Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky: From comedian to national hero | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW

An actor, political satirist, underestimated even by his supporters, decides to change careers and run for the highest office in the country. It’s almost inconceivable. And yet, this man has something that many politicians lack, something that allows him to excel and shine, especially in times of crisis: he is an outstanding communicator. Many phrases of Volodymyr Zelensky will be remembered for years and will eventually find their way into the history books.

On June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, then President of the United States for seven years, declaimed the words that come up repeatedly whenever the period is mentioned. that ended the Cold War: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this door… Tear down this wall.”

Nearly 45 years later, a man with a similar entertainment background addresses his countrymen in video messages as a national leader, addressing them as “Free people! Free country!”

Zelenskyy says things like, “We Ukrainians are a peaceful nation. But if we remain silent today, we will be gone tomorrow!” He fiercely criticizes the lack of support from abroad, declaring: “We need an anti-war coalition. We defend our country alone. The most powerful forces around the world are watching us.

From “servant of the people” to Ukrainian president

Ronald Reagan died 18 years ago, but many in the United States still revere him: to them he is practically a saint. Zelensky seems to be building a similar status for himself in Ukraine. But it is unclear what will happen to him in the days and weeks to come. Reports are circulating that Russia intends to kill him. Zelenskyy himself speculated that one of the aims of the Russian attack was to overthrow him, and said the enemy had declared him their number one target.

Just a few years ago, Zelenskyy was an actor and entertainer who satirized corruption and mismanagement in Ukraine by playing the Ukrainian president in the popular TV series “Servant of the People.” Elected in 2019, he has quickly become a serious statesman who seems able to effortlessly set the right tone in a crisis. This may be precisely because before becoming president, he was a comedic actor, presenter and exceptional rhetorical talent, which enabled him to use words to achieve the greatest possible impact.

President Zelensky during a military exercise in Rivne, northern Ukraine, February 16, 2022

Zelenskyy as an outstanding communicator

Now that Russia has invaded, the situation in Ukraine looks increasingly perilous, and each of Zelenskyy’s appeals has been more urgent and impassioned than the last. Observers consider the speech he gave just after the start of the Russian invasion to be the best of his life. Emotional, fearless and resolute, he told the Russian troops: “If you attack, you will see our faces, not our backs!

The Ukrainian president also perfectly masters the art of communicating via Twitter. Every few hours, he tweets concise statements to the world. Friday at noon, for example, he thanked Sweden in Ukrainian and English for its military, technical and humanitarian aid, concluding that they were “building an anti-Putin coalition together”.

Media duel with Vladimir Putin

It is part of the paradoxical history of this war which, while in military terms Ukraine is hopelessly outmatched by the Russian attackers, in rhetorical terms Zelensky beats Putin hands down. After the Russian president’s confused hour-long speech in which he recognized the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine as independent republics, Ukrainian Zelensky reassured his compatriots: “Don’t panic! We are strong and ready for anything. We will defeat everyone, because we are Ukraine!”, and in doing so, prevented mass panic.

When the Russian president talks about baseless allegations of “genocide” in eastern Ukraine and rantings about “denazification” as a pretext for war, it must sound like sheer mockery, especially to Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian head of state — who grew up in a Russian-speaking family — is Jewish. Her grandfather, who was in the Red Army, lost three of his brothers in the Holocaust.

Four people, seen from behind, stand in front of a destroyed building in Kiev

The capital Kiev was attacked and at least one military plane was shot down

Zelenskyy’s approval ratings were at rock bottom

Zelenskyy has probably never been more popular in Ukraine than now. Yet, before the war with Russia, many of his compatriots were anything but happy with their head of state. He could not keep the over-ambitious promise he made when he took office three years ago: that he would end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The progress envisioned in the Minsk agreements – which aimed to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine – has not materialized; instead, the chords gradually disintegrated.

And then there was the Pandora Papers scandal, and the involvement, of everyone, of the supposed Mr. Clean who was fighting the oligarchs. Investigative reports, conducted by an international network of journalists, revealed, among other things, that Zelenskyy had ties to offshore companies. According to the report, Zelenskyy’s longtime business partner – who later became a top presidential aide – invested some of the earnings in high-end real estate in London, while the president’s wife, Olena, would be a beneficiary of one of the offshore companies.

Close-ups (from left) of Ukrainian, German, French and Russian leaders during a press conference in December 2019 (Zelenskyy, Merkel, Macron, Putin)

The Normandy format talks between Ukrainian, German, French and Russian leaders (seen here in December 2019) attempted to resolve the crisis in Ukraine’s breakaway regions

The Cold War is looming again

Incidentally, at the end of the 1970s, Ronald Reagan was considered yesterday’s man. He had twice failed to win selection as a Republican presidential candidate, losing to Richard Nixon in 1968 and Gerald Ford in 1976. But then, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Cold War took its toll. broke again and a year later Reagan won. the US election against incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

More than four decades later, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the world is facing a new version of the Cold War. And the role of Volodymyr Zelensky remains to be determined.

This article was originally written in German.

Mary I. Bruner