Navigate to News section

As Ukraine’s New Jewish President Takes Office, Challenges Mount

Volodymyr Zelensky won the election, but can he govern?

Vladislav Davidzon
May 22, 2019
Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy walks to the parliament for his swearing in as Ukraine's sixth president since its independence in 1991, on May 20, 2019, in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy walks to the parliament for his swearing in as Ukraine's sixth president since its independence in 1991, on May 20, 2019, in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Yesterday, after an intensely hard fought and nasty presidential campaign that included accusations of drug abuse, treasonous corruption, and one candidate accusing the other of being a secret agent of Russian President Putin, Ukraine inaugurated 41-year-old Jewish comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as its sixth president. It was a stunning victory and augured a popular revolt against the professional political class. Zelensky had ascended to the presidency with about three-quarters of all votes cast, having defeated the sitting president in 23 out of Ukraine’s 24 regions, beating the fantastical score predicted in his fictional television show by several percentage points. The simulacrum of reality being overtaken by television had reached its logical denouement. Predictably enough, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not put in a congratulatory phone call to Kiev.

Standing at the tribunal in the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, Zelensky delivered a very strong and affecting inauguration speech, one which should be read by non-Ukrainians as well. He flirted with comparing himself to Ronald Reagan, and posited that Ukraine should attempt to emulate Iceland’s success “in football, the Israelis in defending their rightful land, the Japanese in terms of technology, the Swiss in terms of knowing how to coexist happily with each other despite any differences.” One line of his inauguration speech stood out in particular: “My whole life I tried to do everything to make Ukrainians laugh,” Zelensky said. “Now I will do everything to make sure Ukrainians at least won’t cry any more.”

It was most certainly a speech designed to quiet the critics who argued that the comedian will not make for an impressive statesman. In fact, Zelensky’s first day in office was packed with gestures that showed an understanding of his populist moment, including directing government officials to cease putting photos of the head of state in government offices, and replacing them with pictures of their children, so, he quipped, “that they could look into their eyes when making a decision.” Zelensky’s inauguration speech concluded with a call for the swift dissolution of the Ukrainian parliament as well as a snap election that would be carried out as quickly as possible (whether the dissolution is legal will soon be determined by a Ukrainian court).

Ukraine’s remarkable status as the only country in the world outside of Israel to have both a Jewish head of state and head of government was not to last for very long. Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman—who, bizarrely enough, was born in the same week and month of 1978 as Zelensky—submitted his resignation from the cabinet in the middle of the afternoon on inauguration day. He likely had no choice, after Zelensky’s call for the dissolution of parliament, but it was also clear that he was not willing to be associated with either the achievements or the failures of the new presidency and wanted to begin preparing for the forthcoming parliamentary elections as quickly as possible.

“I suggested to the president, the parliament, that we together form a new order of the day and very quickly began to make decisions that would make Ukraine stronger,” Groysman said. “The president chose a different path, and I believe that today he took upon himself the entire responsibility to those threats in the future that are on the agenda of the day.”

Zelensky also requested that the Ukrainian parliament allow him to have a fresh team by sacking the chief of the SBU, the security service of Ukraine, and the prosecutor general of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko. As of press time, Mr. Lutsenko, a loyalist of the former president who has no legal training, seems to be the only member of the previous administration clinging to his portfolio. What to do with him presents a thorny problem to the new administration, as Lutskeno has been tangled in a high profile political showdown, siding with President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani in a way that many commentators see as lining up against Ukrainian interests. Earlier this month, Giuliani announced that the would embark on a trip to Kiev, hoping to enlist the new administration’s help in two sensitive political investigations, one pertaining to allegations that the Ukrainian government had attempted to influence the U.S. elections to benefit Hillary Clinton and the other investigating the affairs of Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son who was appointed to the board of a gas company owned by a former minister in the disgraced government of Viktor Yanukovich.

Taking Giuliani to task, Lutsenko abetted the political war of words between the American attorney and Ukrainian Member of Parliament Sergiy Leshchenko, resulting in Giuliani canceling his visit. As Kiev is deeply reliant on American political, diplomatic, and economic support in its conflict with Moscow, such controversy is deeply troublesome, presenting Zelensky with his first major test as a statesman.

But those expecting the ascendant comedian to break away from all previous political traditions may be in for a disappointment: Zelensky seems poised to be making much less of a formal break with Ukraine’s old entranced political elites than what his voters might have hoped for. Disconcertingly, a number of disgraced members of the Yanukovich government who had fled along with the disgraced president five years ago have returned to the country in recent days. The character of Zelensky’s new government will become quickly apparent over the next week.

Despite the tremendous and overwhelming mandate that Zelensky had been handed by the Ukrainian electorate, Ukrainian politics is very much a blood sport, and the political honeymoon was never going to last long. This morning, the needling of the newly inaugurated president began in earnest. His political opponents began arriving to meetings at the presidential administration by bike—just as in the opening credits of his show. This morning, Ukraine’s fantasy president stepped out of the television screen and walked through the doors of the presidential administration as head of state, just as he had over three seasons of his escapist fantasia of moral purity. Will he be able to govern?


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.