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New Ukrainian leader’s campaign took page from sitcom script

April 22, 2019 GMT
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FILE - In this Friday, March 29, 2019 file photo, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukrainian actor and candidate in the upcoming presidential election, hosts a comedy show at a concert hall in Brovary, Ukraine. For his presidential campaign popular Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy has literally taken the script from a TV show in which he plays the Ukrainian president. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, file)
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FILE - In this Friday, March 29, 2019 file photo, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukrainian actor and candidate in the upcoming presidential election, hosts a comedy show at a concert hall in Brovary, Ukraine. For his presidential campaign popular Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy has literally taken the script from a TV show in which he plays the Ukrainian president. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, file)

MOSCOW (AP) — The president-elect of Ukraine does not have a political record that foreign governments and companies can search for clues. For now, a 51-episode TV sitcom might offer the clearest view of what kind of leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy will be.

Zelenskiy, a career comedian, foretold his future when he took the starring role in “Servant of the People.” The series, created by Zelenskiy’s production company, follows a high school teacher who finds himself elected to Ukraine’s highest office thanks to a recorded rant that goes viral.

The show, which premiered in 2015, is the first Ukrainian series bought by Netflix. In an interview earlier this year, Zelenskiy told foreign journalists he wanted to put “a dream country” on the small screen. The latest season was filmed and aired after Zelenskiy declared his candidacy for the real presidency on New Year’s Eve.

Further blurring the line between fiction and reality, he named his political party “Servant of the People.” The TV character and the first-time candidate also overlapped at times on the campaign trail:

SEPARATISM AND THE WAR IN THE EAST

The dispute over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a deadly separatist war in eastern Ukraine are likely to dominate Zelenskiy’s agenda.

Zelenskiy, a Russian speaker from central Ukraine, said earlier this year he doesn’t see military force as an option for bringing either area back under Kiev’s wing. He said the government should reach out to welcome the eastern territories to a new Ukraine.

“We need to send a message that we are all Ukrainians,...that you’re one of us,” he said.

In the latest season of “Servant of the People,” Zelenskiy’s character, Vasyl Holoborodko, assumes the presidency of a country split into 28 independent states, some of which resemble actual separatist fiefdoms in eastern Ukraine.

“Enough with the old slogans: north, west, south. We’re one country, we’re all Ukrainians,” the fictional President Holoborodko tells two separatist leaders in one episode of the TV show.

Holoborodko rejects the idea of bribing or intimidating the separatists into reuniting. At the end of the latest season, Ukraine’s east and west come back together following a joint effort to help coal miners trapped underground.

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OVERHAUL OF GOVERNMENT

After an exit poll predicted he won nearly three out of every four votes, Zelenskiy on Sunday reiterated a campaign promise to fire Ukraine’s prosecutor general for an appointee of his own. He called the chief prosecutor part of “the old team.”

In the first season of “Servant of the People,” the president character pushes out existing officials with reputations for corruption and abusing power.

“You and your allies have been at the helm for nearly a quarter of the century,” Holoborodko tells the fictional prime minister in Episode 6. “And what changes do we see? Zero. Zero changes, zero reforms.”

But Holoborodko is despondent because he can’t find a single honest professional to appoint. He ends up putting his school friends in top posts, attracting accusations of cronyism.

During an actual presidential debate Friday, Zelenskiy was surrounded by literally the same people - the actors who played his Cabinet ministers on TV. The president-elect has not announced who he wants to appoint, but no peers from acting or comedy have shown interest in following Zelenskiy into politics.

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PERKS AND PRIVILEGES

Zelenskiy said as early election returns came in that he would cut the presidential administration budget, get rid of the perks that come with public office and move the seat of government out of central Kiev so “there is no traffic.”

“I would like to find a place in Kiev or outside Kiev so that there would be no motorcades, and I would like to get rid of the motorcades altogether,” the comedian said.

The scripted president of “Servant of the People” gives up his motorcade in Season 1 and takes the bus or taxis to work. He pushes through a bill to relocate executive branch offices to a Soviet-era pavilion on Kiev’s outskirts.

“We will free the center of Kiev from those traffic jams.” Holoborodko tells lawmakers.

The character ends up hiring back the bodyguard he fired and being driven in a car after he narrowly escapes a group of taxi drivers angry about his crackdown on gypsy cabs.

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RELATIONS WITH OUTGOING LEADER

Zelenskiy spent a huge portion of his campaign lambasting traditional politicians for alleged corruption, the topic of the viral video that put his TV character in office.

At Friday’s debate in front of nearly 60,000 people, Zelenskiy called incumbent Poroshenko “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and accused him of abusing power for personal enrichment.

Poroshenko tweeted that the Kremlin would be “celebrating” the election of a “new, inexperienced Ukrainian president,” but also called Zelenskiy later Sunday to concede defeat and offer his assistance.

Likewise, Zelenskiy on Sunday refrained from attacking Poroshenko and said of the president’s offer to help, “if I really need to call him, I will.”

In the fourth episode of “Servant of the People,” the teacher-turned-president must deal with a crestfallen predecessor who locks himself in his office, gets drunk and refuses to come out.

“They’ve stolen the country from me, an entire country,” the fictional outgoing president says.

In the end, the new president convinces the outgoing leader to go peacefully.