After a campaign of stunts, japes and viral videos, things now get serious for Volodymyr Zelenskyi.
The 41-year-old actor and comedian won an overwhelming victory in Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday. By Monday lunchtime, with almost all the ballots counted, he had garnered 73.2% of the vote, compared with 24.5% for the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko. Zelenskyi will take over after his inauguration in early June.
Once in office, he will face just as many challenges as the fictional Ukrainian president he played in the television comedy Servant of the People, and this time without a team of scriptwriters to make sure he comes out on top in the end.
Poroshenko conceded defeat almost immediately after polls closed on Sunday, saying he would respect the will of the Ukrainian people. But he later issued a warning that emphasised his campaign message: that a Zelenskyi victory was a win for Putin.
"You may just look at the celebrations in the Kremlin on the occasion of the elections. They believe that with a new inexperienced Ukrainian president, Ukraine could be quickly returned to Russia’s orbit of influence," Poroshenko wrote on Twitter.
The relationship with Russia will also be of major concern to the international community. Over the past five years, Russia has aided and financed a separatist movement in the east of the country, leading to a war that has left more than 13,000 dead. Russia also annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Western diplomats have urged the Zelenskyi team not to make the "strategic mistake" of opening talks directly with the separatists, warning this would legitimise the Russian narrative that it is an internal conflict.
Zelenskyi said one of his first priorities would be to secure the release of 24 sailors seized by Russia while passing through the Kerch strait near Crimea last year, currently languishing in Russian jails.
But for all the alarm, nobody yet knows whether Zelenskyi will prove a more amenable interlocutor for the Kremlin than Poroshenko. While he will drop some of Poroshenko’s nationalist rhetoric, Zelenskyi’s penchant for improvisation could be alarming for the Kremlin, which at least viewed Poroshenko as a known quantity.
Some of Zelenskyi’s first words on Sunday night underlined this. "As a citizen of Ukraine I can say to all post-Soviet countries: ‘Look at us. Everything is possible,’" he said, in words that could resonate with the many Russians who had followed the chaotic but lively campaign in Ukraine and wondered what a similarly competitive election might look like in Russia.
"I congratulate Ukraine and Ukrainians … on their fair elections, a rare thing for the former Soviet space," wrote the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny on Twitter.
"Zelenskyi is popular in Russia," said the Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Ryabchyn. "Imagine he goes on Instagram and starts sending messages to ordinary Russians in the Russian language. He could speak directly and Russia is not ready for this."
Zelenskyi will also face daunting challenges on the home front. His victory capitalised on widespread discontent with Poroshenko’s rule, and he won a majority in all but one of Ukraine’s regions.
Partly, this was because he offered so few specifics that his candidacy acted as a blank piece of paper on which people could fix their expectations. Now, he is almost certain to disappoint some of those who voted for him. He will also face a potentially hostile parliament until parliamentary elections, scheduled for October.
Zelenskyi’s team has promised a new era in which corruption will not be tolerated, and political and business interests unable to interfere in the judicial system. "We need to cut the lines between the presidential administration and the courts and prosecutors," said Ruslan Stefanchuk, a member of the Zelenskyi team.
However, Poroshenko made similar promises when he took office and was unable to deliver. Moreover, many are alarmed by the links between Zelenskyi and the controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who currently lives in exile. Zelenskyi has denied he is a "Kolomoyskyi puppet", but has numerous links to the oligarch and many fear the new president will be beholden to his benefactor.
The country’s other oligarchs are manoeuvring nervously, claiming to be in favour of reforms to the system but worried a Zelenskyi win could leave one of their rivals in the ascendancy. "The system needs reform, but it’s about whether it’s true and honest and independent. If it looks like a land grab then it will be strongly fought," said a well-connected source in the Ukrainian business world.
Zelenskyi took calls from international leaders including the US president, Donald Trump, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on Sunday night.
On Monday, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, congratulated Zelenskyi on his win. "I would be glad to welcome you soon in Berlin, and I wish you good luck and success for the tasks ahead of you," Merkel said in a message to Zelenskyi released by her office.
It recalled a scene in Servant of the People in which Merkel calls Zelenskyi’s fictional president, Holoborodko, and offers him EU membership, only to realise she had mistakenly thought he was the president of Montenegro.
Servant of the People, which ran for three series, is likely to provide frequent comparisons and contrasts to the real-life presidency of Zelenskyi. If the presidential campaign had not blurred the lines between fiction and reality enough, the feeling was reinforced on Sunday night, as the series’ theme tune played as Zelenskyi jostled his way on to the stage to declare victory. A number of diplomats based in Kyiv have watched the show for clues as to how Zelenskyi might govern.
"I think he’s a nice guy and a good actor, but nobody knows how he will be as a politician. I’m not sure even he knows," said Ryabchyn.
By Shaun Walker, The Guardian