Volodymyr Zelensky, who portrays the president of Ukraine in a political sitcom, Servant of the People, is now one of the poll leaders in Ukraine’s real-world presidential elections. There is no doubt that the series, which has been immensely successful for the Ukrainian TV industry, has played a major role in building support for the comedian’s political aspirations. According to Nikita Poturaev, a political consultant and expert in media communications, high viewership of the series was a key factor leading to Zelensky’s decision to run for office. What do his potential voters see in the sitcom that makes them flock to support Zelensky’s candidacy?
In the sitcom, Zelensky plays Vasyl Holoborodko, a high school history teacher who becomes an internet celebrity when one of his students records and publishes a video of his angry rant against corrupt, greedy politicians. The rant, containing claims that if Holoborodko were in power for a week, he would tackle corruption, so that “a simple teacher would live like the president, and the president would live like a simple teacher,” goes viral on YouTube. Holoborodko’s students start a crowdfunding campaign so that he can pay the necessary fee to register as a presidential candidate.
Even in these few details, the TV series begins to resemble several populist movements in its appeal to direct democracy and in the use of modern technology to reach voters. Zelensky himself has asked his voters to participate in forming his presidential platform, and his consultations with experts on problematic issues are being broadcast on TV in a way that resembles a reality show.
Holoborodko wins the elections, much to the surprise of the wealthy businessmen who run the country. In a way, Holoborodko personifies the “Ukrainian dream”: the “if I were president, I would do X” ideas of a Ukrainian man or woman on the street are very close to what the protagonist offers. He is shown to be extremely fair and to resist temptations to extract rent from his position. His counterpart, Prime Minister Chuyko, on the other hand, represents the face of the Ukrainian “deep state”—immensely powerful, corrupt, and in the service of big business. Again, this narrative setup follows the typical populist anti-establishment messages: voters flock to a candidate who claims he will “drain the swamp,” and Zelensky is certainly received as such by his supporters.
Holoborodko views representative democracy ironically and is open to authoritarian decisions motivated by the perceived “common good.” He threatens to start a Maidan if his PM fails to get government support for his ministerial nominees, and season 2 ends with Holoborodko ginning up protests at electoral fraud committed against him. The Maidan is thus represented as the ultimate democratic institution, the “Supreme Court,” in Holoborodko’s view, of public opinion. This combination of authoritarian decision-making—liked by a majority of Ukrainians, who prefer the strong-hand approach to governance—and appeals to direct democracy provides a second parallel with modern populist movements.
Holoborodko is an extreme populist in socioeconomic matters, and the storyline of the series reinforces populism. The protagonist appoints unqualified friends to key positions because they are trustworthy, while an attempt at an open competition is rigged. On the other hand, the entire cabinet gets dismissed at one point because its members are relatives of the previous, corrupt ministers—even though the new cabinet members losing their jobs are young professionals who received exceptional educations abroad. Yet the protagonist’s populist declarations are counterbalanced by his pushing through a tax cut that will benefit businesses. Apparently, Holoborodko has nothing against the wealthy per se and is only opposed to oligarchy.
Servant of the People does address the viewers seriously at times, cutting from lighthearted scenes to discussions of significant issues such as corruption, personal responsibility, and the importance of paying taxes in ways that do not feel didactic or condescending. Having shown what it is capable of in the domestic sphere of good governance, the series could also have done wonders by informing Ukrainians about European integration, yet it misleads them. In season 2, for instance, the EU-Ukraine visa-free regime becomes a significant plot point, but the decisive vote on this matter is accorded to Iceland, which is not an EU member state.
The sitcom taps into Ukrainians’ growing sense of themselves as an independent nation. According to a recent poll, 48.5 percent of Ukrainians believe that the country should “choose its own path of development, based on its own resources” (compared with 38.8 percent who believe it should “decisively move toward Europe and the West”). This is the audience Servant and, implicitly, Zelensky are largely preaching to. They are not supportive of Russia; the trailer for season 3 depicts Holoborodko’s dream news show, with Crimea mentioned as Ukrainian and Oleh Sentsov, a movie director currently held as a political prisoner in Russia, presenting his new film in Kiev. However, at the same time, in the movie, the IMF chief places a secret condition on a loan to Ukraine: provision of a significant amount of territory to store European nuclear waste (Holoborodko rejects this condition). This reinforces existing unsupported notions about the inhumane IMF and the conspiratorial agenda of the West, looking to exploit Ukraine’s vast resources. In a recent interview, Zelensky claimed that the conditions for IMF loans are “very harsh.”
These foreign policy points—being wary of the IMF, yet critical of today’s Russia and broadly supportive of European integration—are acceptable to the traditionally Russia-leaning southeastern regions of Ukraine, where Zelensky is currently the most popular presidential candidate. Yet nationwide, his supporters still predominantly consider Russia to be an aggressor state and are pro-EU and pro-NATO. Zelensky’s program includes “movement towards NATO,” but only after a referendum, and conspicuously avoids the issue of European integration. In an interview, he claims Ukraine should only enter the EU if invited; however, accession to the EU requires the country itself to apply. Servant also satirises the “decommunization” policy of changing toponyms related to the Soviet Union and Soviet heroes, a policy unpopular in Ukraine’s South-East.
Another celebrity who considered running for president, the singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, has said, with respect to Zelensky’s candidacy, “I do not know Zelensky, the politician. I know Holoborodko, the politician,” once again supporting the claim that Servant has been instrumental to Zelensky’s high ratings in the campaign. Yet ironically—and understandably—people who supported Vakarchuk are most likely to vote for Zelensky as their second choice.
Ukrainians are looking for a new face in domestic politics, following extreme disappointment in incumbent politicians. By January 2019, 45 percent of Ukrainians wanted to see a “new personality, even without public policy experience,” as their president. Servant caters to this demand, introducing a hero that many Ukrainians can look up to. As Nikita Poturaev has pointed out, the fact that Servant constructs an idealised Ukraine makes viewers want to make their country a better place in real life. This is why an attempt to radically break the fourth wall by letting a TV character run for election, Black Mirror style, may work.
A recent poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology revealed that only 6.1% of those who intend to vote for Zelensky want to do so because they “liked how he played in Servant of the People”. Many more – 54.4% and 29.8% respectively – are motivated by him being “a person outside of the current system” and by believing that he is “honest and independent from the oligarchs”. Further 24.9% claim they “generally share his views [or] like his program”; however, Zelensky’s views, except for him being against the establishment, are largely absent from the media. It is likely that the reception of Zelensky by these voters is, to a large extent, shaped by the honesty and appealing ideas of his media character in Servant.
Zelensky himself is not the intelligent figure he plays. His failure to provide Western diplomats with any clear messaging and a reported campaign decision that Zelensky should not give interviews until March and should “remain in the virtual space for as long as possible” underline that. Nor is he a brave fighter against oligarchs, willing, like Holoborodko, to risk his life for this cause. Zelensky is closely affiliated with one of Ukraine’s richest men, Ihor Kolomoiskyi, and addressed Ukrainians on New Year’s Eve just before midnight, in the time slot traditionally reserved for the acting president, on Kolomoiskyi’s TV channel. His campaign is notable for the absence of a clear policy platform. Having the media character he plays on TV as his campaign proxy and appealing to the Ukrainian people in a populist way might do the trick, and we might see a sitcom star becoming Ukraine’s leader and commander-in-chief.
This article was originally published in the Focus Ukraine blog of the Wilson Center's Kennan Insitute at this link