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How a TV Comic Is Changing the Face of Ukrainian Politics

Why are Ukrainians dumping a bunch of revolutionaries from parliament and replacing them with novices?

by Sean Stephens and Hind Hassan
Jul 29 2019, 2:00pm

KYIV, Ukraine — 2019 has been a big year for Volodymyr Zelensky. He’s gone from playing Ukraine’s president on TV to actually becoming, well, Ukraine’s president.

That’s kind of a big life change.

“It’s an entirely new experience for me, a completely different one,” Zelensky told VICE News. “My life is completely turned around. And yet, I truly want to do something good for Ukraine, or at least try. And we are trying now.”

It’s an equally big change for Ukrainian politics, which just underwent a dramatic makeover in July’s parliamentary elections. The comedian-turned-politician's party was always expected to perform well, but they exceeded all expectations.

Zelensky's party, Servant of the People, won 254 of a possible 424 seats in parliament, for a 58.5 percent share and enough to rule without forming a coalition, a first in post-Soviet Ukraine. That would be a massive haul for any politician, but it’s especially noteworthy for Zelensky, who had no political experience before entering office, nor did his party have any sitting MPs.

His staggering success may, in part, be attributable to his showmanship. He’s constantly going on walkabouts in towns and cities he visits, posing for photographs and talking to the people.

But he’s quickly confronting the challenges that come with his new job. He’s currently negotiating the release of 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia in December. He’s learned that navigating a prisoner swap with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is no easy task, but he’s keen to show the public, their release is a priority for him.

"Please believe me, we are working day and night to return our sailors home," he told crowds in the port city of Odessa during Navy Day celebrations on July 7.

He’s also trying to play down the problems a government of political freshmen will pose. "They are owners of different businesses.They have very great European or American education so they’ve graduated from different schools and universities,” he told VICE News. “I think about 30 percent of the party, they are professional lawyers. I think they have everything.”

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