September 25, 2019 / 3:25 PM / 22 days ago

Newsmaker: A former comedian, Ukraine's leader joins main act in U.S. drama

KIEV (Reuters) - Before Volodymyr Zelenskiy became Ukraine’s leader, he played the role of a president in a hit TV series who was forever landing in tricky situations.

FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers a speech during a parliamentary session in Kiev, Ukraine August 29, 2019. Picture taken August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo

But rarely was the fictional president in as awkward a position as Zelenskiy is now - at the centre of an impeachment battle between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Not only was it a July 25 telephone call between Zelenskiy and Trump that triggered the impeachment battle. The Ukrainian president also found himself in New York - and due to meet Trump - as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the chamber was launching an official impeachment inquiry.

The situation is a stern leadership test for Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old former comedian who had no experience of politics before being elected his year and taking office in May.

The allegations turn on the July 25 phone call during which critics say Trump improperly pressured Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president, and his son Hunter, who worked for a company drilling for gas in Ukraine.

Trump has denied wrongdoing in the call, a summary of which was released by the Trump administration on Wednesday.

Asked about the situation this week, Zelenskiy resorted to humour - and type - to divert the question.

“The only one person by the way who can put pressure on me ... is my son, who is six years old,” he said.

The timing is delicate for Zelenskiy.

He cannot risk relations with either side of the political divide in Washington, whose bipartisan support Ukraine counts on for aid and diplomatic cover against Russia following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula in 2014.

Zelenskiy also hopes to build on momentum from a recent prisoner swap with Russia in conflict-hit east Ukraine to hold talks in coming weeks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Holding out hope of progress this week in the conflict in east Ukraine, he reiterated that Ukraine needs U.S. support.

UKRAINIAN WEST WING

In the popular TV series Servant of the People, Zelenskiy played a president who is scrupulously honest and outwits crooked lawmakers and shadowy oligarchs clinging on to the old way of doing things.

His character was loved by Ukrainians fed up with how their country had been governed since independence in 1991.

The nearest American equivalent might be if Martin Sheen, who played U.S. President Josiah Bartlet in the TV drama West Wing, became president in real life.

In this year’s presidential election, he defeated his predecessor Petro Poroshenko by a landslide, despite his opponent’s attempts to portray him as a hapless buffoon.

Few had predicted his success even a year ago. His sudden rise coincided with voters upending the status quo in a number of other countries, propelling in power anti-establishment forces such as Trump and Italy’s 5-Star Movement.

Zelenskiy’s unorthodox style caught his political opponents on the back foot. Eschewing traditional rallies, he relied heavily on quirky social media posts to his millions of online followers, jokey posters, comedy gigs and winking allusions to the fictional president he played on screen.

In February, when asked in an interview with Reuters what sets him apart from other candidates, Zelenskiy pointed to his face: “This. This is a new face. I have never been in politics.”

“I have not deceived people. They identify with me because I am open, I get hurt, I get angry, I get upset. I do not hide my emotions on camera, I do not try to look different,” he said. “If I’m inexperienced in something, I’m inexperienced. If I don’t know something, I honestly admit it.”

During the election campaign, he fended off accusations that he was too inexperienced to lead a country at war, and batted away suspicion about his relationship with Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s most powerful tycoons and whose TV channel aired Zelenskiy’s shows.

DONALD DUCK

In the TV series, Zelenskiy’s character starts out as a humble history school teacher who becomes president after an expletive-laced rant about Ukraine’s political class, secretly filmed by one of his students, goes viral.

In one episode, his character gets so drunk at a dinner with the head of the International Monetary Fund that he throws her into a swimming pool.

One skit his comedy troupe was involved in parodied the U.S. presidential campaign debates, introducing Trump with an image of Donald Duck. An image of Putin then popped up on screen.

In another, Zelenskiy and a sidekick performed a rap song about a tall man and his short friend coming to Ukraine.

This was at a time when Trump had been fending off allegations of colluding with Putin, a judo enthusiast, to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“One was a short weirdo with the walk of judo wrestler. Another — tall and red haired — and was chatting in English,” went the song. “They had a few drinks and started an argument, and started bullying us without warning on our territory.”

Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Sergiy Karazy, Editing by Timothy Heritage

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