You know how pundits like to say that President Trump is essentially running the White House like his reality show, The Apprentice? (They say it a lot). Well, he’s got nothing on his maybe buddy, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who essentially became President of Ukraine by playing the President of Ukraine on TV. No, really.
Sorry, let me back up a minute. You may have heard about the whistleblower controversy currently embroiling Washington, even if no one quite knows for certain, well, anything about what whistles were blown and why. As best we can piece together, President Trump may have had a disturbing conversation with another world leader. That world leader may have been the President of Ukraine. Trump may have made a promise to the Ukrainian President that the US would release $250 million worth of military aid to the country (such aid was approved by Congress but was being held up by Trump at the time of the call) if Ukraine helped dig up dirt on a Democratic Presidential candidate, who may be Joe Biden. Such a promise may be unethical or even illegal, (or it may be perfectly fine if you ask Rudy Giuliani, if one were so inclined to ask anything of him). And someone in the White House privy to this call may have filed an official whistleblower’scomplaint, which the administration may be preventing Congress from reviewing for partisan reasons.
Actually, lets just assume all of that is true for the moment (I mean, it probably is, right?), so that we can get back to all the fascinating and sometimes weird Ukraine stuff. Ukraine is an interesting country. It sits quite literally between the West and Russia, and has been politically and socially pulled in both directions. Ukraine was once a key part of the Soviet Union, and Russia, especially under President Vladimir Putin, has sought to maintain influence in the country. Meanwhile, many western-oriented Ukrainians (who primarily live in the actual western portion of the country) have sought closer ties with Europe and the US. Ukraine has made several moves to become more interconnected with the European Union, and it’s on the shortlist for EU membership. It’s also sought membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, although concerns over the country’s sometimes shaky democracy have so far kept it out of NATO.
These democratic shakeups are often tied to Russia; Putin sees Ukraine as part of Russia’s sphere of influence and views Ukrainian integration into the EU or NATO as threats to Russia. The Russian influence in Ukraine has been less than subtle. Remember the time Russia poisoned the pro-Western Ukrainian Presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in 2004? (It backfired, by the way: Yushchenko survived, sparked the Orange Revolution and eventually won the presidency). Or when the later, pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych cancelled a popular trade deal with the EU after being pressured by Russia to do so? (that one led to the Euromaidan protests that eventually turned into the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, kicking that president out of office). And it was kinda in revenge for that revolution that Russia decided to just straight up take a piece of Ukraine (Crimea, which you may also remember from history class or a joke on Frasier) and send in a bunch of Russian troops who pretend not to be Russian troops to start a war in that country.
Anyway, it was in the context of all that stuff that Ukrainian TV Studio Kvartal 95 premiered the show Servant of the People, starring actor (and studio co-founder) Volodymyr Zelensky as a high school teacher whose viral social media rant about corruption in Ukrainian politics gets him elected President of the country. The actor Zelensky, I’m sure none of you know, is the star of various romantic comedies, such as the Russian movie Love in the Big City and its TWO sequels, which all seem to revolve around a group of promiscuous guys who are prevented from having sex through various mystical curses that involve Saint Valentine (how this has not been remade yet in America with Bradley Cooper, I have no idea).
Anyway, I doubt anyone would have predicted that Kvartal 95 would have launched a political party, named Servant of the People after the TV show, and enter Zelensky as an actual candidate for the actual presidency…or that he would win! Zelensky’s election was not a one-off though. He parlayed his popularity into a major legislative victory as well: the Servant of the People party won 254 of the 450 seats in the Ukrainian legislature this summer. More amazing than the new majority is the fact that none of these 254 new lawmakers have served in parliament before (established politicians were not allowed to run on the party ticket); they literally had to take a crash course on how the legislature works before taking office.
Although Zelensky’s campaign was primarily focused on cleaning up corruption in Ukraine, Russia remains the looming crisis of Ukrainian politics. Zelensky unseated President Petro Poroshenko, who strongly opposed Russia’s incursions into Ukraine over the past five years. Zelensky’s own politics vis-à-vis Russia are still something of a black box, leaving pundits and scholars to search for whatever clues they can find. As an actor, Zelensky protested against the Ukrainian government banning Russian movies during the various kerfuffles between the two countries (a move which deprived Ukrainian audiences of the chance to see Love in the Big City 2, which I assume is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy). Looking for clues in Zelensky’s TV show, Rutgers University-Newark Professor Alexander J. Motyl called the fictional Servant of the People “dangerously pro-Russian” for ignoring Russian responsibility in its portrayal of Ukraine’s civil unrest. Meanwhile, the Russian-government sponsored RT described Zelensky as “A man Bolton & Putin can do business with” (the Bolton part of that statement hasn’t aged well). On the other hand, Zelensky has continued Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian-back separatist movement in the east; hence the desire for that US military aid.
Beyond their common television-star-with-no-political-experience background and possible pro-Russian sympathies, why would Trump and Zelensky be engaged in much interaction at all, let alone a potentially scandalous one? Well, Trump and Rudy Giuliani have been attempting to push a story and potentially an investigation concerning involvement of Joe Biden and his son Hunter (and/or Hillary Clinton, in various permutations of the tale) in shady business dealings with Ukrainian companies and political malfeasance to cover it all up. So while Trump strongly opposed the US giving Ukraine aid to fight Russia – since Trump thinks Putin did nothing wrong (and “outsmarted” Obama) by seizing part of another sovereign country and should not bear any punishment for doing so – Trump is willing to hand over that aid if it helps sully the reputation of his potential 2020 election opponent. There’s also some stuff about now-imprisoned former Trump aide Paul Manafort, who did all kinds of dirt for the old, pro-Russian Ukrainian President (Giuliani has had some questionable Russian-Ukrainian dealings as well).
All of the Trump-Zelensky stuff is speculation (but seriously, would you at all be surprised if it all ended up being true?), as are opinions about Zelensky’s real intentions concerning Putin and Russia. What is clear though is that the lines between TV and real life politics have become ridiculously blurred in both the US and Ukraine, and we are essentially experiencing the equivalent of a cross-over episode. As television producers, I can only imagine both Trump and Zelensky taking at least a bit of pride in the spectacle; if this keeps up, ratings will be YUGE.