Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine whose telephone call with President Donald Trump is now the subject of heated political debate over impeachment in the United States, is a political newcomer who starred in a television comedy about a guy who accidentally becomes the president of Ukraine.
Yes, you read that right. Ukraine elected a guy president who starred in a show as the president. Pravda compared Zelensky’s election to the plot of the Robin Williams’ movie “Man of the Year,” in which Williams played the star of a satirical political show who becomes president. Zelensky has fashioned an image as a man of the people warring against corruption. In one scene from his television show, he says to a taxi driver of the political elite, “Who are we for them? Clowns, right. I’m a clown, you’re a clown, 40 million clowns.”
Zelensky is relatively young – just 41 – and he’s completely new to geopolitics. His July 25, 2019 telephone conversation with Trump has sparked calls for Trump’s impeachment because the American president pressures Zelensky in that call to investigate his 2020 presidential rival Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter.
That’s focused attention on the president of Ukraine, who is a relatively unknown figure to many Americans. There is a debate over the spelling of Zelensky’s name with many U.S. and British publications using Zelensky. The name also appears as Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Here’s what you need to know about Volodymyr Zelensky:
1. Zelensky’s Television Show Character Was a Teacher Who Goes on a Political Rant on Social Media & Becomes President
The call between Zelensky and Trump captures two men trying to lavish praise over each other. They do share things in common: Both had never held political office when they were elected, and both were known for careers in show business (although obviously Trump also had an identity as a businessman as well.)
According to BBC, Zelensky “starred in the long-running satirical drama Servant of the People in which his character accidentally becomes Ukraine’s president. He plays a teacher who is elected after his expletive-laden rant about corruption goes viral on social media.” The character’s name was Vasyl Holoborodko.
According to Pravda, “The hero of the series fights for the rights of ordinary Ukrainians, fights with oligarchs, conflicts with corrupt deputies. That is, doing everything that ordinary Ukrainians have long dreamed of. On YouTube alone, the first series of ‘Servant of the People’ garnered over 11 million views.”
Zelensky’s political party has the same name as his show: Servant of the People. The New York Times reported that Zelensky crafted an image as an “anti-corruption crusader” on television as well as in political life.
According to USA Today, Zelensky, 41, is a lawyer “but made his name in comedy and show business.” He had never held elective office before he was elected in May, but he won 73 percent of the vote, the newspaper reported.
According to BBC, Zelensky was an “Instagram star” with millions of followers and a “millionaire thanks to his production company Kvartal 95″ even before his election in May 2019. The Pravda profile on Zelensky said that he ran “a very closed, non-standard campaign. He does not currently have an electoral headquarters, and in general his approach to the election is more reminiscent of the scenario of another television show.”
2. Zelensky Has Faced Scrutiny Over His Ties to a Wealthy Oligarch
Zelensky rails against the “elites” much in the manner Trump did in the 2016 presidential election. However, Zelensky’s own ties to a rich oligarch have been scrutinized due to the obvious contradiction.
The link is to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns 1+1, the popular Ukrainian television channel that ran Zelensky’s TV show. According to Reuters, both men have denied a problem, with Kolomoisky saying, “I’m more his puppet than he is mine,” and Zelensky retorting, “It is impossible to influence me.”
Zelensky also told Reuters that he was leaving his businesses, including the production company that created the TV show. According to Reuters, the oligarch had moved abroad because of his clashes with the man Zelensky defeated “over Ukraine’s largest bank, which he used to own.” Zelensky announced his candidacy on 1+1 and the channel also ran “a documentary voiced by Zelenskiy about Ronald Reagan, a popular actor who became U.S. president,” according to Reuters.
According to USA Today, the man Zelensky defeated, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, suggested that, because Zelensky lacks political experience, he “could be quickly returned to Russia’s orbit of influence.” Poroshenko is a billionaire who “was elected after an uprising overthrew the country’s previous pro-Russian government,” BBC reported.
When he took office, Zelensky said, according to BBC: “We must become Icelanders in football, Israelis in defending our native land, Japanese in technology…Swiss in our ability to live happily with each other, despite any differences.” According to BBC, he said “ending the conflict with Russian-backed rebels in the east would be his top priority.”
3. Zelensky, a Trained Lawyer, Spent Years in Television Production
Zelensky Volodymyr Oleksandrovych was born on January 25, 1978 in the city of Kryvyi Rih, Dnipropetrovsk region, according to his official biography.
In 1995-2000. Zelensky “graduated from the Kyiv National Economic University with a degree in law, qualified as a lawyer,” the bio says, adding that, from 1997 through 2003, he worked as an actor, screenwriter, artistic director of the Kvartal 95 Club” and from 2003 to 2011 as “Artistic Director in Kvartal 95 Studio.”
From 2011-2012, Zelensky was “General producer of Inter TV channel,” and from 2013 to 2019 he was listed as “Artistic director in Kvartal 95 Studio LLC.” He is also listed as the “Founder of the NGO League of Laughter Youth Center.” The bio confirms: “Did not occupy the elected positions.”
He has “10 full-length feature films. Winner of more than 30 awards of the National Television Prize of Ukraine ‘Teleriumph.’ He is also the owner of awards and winner of many international film, television festivals and media forums,” the bio reports.
4. Zelensky Is a Married Father of Two Children
According to his official biography, Zelensky is married to Olena Volodymyrivn Zelenska. He has a daughter, Olexandra, and a son, Kiril.
112International reports that Olena Zelenska “was born in Kryvyi Rih on February 16, 1978. She and her future husband were schoolmates, but they were not acquainted.” They later met again, though, when she studied at “the Faculty of Civil Engineering at Kryvyi Rih National University, and Volodymyr Zelensky got a degree in law at the Kryvyi Rih Economic Institute.”
They married in 2003 after dating for eight years, the site reports. She is an author who helps with his shows and productions. She kept a low profile during his campaign, the site reported. In fact, Olena was against her husband’s presidential campaign at first.
“And when I was told that it would happen, I was already prepared to have little changes in my and family life. I can spoil the mood, do not support, put obstacles, but it’s not constructive… I try to keep myself, calm down. So far, it seems that I can do it,” she said, according to Opinionua.com.
She described herself to the publication as primarily supporting her husband, saying, “So far, I’ve taken time out in order not to think about it. I know this is a difficult role… In general, the First Lady does not have to take any main roles. This tandem should repeat what is happening in the family. We have the leader and I try to support him. When someone takes responsibility – it’s very convenient, so I try not to drag too much attention to myself.”
5. A Whistleblower in the United States Sparked an Impeachment Inquiry Intro Trump Over a Call He Had With Zelensky
A whistleblower’s complaint in the U.S. focuses on Trump’s July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The whistleblower wrote that the whistleblower had been told that “after an initial exchange of pleasantries, the President used the remainder of the call to advance his personal interests. Namely, he sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 reelection bid.”
The whistleblower stated that, on the call, he or she learned Trump “pressured” Zelensky to “initiate or continue an investigation into the activities of former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter Biden” as well as “assist in purportedly uncovering that allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election originated in Ukraine, with a specific request that the Ukrainian leader locate and turn over servers used by the Democratic National Committee…”
In addition, the whistleblower accused Trump of pressuring Zelensky to meet or speak with his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and AG Bill Barr. The whistleblower alleged that about a dozen White House officials listened to the call. In the days after the call, the whistleblower heard that White House officials had intervened to “lock down all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced – as is customary – by the White House situation room.”
White House officials “told me that they were ‘directed’ by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization, and distribution to cabinet-level officials,” wrote the whistleblower.
The whistleblower alleged that on July 26, the day after the call, US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker visited Zelensky and other Ukrainian figures and was accompanied by US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. They “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelensky.”
The whistleblower claimed that, around August 2, Rudy Giuliani reportedly traveled to Madrid to meet with Andriy Yermak, one of Zelensky’s advisers. It was characterized as a direct follow-up to the call about the “cases” they had discussed.
The whistleblower heard that Giuliani had “reportedly privately reached out” to other Zelensky advisers, including Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan and Acting Chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine Ivan Bakanov.
The whistleblower then lists news articles to paint the “circumstances leading up to the 25 July presidential phone call.” Among them an article that contained the claim that “former Vice President Biden had pressured former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in 2016 to fire then Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin in order to quash a purported criminal probe into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company on whose board the former Vice President’s son, Hunter, sat.”
The complaint stated that “starting in mid May, I heard from multiple U.S. officials that they were deeply concerned by what they viewed as Mr. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decisionmaking processes to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between Kyiv and the President.”
President Trump released a memorandum describing the call on the day before the whistleblower’s complaint was released. Read the full memorandum here.
This is what Trump says to Zelensky about the Bidens:
Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved. Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great. The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that. The other thing, There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.
I wanted to tell you about the prosecutor. First of all, I understand and I’m knowledgeable about the situation. Since we have won the absolute majority in our Parliament, the next prosecutor general will be 100% my person, my candidate, who will be approved, by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September. He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue. The issue of the investigation of the case is actually the issue of making sure to restore the honesty so we will take care of that and will work on the investigation of the case. On top of that, I would kindly ask you if you have any additional information that you can provide to us, it would be very helpful for the investigation to make sure that we administer justice in our country with regard to the Ambassador to the United States from Ukraine as far as I recall her name was Ivanovich. It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%. Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the previous President and she was on his side. She would not accept me as a new President well enough.
Trump told reporters of that call, according to NBC: “What Joe Biden did for his son, that’s something they should be looking at.” Trump also said, NBC reported: “He said, ‘I’m not going to give billions of dollars to Ukraine unless they remove this prosecutor.’ And they removed the prosecutor supposedly in one hour,” Trump claimed, referring to Biden. “And the prosecutor was prosecuting the company of the son and the son. He just shouldn’t have said that. Now, as far as my conversation, it was perfect. It was a perfect conversation.”