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Ukraine elected a sitcom president. What can Western politicians learn from this script?

Voters were drawn to Volodymyr Zelensky’s comedic wit — but also his flexibility.

- April 28, 2019

In Ukraine, a TV satire has become political reality. A comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky will become the next president, after decisively defeating incumbent Petro Poroshenko with 73 percent of the vote in the second round runoff on April 21.

Zelensky starred in “Servant of the People,” a Ukrainian sitcom about a young history professor who goes on a viral rant against corruption in politics and ends up winning the presidency.

This is a strange reality, indeed. But what does it mean?

There are many possible interpretations. Zelensky was the younger, more attractive politician in this contest. As a comedian, he appealed to voters tired of oligarchic rule in Ukraine and those who hoped to see a new generation in charge. The anti-corruption theme of his TV show no doubt appealed to voters fed up with the country’s endemic corruption. And Poroshenko, a leading oligarch, showed no signs of stamping out corruption or oligarchic rule.

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Zelensky stood out for his flexibility

But mainly, Zelensky’s election represented a victory for flexibility — the ability to nimbly change political positions and alliances as fortunes shift.

Flexibility, as academics Stanislav Markus and Volha Charnysh point out, is the greatest political asset in Ukraine. Their study showed that the net worth of oligarchs increases most not when they enter government — take Poroshenko’s trajectory, for example — but when they stand behind the scenes and support one or more candidates over time, sometimes on both sides of the political spectrum. This allows oligarchs to hedge their bets, make changes when needed and play all sides for individual gain.

Zelensky played a similar game in this election campaign. Ukraine has sharp cultural and geopolitical divides between a pro-Western majority and a significant minority that identifies with Russian culture — and feels treated as a fifth column at home. Yet somehow Zelensky managed to win a majority among both groups, something no candidate before him had ever achieved.

He avoided getting tied down

Zelensky’s strategy was to avoid developing making political speeches, engaging in policy debates or doing anything that might tie him down to a particular approach. Instead, he performed his popular comedy routines — demonstrating to people that he was likable, knowledgeable and on their side. He suggested that polling will guide his policies. He indicated support for Ukraine’s current pro-West foreign policy while stating that Ukraine could do more to make peace with Russia.

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Poroshenko and his allies tried to peg Zelensky as a Kremlin foil, and someone who will be too soft on Moscow. They argued that Zelensky, a Russian speaker of Jewish origin, does not speak Ukrainian that well and has ties that are too close to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky — the owner of the TV station that broadcasts his shows.

These allegations failed to stick. Zelensky proved credible both as a Ukrainian nationalist and as someone more sympathetic to the pro-Russian minority. To voters, he appeared credible both as a reformer and as someone who will prevent economic pain for the majority of people.

“I will never betray you”

His statement to supporters on being elected: “I promise I will never betray you.”

To Western observers, this statement may seem incredible. Some analysts expect that Zelensky will be forced to choose: either Russia or the West, either reform or social protection. Any choice would leave half his supporters feeling betrayed and disillusioned.

While analysts often believe that politicians must make choices, my research on the “lands in between” — countries located between Russia and the European Union, on the front lines of a new geopolitical divide in Europe — suggests that many leading politicians succeed by exhibiting the kind of flexibility exhibited by oligarchs in Ukraine. Faced with a fierce geopolitical conflict between two powerful neighbors, dozens of leading politicians in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Eastern Europe have prospered by flexibly navigating between Russia and the West while winning rewards from both sides.

Flexibility for the long term

Consider Viktor Orbán in Hungary. He makes deals with Vladimir Putin for gas pipelines and nuclear plants. Freedom House in 2019 downgraded Hungary’s democracy to “partly free” — but Orbán until recently remained a member in good standing of the leading party in the European Union. Despite playing both sides of the fence, his FIDESZ party has won multiple elections and does not face any serious political challenges at present.

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In Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s leading oligarch and political kingpin, managed to vastly improve relations with Russia, negotiating the end of Russia’s trade sanctions in 2013 while signing a free trade agreement with the European Union. His candidate recently won the presidency in Georgia.

Vlad Plahotniuc, head of the Democratic Party of Moldova and the country’s leading oligarch, recently won a good share of the pro-Russia vote in Moldova’s 2019 parliamentary election. Yet after the election, he turned around to offer his support for a pro-E.U. coalition.

It’s likely Zelensky will also show a similar flair for flexibility. He will do what is necessary to keep Ukraine moving in a pro-Western direction toward E.U. integration. But at the same time, Zelensky is likely to take the views of the pro-Russian minority into account — at least to an extent that they trust the Ukrainian government not to harm them.

Zelensky will also likely attempt to enact reforms that he believes will help the country over time and confront corruption, yet stop short of overturning the oligarchs’ apple cart completely. Rather than taking sides, Zelensky most of all will seek not to betray anyone, least of all himself and his status as the most popular son of Ukraine. His post-election announcement that he will be a one-term president will enhance his flexibility while in power.

Paradoxically, in deeply divided polities, it is those with the fewest fixed ideas and the greatest flexibility that rise to the top. That is perhaps the lesson for those in the West, from those in the lands in between.

Mitchell A. Orenstein is professor of Russian and East European studies and political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War (Oxford University Press, 2019).