Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A wisecracking TV personality uses his fame to rail against the political establishment and, despite having absolutely zero political experience, runs for president – and shocks the world by winning.
No, not (just) Donald Trump, but the man whose name is now yoked with his in the scandal that has led to an impeachment investigation in Washington. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the leader whom Trump is accused of leaning on, in July, to dig up dirt on Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Critics say Trump abused his office and should be impeached, while Trump insists there was no impropriety.
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Zelensky, 41, was already a well-known figure in Ukraine before his election last April, but as a television comedian, not a politician. He created and starred in the satirical show “Servant of the People,” in which he plays an ordinary schoolteacher whose rants against political corruption – a major problem in Ukraine – turn him into a populist hero and unexpectedly elevate him to the presidency.
In a case of life imitating art, Zelensky campaigned in Ukraine’s real-life election as an outsider willing to take on the oligarchs who dominate the poverty-stricken country’s economy. He largely avoided serious discussions on policy and used social media to great effect, often posting humorous videos.
Like Trump in 2016, Zelensky astonished the world by winning. Unlike his American counterpart, who drew fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, Zelensky was elected by an utter landslide, with about a staggering 75% of the vote.
“I will never let you down,” Zelensky told his cheering supporters, who refer to him simply as “Ze.” He is apparently Ukraine’s first president of Jewish heritage; according to the Los Angeles Times, Zelensky told an interviewer in 2016 that “I have Jewish blood, I am a Russian speaker, and I’m a citizen of Ukraine.”
Since his election, Zelensky has struggled to make good on his promises for Ukraine, which relies heavily on U.S. and European aid and which is bogged down in fighting against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country. When he spoke to Trump by phone in July, the White House had suspended payment of $250 million in security aid, which Zelensky was eager to see unfrozen.
Trump has said the holdup in aid was due to concerns over the corruption that still riddles Ukraine. Zelensky acknowledged that problem in the phone call, and even went as far as to use Trump’s metaphor of “draining the swamp.”
However, Zelensky, like Trump, has faced accusations since taking office that he is part of the problem. Critics have questioned his ties to the oligarch who owns the television station that gave Zelensky his original platform, which launched him to national stardom.
The Ukrainian leader has so far said little about his telephone conversation with Trump, despite the growing controversy. During his maiden speech to the United Nations on Wednesday, Zelensky made no mention of the matter.