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Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Donald Trump

Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s success in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential elections shares many factors in common with Donald Trump’s victory in the United States. Yet the differences between the two might matter more than the similarities.

April 18, 2019 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona Photo: Gage Skidmore (cc) flickr.com

Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s unexpected success in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections shares many of the hallmarks of Donald Trump’s unexpected rise to victory in the US presidential elections of 2016. In both cases, experts and journalists did not take their candidacies seriously. The French service of Euronews even entitled its report as “Volodymyr Zelenskiy: le ‘Trump ukrainien’“.

Parallels between Trump and Zelenskiy

There are indeed six main similarities between Trump and Zelenskiy. The first is that they both were successful because they positioned themselves as “anti-candidates”, as being against everything that came before them. Trump and Zelenskiy were anti-establishment insurgents against the old guard in the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States and against all earlier politicians in Ukraine, respectively. Trump was a threat to all Republican candidates and the old guard in the Republican Party. Zelenskiy’s insurgency was as much against Yulia Tymoshenko and Anatoliy Grytsenko, two candidates who ran their third election campaigns, as it was against Poroshenko.

The second similarity is that their anti-establishment insurgencies were in many ways fake news. Trump is a big businessman with major business backers and no links to the average man or woman in the street. Zelenskiy likewise is a major businessman with ties to oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky, owner of the 1+1 television channel which hosts his show Servant of the People. Radio Svoboda, the Ukrainian language service of Radio Liberty, and its special anti-corruption programme Skhemy (Schemes) investigated the deep and very close relations between Kolomoysky and Zelenskiy.

The third commonality deals with their tax returns. Trump is the first US president to not provide his tax returns upon becoming the elected president. Zelenskiy refused the request from the Chesno (Honesty) NGO to provide his 2018 tax returns. It is open to speculation what each man has to hide. In the former case there have been rumours that Trump has exaggerated his wealth. Meanwhile, journalistic investigations have revealed that Zelenskiy maintains extensive business interests in Russia, receives Russian government grants while Ukraine is at war with Russia, and has large undeclared real estate holdings in Ukraine and Europe. While incumbent Petro Poroshenko also had business interests in Russia he has either lost them to Russian state raids or sold them since 2014.

Fourth, Trump and Zelenskiy came from successful show business careers, the former from The Apprentice, a show that played for over 15 seasons between 2004 and 2015, and the latter with Servant of the People, now in its third season. Servant of the People was launched in October 2015, ten months after Kolomoysky was sacked as governor of the Dnipro Oblast when he brought paramilitaries into Kyiv to retain control of the state oil refining company UkrNafta.

The fifth is that Russia disliked Hillary Clinton and Poroshenko and therefore backed Trump and Zelenskiy instead. Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a long-term ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has come out stridently in support of Zelenskiy while denouncing Poroshenko. Zhirinovsky said, “Nobody in Russia is waiting for the re-election of Poroshenko!”

Aleksei Makarkin, deputy head of Moscow’s Center for Political Technologies, told Vedomosti that a victory for Zelenskiy would be preferable to Moscow, as he would be a “weak president” because he had little experience in politics and no legitimate political team behind him.

The sixth and final main similarity is that both Trump and Zelenskiy have shown hostility to their opponents and made verbal threats in the media against those who have criticised them. Zelenskiy warns he will not forgot those critics.

Or maybe not so similar

Nevertheless, there are also four important differences between Trump and Zelenskiy that should be noted. First, Trump is ideological whereas Zelenskiy is decidedly not. Trump’s rise to power is similar to the growth of popularity of populists and economic nationalists in the United States, Latin America and Europe. But when Zelenskiy was asked who his favourite international politicians were, he named anti-populist French President Macron and populist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. These figures have nothing in common with each other and thus demonstrate Zelenskiy’s lack of understanding of politics.

Second, Trump has on many occasions embraced the term “nationalist” to describe himself and his favourite campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again!” It would not be possible to define Zelenskiy, a Russian-speaking Jew from eastern Ukraine who is willing to engage in dialogue with Russia in order to end its war in Ukraine, as a nationalist. Moreover Zelenskiy campaigned against Poroshenko’s slogan of “Army, Language, Faith”. If anything, Poroshenko’s election slogan of “From Kruty to Brussels: We Follow Our Own Path” is closer to Trump’s “Make America Great Again!”

Third, Trump has worked with the Republican Party for over a decade and his ideological stances on issues such as immigration and free trade are long-standing. The same cannot be said of Zelenskiy, whose program we have yet to learn about.

Lastly, Trump felt very comfortable and self-confident in debates, but Zelenskiy seemed less so. Zelenskiy threw the gauntlet down to Poroshenko to hold a debate in the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv built for the 2012 UEFA Euro football championship, not expecting Poroshenko to take up the offer; since then he has made a number of gaffes. Zelenskiy used an actor to take his blood test in a private clinic and the records may have been falsified with different dates on the reports. Meanwhile, his joke to use Tymoshenko as the moderator of the discussion fell flat.

Zelenskiy’s rise in the first round shares similarities with Trump’s rise to popularity in the United States, yet the differences matter more than the similarities. Trump is an American patriot and nationalist who has clear ideological values. Zelenskiy is against everything and for nothing.

Taras Kuzio is a Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and a Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute,  School of Advanced International Studies,    Johns Hopkins University.

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