. Why would voters in Ukraine be pro-Russian? Some because they identify as Russians. Some are nostalgic for the Soviet Union. Others believe that the Russian bear must be appeased.
The challenges President Zelensky now faces are formidable.
In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, which was previously Ukrainian territory. I don’t see him giving it back.
In the Donbas region in the east of the country, not far from Dnipro, Putin is supporting Russian separatists in a war that has taken at least 10,000 lives so far and displaced many more. Inducing him to withdraw his “little green men”—masked soldiers in uniforms bearing no insignias—will not be easy.
Corruption, entrenched and widespread, has long been a drag on Ukraine’s promising but underachieving economy.
And then there are the oligarchs.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were no plans to transition from socialism to capitalism. Who expected history to go in that direction? Do chefs come up with recipes for making eggs out of omelets?
A number of tough, savvy and not necessarily principled individuals managed to take control of what had been state resources, thereby becoming fabulously wealthy. In Russia, Putin eliminated—one way or another—all oligarchs who were not unswervingly loyal to him.
In Ukraine today there are probably fewer than a dozen oligarchs. They compete for power and control media outlets. For such outlets, objectivity is not a priority.
Among Ukraine’s most popular television channels is “1+1,” on which Zelensky’s show was broadcast. The oligarch who owns it is Ihor Kolomoisky. That has raised questions.
Among the answers: “I’m more his puppet than he is mine,” Kolomoisky said last year. Zelensky told a news website in December: “It is impossible to influence me. Neither Kolomoisky nor any other oligarch. No one will influence me.”
The new president and his parliamentary allies are political novices. For what it’s worth, the 41-year-old Zelensky does have a law degree and some business background. Advice and assistance will be forthcoming from the International Monetary Fund, as well as from European and American experts. Their track record in other countries is mixed.
This, too, thickens the plot: Zelensky is Jewish—the only Jewish head of state in the world today (outside of Israel, of course)—and his election comes at a time of rising anti-Semitism almost everywhere.
Ukraine has hardly been immune to this ancient pathology. During World War II, there were Ukrainians who helped the Nazi invaders mass murder their Jewish neighbors. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews emigrated. Nevertheless, the country’s Jewish community, at less than 400,000, remains the fifth-largest in Europe.
Does that suggest that anti-Semitism has been eradicated in Ukraine? I think not. I think Zelensky has inspired hope, and that has caused many Ukrainians to put their prejudices aside, which is not the same as discarding them. Should Zelensky fail, you can imagine what will be said about him.
But if his administration makes significant progress, the impact will extend far beyond the borders of this Texas-sized country of 45 million people.
Of course, Putin understands that, too—and opposes it. He considers Ukraine not just part of the Russian empire but part of Russia itself.
One cannot say that there are no historical arguments in support of that view. However, one can say that Ukrainians, like other peoples, have a right to declare themselves a separate nation.
Should that not imply that they have a right to self-determination as well? Perhaps it should, but it doesn’t. What Ukrainians do have is a chance to fight for their freedom, independence and sovereignty. Implausible as it may seem, they have chosen a former leading man to lead them.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.