Ukraine’s New President Much More Than a Comedian

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What’s in a nickname? 
Well, it depends on how the moniker is used. For example, if you hear the name Alexander the Great, you might think of a man of substance and achievement.  

Conversely, when then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly attached derisory nicknames to his opponents, it had the power to subliminally erode the public’s opinion of the person.  

When Jeb Bush became “Low Energy Jeb,” Ted Cruz was tagged as “Lyin’ Ted,” Marco Rubio was “Little Marco” and Hillary Clinton was “Crooked Hillary,” their voter bases slowly started to erode.

People started to believe that Bush did not have the stamina to do the job, that Cruz was a liar, Rubio was not a big enough man to take on the task and that Clinton was a criminal. Ironically, these names were given to them by a man who is lazy, dishonest, a pathological liar and a crook. But I digress. 

The point is that positive or negative names can leave lasting impressions whether they accurately reflect on the individual or not.         

On April 21, Ukraine elected a new president, 41-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky, who won with an overwhelming 73 per cent of the vote.  

After the election, the media labelled and introduced him simply as a comedian. Zelensky produced and starred in a television sitcom about a teacher, who, by fluke, was elected president. 

Interestingly, the sitcom’s storyline was about a president focused on unifying Ukraine, a country consumed by bitter debates over national identity and involved in bloody conflict with Russia-backed separatists. 

His television character also ranted about eliminating government corruption. This sitcom mimics the reality in Ukraine today. And it certainly seems like the sitcom was a precursor for a test-run election campaign strategy, rather than mere entertainment — albeit the win seemed to be treated like a joke gone awry by mainstream media reporting outside the country.

What hasn’t been well-publicized is that Zelensky has a law degree, is a millionaire businessman who created a substantial entertainment industry corporation and has been politically active for years. 

His campaign focused on eliminating government corruption and removing  immunity for the corrupt presidents of the country, members of parliament and judges, and reforming election laws. (Sounds a little familiar to me.)  

He seems to be big on referendums and intent on building a strong, powerful, free and independent Ukraine, as opposed to the unpopular view by some that Ukraine is the younger sister of Russia. 

His major platform was to have Ukraine join the European Union (EU) and NATO. To that end, immediately following his election, the presidents of the European Commission and European Council issued a joint letter stating the EU will work to speed up the implementation of the remainder of the EU-Ukraine Agreement which includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. 

Not bad for a comedian not yet sworn into office. And it doesn’t sound like he is going to play footsie with Russian President Vladimir Putin, so I hope his life insurance policy is paid up.  

Maybe I am being too judgmental thinking that the media has written Zelensky off as a bit of a joke because his political life mirrors a television series.  

After all, American Republicans seem to revere Ronald Regan, who was an actor before becoming a U.S. president. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former wrestler Jesse Ventura were in the entertainment world before becoming governors of their states.  

Former Senator Al Franklin was a comedian, and I would be remiss if I did not mention that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was a drama teacher. It seems to be a short leap from the entertainment stage to the political stage.

Zelensky ran a short campaign, declaring his candidacy on Dec. 31, 2018, for an election to be held less than four months later. He shunned mainstream media and ran a virtual campaign relying heavily on the Internet, social media and YouTube. His celebrity was already established through the television sitcom.  

We know from our southern neighbour that the Russians tampered with the U.S. 2016 election, again relying on the Internet and social media to mislead the American public and to swing the vote in favour of Trump, whose celebrity was also already well-established through his television program The Apprentice.

We have three elections pending over the next year and a half — federal, provincial and civic.  Increasingly, virtual campaigns are being conducted instead of what now may be deemed as “old-fashioned” campaigning.  

We are making our decisions based on 10-second sound bites and contrived television advertisements without really knowing anything about our candidates, their policies or positions. We hear derogatory comments and skewed innuendo about all candidates from all parties and seem not to search out the truth, even though our election decisions will greatly impact our future. It is becoming a scary political time indeed.

I don’t know whether Zelensky will be the second coming of St. Volodymyr or a Donald Trump knockoff. What I do know is that a rose is still a rose by any other name. We just have to wake up and smell the flowers, then take the time to pull out the stinkweed before we select our bloom of choice.

ehnatyshyn@gmail.com