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Ukraine’s politics of the absurd, - The Financial Times

Author : Frederick Studemann

The election of a comedian as president raises difficult questions
08:49, 6 May 2019

Volodymyr Zelensky
AP

“I would never invent this story,” says Andrey Kurkov. “I wouldn’t believe it is possible.” We were talking about Ukraine’s recent presidential election which — even by the standards of the country’s effervescent political culture — was a showstopper. The end result saw television comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, best known for playing the role of an angry, ordinary citizen who ends up becoming president, repeat the experience in real life. Mr Zelensky will be sworn in as Ukraine’s actual head of state within the next month. “It is like a bad taste TV story,” says Mr Kurkov. “It is extremely surreal.”

Coming from him that is quite something. A celebrated novelist, Mr Kurkov made his name with absurdist stories of black humour and scathing satire that held a mirror up to the dark turmoil of Ukraine’s post-independence years when the country emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. One of his best-known works involves a writer struggling to make his way in post-communist society who befriends a king penguin.

Our paths crossed a few times back in the 2000s in Kiev. Ukraine was in the midst of the pro-democracy Orange revolution that promised to sweep away the corruption and criminality that Mr Kurkov targeted in his writing. There was a mood of optimism; Kiev’s cultural scene fizzed with energy and experimentation.

Much has changed since then. The 2014 Maidan revolution brought more violent political upheaval; Crimea has been seized by Russia; in eastern Ukraine, government forces battle with Moscow-backed separatists; the country’s political class is widely discredited. Meanwhile, hopes of better living standards have faded.

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All very fertile ground then for a different style of politics and politician — even one plucked from the realms of fiction and comedy.

Mr Zelensky’s victory prompted a range of reactions. To some, his election is in keeping with the spirit of our times which has seen personalities from the small screen or the stage — including Donald Trump and Beppe Grillo — achieve political stature. Others see Mr Zelensky tapping into a deeper cultural tradition, from Pushkin’s Boris Godunov to Shakespeare’s King Lear, of the wise fool, the jester licensed to speak truth to power.

Harsher judges cite his election as more evidence of Ukraine’s essentially flawed status, a state that at times still seems to be proving its viability and where the years since independence have been a mess of political and economic chaos, corruption and war. “A lot of people think Ukraine is really just a joke,” says one Russia watcher. What more fitting expression of that than to put a comedian into the presidential palace?

Related: Ukraine hopes Council of Europe to adhere to its principles on issue of Russian aggression

Even worse, Mr Zelensky may be a puppet, the play thing of oligarchs and other sinister forces who backed his campaign. In a part of the world that has become a performance laboratory for the art of what the theatre director cum Kremlin éminence grise Vladislav Surkov calls “political technology”, such fears resonate.

For Mr Kurkov two features stand out. The first is the bizarre experience of the virtual blending into the actual, of “a political hologram” let loose on reality; the second, the more familiar phenomenon of a protest vote, particularly by the young, is understandable, perhaps even justifiable.

Related: Donbas war: Occupant shells Ukrainian positions

The question for Mr Kurkov is whether voters backed the TV president — taking his script as a manifesto. If so, then Ukrainian society is “really ill”, he says.

For now he is prepared to give Mr Zelensky and his compatriots the benefit of the doubt. Early signs that the president-elect recognises his limitations and will need to work with experienced officials point to a more measured path of reform. (Then again, his Trumpian taste for social media, where he delivers monologues and advertises for top political posts, suggests business may not be as usual.)

Related: Advisor to Zelensky discusses diversification of energy supplies with U.S. Secretary of Energy

Expectations may be limited. In his forthcoming novel, The Grey Bees, Mr Kurkov tells the story of two retired miners living in the no man’s land of combat-ravaged eastern Ukraine. Their petty rivalries play out against a backdrop of wider conflict. Ultimately, Mr Kurkov says, it is the tale of ordinary folk who are essentially apolitical and just want to get on with their lives. But that’s just fiction. Or is it?

Related: Zelensky's team preparing response to issuing Russian passports to Donbas residents

Original article published here.

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