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.