If you have been following the Russian invasion of Ukraine or at least browsed the internet the past few days, it is likely that you have seen video messages and photographs of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. His speeches, whether made through his phone or at international forums, are capturing the attention of people all over the world right now.
The President has taken to social media as his primary means to rally and gain support for his country in a lopsided bout versus Russia. Through continuous messages and calls, Ukraine has gained massive support, whether financial or political, sending a formidable message to Putin that he, alongside his troops, was not going down without a fight. This support manifested in the recently held UNGA resolution, where the body overwhelmingly voted in favor of a resolution deploring the Russian invasion of Ukraine. More so, it manifested through the economic and fiscal sanctions the world has imposed on Russia.
At the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West was hesitant to pull the trigger on slapping Moscow with the harshest economic sanctions for various reasons, one being that much of Europe relied on Russia for its gas supply, where it accounts for 1/3 of all gas supplies in Europe. Thus, economic sanctions would likewise deal a damaging blow to their own economies if they chose to do so.
Before the EU’s decisions were made, Zelensky dropped by the video conference with EU leaders, giving an emotional speech that lasted around 5 minutes, discussing his plea to help his country help fend off Moscow and consider Ukraine’s membership in the Union.
“It was extremely, extremely emotional,” according to a European official. “He was essentially saying, ‘Look, we are here dying for your European ideals.'” Before departing from the teleconference, Zelensky bid his goodbye to the gathering, stating that it was probably the last time they would see him alive as reports of Russian troops and assassins were closing in on the city of Kyiv.
Almost instantaneously, the tide of the meeting turned, and support for Ukraine’s effort flooded over initial resistance. The meeting culminated with the West agreeing to impose economic sanctions on the Russian economy and its oligarchs, the harshest being the removal of some Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system. The United States, after the EU’s quick decision, drafted its own similar sanction towards Russia, with its close ally Japan a few days after. Now, numerous countries from Europe expressed their support for Ukraine and have sent military and humanitarian aid to the country. This list even includes neutral countries such as Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland, countries known for their non-alignment on foreign affairs.
One would think that such a savvy speaker like Zelensky would have had decades of experience in foreign affairs or think a colorful military background backs his bravery in the streets of Kyiv. However, it may surprise you that Zelensky held no previous political positions or military experience aside from his presidency.
He was a comedian.
Yes, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was a comedian with no political background except a role wherein he played the Ukrainian President on the satirical TV show “Servant of the People.”
Putting The Fate Of The Ukrainian People On An Entertainer
It’s not uncommon to see actors and famous individuals vying for a position in the government. However, nobody in recent memory had done it without prior government experience. Even world-renowned Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, who is running for the Philippine presidency, had to take a senatorial term first before running for President, a campaign that is not quite doing so well, according to polling organizations.
Zelensky was different in this case as he actually won the presidency. He was an actor, comedian, and television personality before he won. The 44-year-old President was born in Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city in central Ukraine. He was of Jewish descent and was, according to him, raised as your typical Soviet Jewish family. Ironically, Vladimir Putin and his administration had used “denazification” as his casus belli to invade Ukraine when the Ukrainian leader’s family were victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
Zelensky later finished his law degree in 2000 from the Kyiv National Economic University. However, he soon began appearing on comedy and television shows, even hosting a show named “Liga Smeha” (League of Laughter), and won Ukraine’s “Dancing with the Stars.” He was also the voice actor of the Ukrainian version of “Paddington,” the famous animated bear.
so apparently Zelenskyy won the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars in 2006 and the tape is even better than whatever you're imagining pic.twitter.com/L1gnKD2ISr
— Kat Abu (@abughazalehkat) February 27, 2022
However, the show that had put him on the Ukrainian presidential map prior to his presidential win was his role on the satirical TV show “Servant of the People.” There he played the role of Vasyl Holobrodko, a history teacher whose passionate rant on corruption and injustice in Ukraine went viral, causing him to win the presidency. Needless to say, it was one of Ukraine TV’s biggest hits.
The show was his catapult to political success. In 2019, he aspired to make the TV story a reality when he ran for President, winning a landslide victory over then-President Petro Poroshenko. He was elected President in 2019 and was seen by the Ukrainian public as a rebuff on traditional politics.
“People want to see a president like [Vasyl Holoborodko], with the same moral values,” Zelensky said before the election. “They’re fed up with the establishment. People want something new.”
I can’t wrap my mind around the existence of this clip. pic.twitter.com/1XvBYWlMxg
— Vera Bergengruen (@VeraMBergen) March 2, 2022
President Zelensky the War Figure
While Zelensky’s presidential win came on the back of massive support from the people, his popularity soon appeared to be slowing down in his first years in office. Zelensky was criticized for failing his anti-corruption campaign and being too mellow when facing Putin. Furthermore, he faced allegations that he was beholden and a puppet to Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky who owns the TV channel where his show “Servant of the People” aired.
He also made a controversial political debut in the West when Trump called up Zelensky to investigate a Ukrainian energy company board member and Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, for corruption.
“I would like you to do us a favor,” said Trump in the now-infamous phone call that has now become a memorable quote from the impeachment trial. It was later revealed that Trump had ordered $400 million of military aid for Ukraine to be put on hold days before the call. The aid was to be put on hold in an effort to allegedly strong-arm Zelensky into launching a politically motivated investigation against now President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Zelensky had his chance at redemption during the start of the Russian invasion, and it seems that he has redeemed himself tenfold. The actor turned President has utilized his skills as a performer in managing the Ukrainian crisis. From his selfie videos on the streets of Kyiv, reaffirming the people on the war, to endearing speeches at international gatherings – he got the world to support Ukraine.
Zelensky has made the war his stage, and the rest of the world his captivated audience. “Politics, particularly politics today, is a game of performance,” said Samuel Woolley, an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism, in a statement to The Washington Post. “It’s a game of knowing what to say and when and how, and Zelensky seems to be hitting the nail on the head here.”
Amidst all his work on social media and the international stage, arguably Zelensky’s most important contribution is staying in Ukraine. It can be remembered that Zelensky has a bounty on his head and was pursued by Chechen special forces to assassinate him, which was later allegedly thwarted. He was offered an evacuation plan by the United States, to which he refused, stating, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
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