Zelensky, his earlier t.v. show, Finland, etc.

Yesterday, I had my inaugural post up on the new Responsible Statecraft blog, which is the successor to Jim Lobe’s earlier Lobelog. The editor at RS gave it the (fairly earnest) title, “Can ‘Finlandization’ Help Ukraine Stave Off Conflict with Russia?”. I had earlier proposed something a little snappier. But the subject of how people– primarily Ukrainians, but also others around the world– might want to start envisioning a sustainable, peaceful longterm relationship with Russia is certainly a serious one.

I recently got to thinking of “the Finland Option” as one definitely worth raising and exploring… and given that Ukraine’s Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky had his first one-on-one meeting with Russia’s Pres. Putin just on Monday, I thought this was a good time to write about this. In my RS piece, I noted that back during the Cold War the concept of “Finlandization” got a pretty bad rap from Western commentators. Throughout the Cold War Finland, a country that shares a long common border with Russia, remained committed (as it is, today, I believe) to the intentional strategic neutrality as between East and West enshrined in the Cooperation Agreement its government had concluded with Russia back in 1948.

Anyway, if you’re interested in the topic, go read what I wrote about it at Responsible Statecraft. I like the people there. They urge strategic restraint and a full-hearted shift of U.S. foreign policy toward diplomacy, away from its shocking current over-reliance on military violence and military threats.

What I want to write about here quickly is what I learned about Zelensky from having watched all the episodes I could find of the satirical t.v. series, “Servant of the People”, that he and his close colleagues produced, 2015-2018. You, too, can see at least two seasons of the show, subtitled in English, on Netflix. And you should definitely try to do so! This is the show that catapulted Zelensky into a strong victory in the presidential election last April… and when he thereafter organized new parliamentary elections, he and his friends from Kvartal 95, the company that produced the show, immediately founded a brand-new political party which they called the Servant of the People Party! The SPP then went on to win a strong victory in the elections held last July.

The image above is a screengrab from the Netflix info page about the show.

Here are some quick observations from my recollection of watching it:

  1. Zelensky, who plays the lead role as as sort of “accidental” President of Ukraine, is a great comic actor!
  2. Zelensky’s election as president earlier this year was an eery, real-life echo of the whole setup of the t.v. show. In the show, his character, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, starts out as a nebbishy high-school history teacher who one day, after the students have left class, stays in his classroom and lets out a fierce rant against the corruption in the country. Unbeknownst to him, one of his students is filming the  rant and then puts it up on social media… where it goes viral. A broad movement then erupts urging Holoborodko to run for president, which he does. With his students and a small group of friends as key advisors he is speedily propelled to the presidency. That all happens in a flashback in the first episode; and the whole rest of the series is about the adventures he has in office, trying to confront the country’s oligarchs and to fend off all those of his family members who see his role as president as their path to riches. (What happened in real life is that when Season 3 was airing, a broad movement erupted urging Zelensky himself to run for president… )
  3. Several of the names of Kvartal 95 people who are on the credits roll at the beginning of each episode are people who are now close advisors of Zelensky’s in government.
  4. Zelensky and the Kvartal 95 team have an apparently savvy understanding of the super-corrupt nature of current Ukrainian politics. In several of the episodes, the group of oligarchs who control just about everything that goes on in the country– including most of its politics– are shown clinking Scotch-filled glasses with each other or whatever, in very opulent settings, as they decide what to do with Pres. Holoborodko. But you almost never see their faces…
  5. He seems also to have a strong understanding of the many ways in which the oligarchs exercise their power. We see them getting up to all kinds of economic dirty tricks. We also see them speedily organizing substantial Astroturf protests whenever Holoborodko seems to be challenging their grip on the country…

There is, however, one disturbing wrinkle in this whole picture. Zelensky would never have gotten his t.v. show on the air at all in Ukraine had he not won the support of a key oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, who aired it on  a t.v. station he owned. Kolomoisky seems to be a pretty unsavory and corrupt character. (He looted a big bank that he owned, in true Ahmad Chalabi style; he has Israeli citizenship and homes in Israel and Geneva.) Zelensky has kept in apparently good touch with Kolomoisky since becoming President, and allowed him to return to Ukraine from his previous exile…

So Zelensky’s professions of opposition to corruption and the oligarchy may not at this point be as deepseated as they seem? And how about his profession of a desire to end the war with Russia? We shall see…