The Rise and Leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine

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Table of contents

  1. His Eraly Life and Historical Background
  2. The Beginning of Zelensky's Political Career
  3. 2022: the Start of Russian Whole-Scaled Invasion of Ukraine

In the early hours of 26 February, during the most significant assault by Russian troops on the capital of Kyiv, the United States government and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged Zelenskyy to evacuate to a safer location, and both offered assistance for such an effort. Zelenskyy turned down both offers and opted to remain in Kyiv with its defense forces, saying that 'the fight is here [in Kyiv]; I need ammunition, not a ride'.

His Eraly Life and Historical Background

Zelenskyy is a former actor and comedian. Zelenskyy grew up as a native Russian speaker in Kryvyi Rih, a major city of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in central Ukraine. Prior to his acting career, he obtained a degree in law from the Kyiv National Economic University. Zelenskyy grew up as a native Russian speaker in Kryvyi Rih, a major city of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in central Ukraine. Prior to his acting career, he obtained a degree in law from the Kyiv National Economic University. He then pursued comedy and created the production company Kvartal 95, which produced films, cartoons, and TV shows including the TV series Servant of the People, in which Zelenskyy played the role of the Ukrainian president. The series aired from 2015 to 2019 and was immensely popular. A political party bearing the same name as the television show was created in March 2018 by employees of Kvartal 95.

Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy was born to Jewish parents on 25 January 1978 in Kryvyi Rih, then in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. His father, Oleksandr Zelenskyy, is a professor and computer scientist and the head of the Department of Cybernetics and Computing Hardware at the Kryvyi Rih State University of Economics and Technology; his mother, Rymma Zelenska, used to work as an engineer. His grandfather, Semyon (Simon) Ivanovych Zelenskyy, served as an infantryman, reaching the rank of Colonel, in the Red Army (in the 57th Guards Motor Rifle Division) during World War II; Semyon's father and three brothers died in the Holocaust. In March 2022 Zelenskyy revealed that his great-grandparents had been killed after German troops burned their home to the ground during a massacre. Prior to starting elementary school, Zelenskyy lived for four years in the Mongolian city of Erdenet, where his father worked. Zelenskyy grew up speaking Russian. At the age of 16, he passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language and received an education grant to study in Israel, but his father did not allow him to go. He later earned a law degree from the Kryvyi Rih Institute of Economics, then a department of Kyiv National Economic University and now part of Kryvyi Rih National University, but did not go on to work in the legal field.

At age 17, he joined his local team competing in the KVN comedy competition team. He was soon invited to join the united Ukrainian team 'Zaporizhia-Kryvyi Rih-Transit' which performed in the KVN's Major League and eventually won in 1997. That same year, he created and headed the Kvartal 95 team which later transformed into the comedy outfit Kvartal 95. From 1998 to 2003, Kvartal 95 performed in the Major League and the highest open Ukrainian league of KVN, the team members spent a lot of the time in Moscow and constantly toured around post-Soviet countries. In 2003, Kvartal 95 started producing TV shows for the Ukrainian TV channel 1+1, and in 2005, the team moved to fellow Ukrainian TV channel Inter.

Zelenskyy continued his movie career with the film Office Romance. Our Time in 2011  Zelenskyy also played the leading role in the 2012 film 8 First Dates and in sequels which were produced in 2015 and 2016. He recorded the voice of Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian dubbing of Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017) Zelenskyy was a member of the board and the general producer of the TV channel Inter from 2010 to 2012.

In August 2014, Zelenskyy spoke out against the intention of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists from Ukraine. Since 2015, Ukraine has banned Russian artists and other Russian works of culture from entering Ukraine. In 2018, the romantic comedy Love in the Big City 2 starring Zelenskyy was banned in Ukraine. After the Ukrainian media had reported that during the war in Donbas Zelenskyy's Kvartal 95 had donated 1 million hryvnias to the Ukrainian army, some Russian politicians and artists petitioned for a ban on his works in Russia. Once again, Zelenskyy spoke out against the intention of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists from Ukraine.

In 2015, Zelenskyy became the star of the television series Servant of the People, where he played the role of the president of Ukraine. His first role in the Ukrainian language was the romantic comedy 'I, You, He, She' which appeared on the screens of Ukraine in December 2018. The first version of the script was written in Ukrainian but was translated into Russian for the Lithuanian actress Agnė Grudytė. Later, the movie was dubbed into Ukrainian.

The Beginning of Zelensky's Political Career

In March 2018, members of Zelenskyy's production company Kvartal 95 registered a new political party called Servant of the People – the same name as the television program that Zelenskyy had starred in over the previous three years. Although Zelenskyy denied any immediate plans to enter politics and said he had only registered the party name to prevent it being appropriated by others, there was widespread speculation that he was planning to run. As early as October 2018, three months before his campaign announcement and six months before the presidential election, he was already a frontrunner in opinion polls. After months of ambiguous statements, on 31 December, less than four months from the election, Zelenskyy announced his candidacy for president of Ukraine on the New Year's Eve evening show on the TV channel 1+1. His announcement up-staged the New Year's Eve address of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko on the same channel, which Zelenskyy said was unintentional and attributed to a technical glitch.

Zelenskyy's presidential campaign against Poroshenko was almost entirely virtual. He did not release a detailed policy platform and his engagement with mainstream media was minimal. He instead reached out to the electorate via social media channels and YouTube clips. In place of traditional campaign rallies, he conducted stand-up comedy routines across Ukraine with his production company Kvartal 95. He styled himself as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption figure, although he was not generally described as a populist. He said he wished to restore trust in politicians, 'to bring professional, decent people to power' and to 'change the mood and timbre of the political establishment'. On 16 April 2019, a few days before the election, 20 Ukrainian news outlets called on Zelenskyy to 'stop avoiding journalists'. Zelenskyy stated that he was not hiding from journalists but that he did not want to go to talk shows where 'people of the old power' were 'just doing PR' and that he did not have time to satisfy all interview requests.

Prior to the elections, Zelenskyy presented a team that included former finance minister Oleksandr Danylyuk and others. During the campaign, concerns were raised over his links to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. President Poroshenko and his supporters claimed that Zelenskyy's victory would benefit Russia. On 19 April 2019 at Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex presidential debates were held in the form of a show. In his introductory speech, Zelenskyy acknowledged that in 2014 he voted for Poroshenko, but 'I was mistaken. We were mistaken. We voted for one Poroshenko, but received another. The first appears when there are video cameras, the other Petro sends Medvedchuk privietiki (greetings) to Moscow'. Although Zelenskyy initially said he would only serve a single term, he walked back this promise in May 2021, saying he had not yet made up his mind.

Zelenskyy stated that as president he would develop the economy and attract investment to Ukraine through 'a restart of the judicial system' and restoring confidence in the state. He also proposed a tax amnesty and a 5 per cent flat tax for big business which could be increased 'in dialogue with them and if everyone agrees'. According to Zelenskyy, if people would notice that his new government 'works honestly from the first day', they would start paying their taxes.

Zelenskyy clearly won the first round of elections on 31 March 2019. In the second round, on 21 April 2019, he received 73 per cent of the vote to Poroshenko's 25 per cent, and was elected President of Ukraine. Polish president Andrzej Duda was one of the first European leaders to congratulate Zelenskyy. French president Emmanuel Macron received Zelenskyy at the Élysée Palace in Paris on 12 April 2019. On 22 April, U.S. president Donald Trump congratulated Zelenskyy on his victory over the telephone. European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk also issued a joint letter of congratulations and stated that the European Union (EU) will work to speed up the implementation of the remainder of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area.

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Zelenskyy was inaugurated on 20 May 2019. Various foreign officials attended the ceremony in Ukraine's parliament (Verkhovna Rada), including Salome Zourabichvili (Georgia), Kersti Kaljulaid (Estonia), Raimonds Vējonis (Latvia), Dalia Grybauskaitė (Lithuania), János Áder (Hungary), Maroš Šefčovič (European Union), and Rick Perry (United States). Zelenskyy is the first Jewish president; with Volodymyr Groysman as prime minister, Ukraine became the first country other than Israel to have a Jewish head of state and head of government. In his inaugural address, Zelenskyy dissolved the then Ukrainian parliament and called for early parliamentary elections (which had originally been due to be held in October of that year). One of Zelenskyy's coalition partners, the People's Front, opposed the move and withdrew from the ruling coalition.

On 28 May, Zelenskyy restored the Ukrainian citizenship of Mikheil Saakashvili. Zelenskyy's first major proposal to change the electoral system from a plurality voting system to proportional representation with closed party lists was strongly rejected by the Ukrainian parliament, due to the belief that closed lists would lead to more corruption in government.

In addition, on 6 June, lawmakers refused to include Zelenskyy's key initiative on reintroducing criminal liability for illegal enrichment in the parliament's agenda, and instead included a similar bill proposed by a group of deputies. In June 2019 it was announced that the president's third major initiative, which seeks to remove immunity from lawmakers, diplomats and judges, would be submitted after the July 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary election. This initiative was completed on 3 September, when the new parliament passed a bill stripping lawmakers of legal immunity, delivering Zelenskyy a legislative victory by fulfilling one of his key campaign promises.

U.S. vice president Mike Pence and U.S. delegation meets with Zelenskyy in Warsaw on 1 September 2019. Zelenskyy meets with U.S. president Donald Trump in New York City on 25 September 2019. On 8 July, Zelenskyy ordered the cancellation of the annual Kyiv Independence Day Parade on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, citing costs. Despite this, Zelenskyy highlighted that the day would 'honor heroes' on Independence Day, however the 'format will be new'. He also proposed to spend the money that would have been used to finance the parade on veterans.

In 2020, Zelenskyy's party proposed reforms to Ukraine's media laws with the intent to increase competition and loosen the dominance of Ukrainian oligarchs on television and radio broadcasters. Critics said it risked increasing media censorship in Ukraine because its clause of criminal responsibility for the distribution of disinformation could be abused.

Zelenskyy was criticized for a secret trip to Oman in January 2020 that was not published on his official schedule and on which he appeared to mix a personal holiday with government business. Although the president's office said the trip had been paid for by Zelenskyy himself and not with government money, Zelenskyy came under heavy criticism for the lack of transparency around the trip, which was compared unfavourably to a secret vacation his predecessor Petro Poroshenko took in the Maldives, and which Zelenskyy himself had criticized at the time.

In January 2021, parliament passed a bill updating and reforming Ukraine's referendum laws, which Ukraine's Constitutional Court had declared unconstitutional in 2018. Fixing the referendum law had been one of Zelenskyy's campaign promises.

In June 2021, Zelenskyy submitted to the Verkhovna Rada a bill creating a public registry of Ukraine's oligarchs, banning them from participating in privatizations of state-owned companies, and forbidding them from contributing financially to politicians. Opposition party leaders supported Zelenskyy's goal of reducing oligarchs' influence on politics in Ukraine but were critical of his approach, saying the public register would be both dangerous, as it concentrated power in the president; and ineffective, since oligarchs were merely a 'symbol' of more deeply-rooted corruption. The bill was passed into law in September 2021. Critics of Zelenskyy's administration have claimed that, in taking power away from the Ukrainian oligarchs, he has sought to centralise authority and strengthen his personal position.

In April 2021, in response to Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders, Zelenskyy spoke to American president Joe Biden and urged NATO members to speed up Ukraine's request for membership. Zelenskyy accused Russia and Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov of backing a plan to overthrow his government On 19 January 2022, Zelenskyy said in a video message that the country's citizens should not panic and appealed to the media to be 'methods of mass information and not mass hysteria.' On 28 January, Zelenskyy called on the West not to create a 'panic' in his country over a potential Russian invasion

On 19 February, as worries of a Russian invasion of Ukraine grew, Zelenskyy warned a security forum that Western nations should abandon their 'appeasement' attitude toward Moscow. 'Ukraine has been granted security assurances in exchange for giving up the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal.

On the early hours of 24 February, shortly before the start of the Russian invasion, Zelenskyy recorded an address to the citizens of both Ukraine and Russia. He refuted claims of the Russian government about the presence of neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian government and stated that he had no intention of attacking the Donbas region, while highlighting his personal connections to the area.[163] In part of the address, he spoke in Russian to the people of Russia, appealing to them to pressure their leadership to prevent war

2022: the Start of Russian Whole-Scaled Invasion of Ukraine

Ukraine's Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) chairman Ruslan Stefanchuk, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal after signing of the application for membership in the European Union during the war on 28 February 2022. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits a military hospital for soldiers fighting in the Kyiv region, 13 March. On the morning of 24 February, Putin announced that Russia was initiating a 'special military operation' in the Donbas. Russian missiles struck a number of military targets in Ukraine, and Zelenskyy declared martial law. Zelenskyy also announced that diplomatic relations with Russia were being severed.

More than 90% of Ukrainians supported the actions of Zelenskyy, including more than 90% in western and central Ukraine and more than 80% in Russian-speaking regions in eastern and southern Ukraine. A Pew Research Center poll found that 72% of Americans had confidence in Zelenskyy's handling of international affairs. Zelenskyy 'has harnessed the power of social media to become history's first truly online wartime leader, bypassing traditional gatekeepers as he uses the internet to reach out to the people

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been described as a national hero or a 'global hero' by many commentators, including publications such as The Hill, Deutsche Welle, Der Spiegel and USA Today. During the invasion, Zelenskyy has been reportedly the target of more than a dozen assassination attempts; three were prevented due to tips from Russian FSB employees who opposed the invasion. Two of those attempts were carried out by the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary force, and the third by the Kadyrovites, the personal guard of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

In conclusion, president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been facing enormous challenges since he was elected as the president of Ukraine. With the ongoing conflict with Russia, an unstable economy, and corruption, his leadership has been put to the test. However, he has demonstrated his commitment to reform, transparency, and democratic values. He has made important strides in addressing corruption, modernizing the economy, and strengthening Ukraine's relationship with its Western partners. Nevertheless, challenges remain, and much work needs to be done to fully address Ukraine's complex issues. With Zelenskyy's determination and the support of the Ukrainian people and the international community, there is hope that Ukraine can continue on the path towards a stable, democratic, and prosperous future.

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