It was a smug move by a confident reformer. On 23rd September Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a bill enabling the impeachment of the head of state, hitherto impossible under Ukrainian law, as part of his reform package. The following day US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced impeachment proceedings against President Trump. Zelensky and Trump were suddenly mirror images of governance—one good, one ill.
The revelations about Zelensky’s telephone call with Trump may yet be the US president’s undoing. As the transcript reveals, Trump pushed Zelensky to initiate investigations into the son of a putative electoral rival. The subtext was that failure to comply would result in the withholding of US$390m of vital military aid.
Zelensky didn’t come out of the call well either. The transcript showed him cringingly eager to please. “I had an opportunity to learn from you,” gushed the Ukrainian to Trump, “we used quite a few of your skills and knowledge.” But so far Zelensky—a man as unlikely a president as Trump himself—has not been badly damaged.
This time last year Zelensky was the lead actor in Servant of the People, a political comedy, playing Vasyl Holoborodko, a humble teacher who is so sickened by his country’s corruption that he makes an impromptu rant to a colleague in an empty classroom, but is filmed on the sly by a pupil—the resulting clip gets a rapturous reception on the internet. He runs for office and is catapulted to the presidency by a landslide.
Servant of the People became one of Ukraine’s most-watched television series—it also sparked a political flame inside Zelensky himself. He engineered a lightning three-month campaign waged almost entirely on social media, and captured the presidency in April with 73 per cent of the vote—more even than Holoborodko.
It is hard to know whether fact or fiction was more improbable, but the face of the incumbent Petro Poroshenko during the televised presidential debate said it all: shock and disbelief that a TV funnyman from an entertainment show hoped to lead a country at war. But the majority of Ukrainians, some of the world’s least optimistic voters, felt that Zelensky was a gamble for change worth making.
Zelensky was everything that his competitors were…