Volodymyr Zelensky Plays Himself

The president of Ukraine is easily found on social media, but rarely submits to journalists’ questioning.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky poses for selfies with voters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky poses for selfies with voters. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters)

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took the podium at the United Nations General Assembly today all eyes were on him—not least because he is at the center of an emerging impeachment investigation into Donald Trump. It was Zelensky's largest international audience yet, marking the completion of his transformation from comedian to global statesman.

Since taking office, Zelensky has been a whirlwind of activity. He’s traveled to the front line of the war in eastern Ukraine to see the situation firsthand, and to Brussels to meet with European Union and NATO leaders and reassure them about his commitment to keeping Ukraine on a pro-European path. He’s also stood on the tarmac to welcome home 35 Ukrainians freed in a prisoner exchange with Russia.

Yet in one important way he is unchanged, unwilling to bend to the norms for a democratically elected leader. During his presidential campaign, Zelensky—then best known at home for playing a satirical version of Ukraine’s leader on television—intentionally rejected the expectations placed on a typical candidate, eschewing speeches and rallies in favor of comedy shows. As president, he has continued to break with tradition.

Zelensky and his team have not simply fused together accomplishments and public relations in a way previously unseen in Ukrainian politics; they have openly said they do not need journalists in their efforts to communicate with the public, opting instead for social media and slickly produced “interviews” carried out in-house. Since taking office, Zelensky has yet to hold a press conference, his spokeswoman’s regular press briefings have been canned, and his government has closed cabinet meetings—previously open to accredited journalists—to the media.

Like Trump and former Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, Zelensky has the online following to allow him to circumvent traditional news media, part of a growing trend among elected leaders of using social media’s veneer of accessibility to sidestep the media’s demand for transparency. That allows them to propagate their message unadulterated, and it also cleaves the public from the media, presenting journalists as corrupt and working against the public’s interests, while the leaders try to defend the people. It is an inversion of the traditional relationship between the leadership and the press.

This approach to the media isn’t a question of political orientation. If Trump’s Twitter account is mainly used to go on the offensive against critical media coverage in what he calls the liberal media and Salvini’s Facebook is a mixture of anti-immigrant race-baiting with a side of Italiana, Zelensky’s social media is about selling himself as an everyman trying to bring humanity and common sense back to politics. He has no equivalent right-wing leanings.

Indeed,that precise theme—the triumph of the everyman—was the plot of the television show that catapulted Zelensky to fame, Servant of the People, in which he played a Ukrainian schoolteacher unexpectedly elected president following a viral YouTube tirade against the establishment. During his real-world campaign earlier this year, Zelensky intentionally muddled the difference between himself and his character, giving an Instagram appeal in his presidential costume from the show, using the theme song for his events, and even naming his party Servant of the People.

This strategy has far-reaching consequences in Ukraine. After winning both a presidential and a parliamentary election by a landslide, Zelensky has a mandate to reshape the country. The dirty vote-trading that has so long defined Ukrainian politics simply isn’t needed by a Zelensky government that has a majority of seats, washing out cronies who were in Ukraine’s Parliament for years and sending surviving politicians and parties into a frenzy of either trying to find accommodation within the Zelensky government or defining themselves against it.

That power has given Zelensky wide latitude. After his first 100 days in office ended in August, journalists expected him to hold his first press conference. Instead, Zelensky sat down for an “interview” with his personal production company that mixed clips from Servant of the People and his time in office to re-create a day in the life of the president. The interviewer in the program was the actor Stanislav Boklan, who played Zelensky’s prime minister on-screen. The pair re-created a shot of the prime minister taking Zelensky’s character to work on his first day, and during the actual interview—to the extent that one took place—Boklan asked Zelensky softball questions about whether he ran his social-media accounts himself (he said yes) and how being president in real life differed from being one on TV.

The “movie interview,” as it has been dubbed in Ukraine, built on an earlier success, when Zelensky was interviewed on his party’s YouTube channel ahead of parliamentary elections in a scene reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Zelensky sat behind the wheel of a Tesla while an unseen and unnamed, but friendly, interviewer asked him questions. This effort has left journalists scrambling to make sense of a new genre that does not even pretend to include them.

“We conducted analysis and realized that people do not want to watch the president at press conferences, in interviews with television channels, the media, or during short press encounters,” Kyryllo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Zelensky’s office, said in an interview with Interfax-Ukraine. “They want to listen to him directly.”

So far the strategy seems to have been successful: Zelensky’s approval ratings are continuing to rise. With more than 70 percent approval, he is not only nearly 50 points ahead of his predecessor at the end of his term, but ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own ratings at home.

The question then becomes not whether the Ukrainian public likes what Zelensky and his team are doing when it comes to their use of social media—it does—but what role traditional media play in a democracy in this new age.

Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, argues that journalists—who he said are corrupt and need to “purify” themselves, in an interview with BBC News Ukrainian—are no longer necessary, and has said that a press conference with Zelensky will take place “when society demands such a press conference. So far society wants to communicate directly with the president, without intermediaries.” His argument is essentially that journalists have no role in deciding what the people want, and provide only one microphone of many the government can choose from.

But journalism in a democracy is not just the transmission of information. Journalism is supposed to act as a check on abuse of power by measuring leaders’ words against their actions, and stopping them from rewriting the record. Democracies everywhere are struggling to define the role of journalism in a world where the flow of information is relentless, giving the illusion of total transparency. In countries dealing with war and endemic corruption, such as Ukraine, the cost of that can be devastating. “Without rigorous journalism,” Matthew Schaaf, the director of Freedom House Ukraine, told me, “officials' statements will go unchecked, corruption will remain hidden, human-rights abuses will continue, and the public will be left in the dark.”

The limitations of Zelensky’s “direct communication” model have already started to become clear. A week before the Ukrainian prisoners were released in the exchange with Russia, Ukraine’s new prosecutor general shared a Facebook post written by a lower-ranking official, saying that the prisoners were heading home that day. Family members rushed to the airport to see their loved ones, only to have their hopes dashed when it turned out that the prosecutor general had not verified the information.

Still, even as Zelensky leverages social media, he, like Trump, is not completely unconnected to traditional media. Zelensky developed his social-media following because of his TV fame; his production company airs its programs, including Servant of the People when it was on the air, on channels owned by the Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky; and those channels provided one-sided positive coverage of Zelensky through his campaign and into his presidency.

Kolomoisky’s media outlets have enjoyed special access to the president—including interviews with Zelensky during the campaign, time on the tarmac as the prisoner exchange was under way, and contact with Zelensky’s team. In this way, the issue is less one of new versus old media, but instead one of using the media to avoid being subjected to their probing. (Zelensky’s relationship with Kolomoisky is itself under scrutiny: The president shared a Facebook post this month that showed the pair held a meeting in which they discussed Kolomoisky’s business interests in Ukraine. Kolomoisky wants the country’s largest savings bank denationalized and put back in his hands. Ukraine’s prime minister told the Financial Times that Kiev was looking to cut a deal with Kolomoisky, but later denied that was the case.)

For now, journalists who have been at the front lines of Ukraine’s fight against corruption are trying to define their new role in an environment where they can’t guarantee the media will have access to officials for probing interviews or at press conferences.

"When you are a mediator, you are very dependent on the authorities and their exclusive information,” says Nastya Stanko, a journalist at Hromadske Television. “If the authorities are communicating through Instagram, Facebook, and Telegram, then your services are not really needed. That is why Ukrainian media have to find a new role.”