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From Unpopularity to Unwavering Support: Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Journey as Ukraine’s Leader

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Deep Dive Article

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since the 2022 illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a household name across the world. The President has been at the helm of the Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression and has proved himself to be a true servant of his people. Zelenskyy’s leadership in a time of crisis has earnt him countless honours, including TIME’s 2022 Person of the Year Award. However, it is important to point out that prior to the invasion Zelenskyy was unpopular with Ukrainian voters, despite his landslide victory in the 2019 elections. Research conducted in November 2020 showed that only 46% of Ukrainians trusted their President. Yet, in a remarkable turn of public opinion, similar research in January of this year showed this figure had increased to 86%.


To unpack the reasons why this increase in confidence in Zelenskyy has occurred, it is firstly important to understand the political situation in Ukraine prior to Russia’s illegal 2022 invasion. Sworn in as President in 2019 having won an enormous 73% of the second-round vote, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was seen as a political outsider. Prior to his entrance into politics, he was best known for his role as President Holoborodko in ‘Servant of the People’. Holoborodko was a schoolteacher who unintentionally became the Ukrainian president overnight, having been captured on video by one of his students in the middle of an expletive-filled rant on Ukrainian corruption, with the video later going viral. It was the fictitious president’s stance on anti-corruption that left him popular with viewers, and ultimately, when Zelenskyy ran for President in 2019, his promises to find an end to the tensions with Russia following its hostilities dating back to 2014 combined with his pledge to end the corruption riddled within domestic politics won over voters frustrated with the old political system. Indeed, it seemed like a scene out of the show when Zelenskyy walked onto the stage to the theme tune, even if many analysts were sceptical at the time of the impact the comedian-turned-president would have in Ukrainian politics with the lack of political credentials he truly held.


When Zelenskyy eventually commenced his presidency, the fairytale result of the elections seemed a world away. By October 2019, protests were held throughout Ukraine over the President’s approach to ending conflict in Crimea and Donbas. Zelenskyy agreed to sign up to the Steinmar Formula, an agreement developed with backing from Germany and France, that allowed for a greater Russian influence over the occupied territories by recognising them as a ‘special autonomous region’ and enabling internationally backed elections over their future. The thought of conceding sovereign territory to Russia at the time caused a large-scale backlash against the President from Ukrainians, and critics questioned the extent that he could be influenced by the Kremlin. Ultimately, the lack of progress on resolving tensions after months of negotiations and disagreements between the two countries meant that the President’s electoral promise was not met, and any sort of resolution to the conflict was still far out of reach.


The pandemic certainly did not help the President’s approval ratings, but when combined with the lack of progress made on fighting corruption, improving the situation in Donbas, and the Pandora Papers leak, Ukrainians were increasingly frustrated. By October 2020, Zelenskyy’s approval rate dropped to a mere 24.7%. COVID-19 hit the Ukrainian economy hard, and an increase in unemployment combined with rising inflation meant that socioeconomic problems within the country were deteriorating. With a low vaccination rate against the virus and a lack of pace with domestic political reforms, economic recovery after the first few waves of the pandemic was weaker than expected, and this translated into a greater distrust of the President and his government. Moreover, whilst Zelenskyy proved popular with voters in 2019, his lack of concrete policies meant that policies adopted later in his presidency were detached from his electoral manifesto. After restructuring the role of the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) in policy decision making in 2020, his presidential powers increased, and policies were directed to become legal through the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine to bypass parliament, meant that whilst political reforms were being implemented, Ukrainians were increasingly losing trust in Zelensky prior to February 2022. So, what changed?


The rise in his trust and popularity can be attributed unarguably to President Zelenskyy’s courageous leadership since the 24th of February 2022 as he has proved his loyalty to the sovereign integrity of Ukraine. In the first few days of the invasion, rumours were circulating through pro-Russian media that Zelenskyy had fled Ukraine with help from the US Government. These rumours were quickly shut down through the use of a video message circulated on Twitter and other outlets, where Zelenskyy was seen with government colleagues on the streets of Kyiv, famously declaring: “I need ammunition, not a ride”. In contrast, less than a year earlier, President Ashraf Ghani was last seen in Afghanistan leaving in a helicopter after accepting an offer from the US to help evacuate him from approaching Taliban forces.


Zelenskyy has been a representative for Ukraine on a global scale, having spoken in dozens of parliaments across the world, hosting foreign leaders in Kyiv, as well as encouraging other states to send over weapons to be used in Ukrainian counter-offensives. Ukrainians are more trustful of him now than ever before because in a time of crisis and uncertainty, Zelenskyy stayed put in Kyiv, showing accountability and courage in the face of Russian aggression. He recorded nightly messages published on media channels to keep hope alive when war fatigue kicked in. When Kherson was liberated from Russian forces, he rushed to see those who had been living under inhumane conditions for months. He has embodied the Ukrainian spirit of resilience and gathered support from leaders on an unprecedented scale.


Moreover, Zelenskyy has reopened doors to EU integration and the potential for NATO membership. These doors seemed shut after the events of 2014, but 4 days after the full-scale invasion, Ukraine applied to become a member of the European Union. This was something considered previously impossible in the geopolitical climate as EU members did not wish to destabilise its own relations with Russia. There had been a lack of enthusiasm in Brussels to intervene in Ukraine-Russia tensions in years previous, but nonetheless the application was welcomed by many within the Union. Whilst the symbolism in the gesture cannot be ignored and the timescale for such integration into the EU, and perhaps eventually NATO is vague, support within Ukraine and outside of its borders to join these organisations is higher than it ever has been.


Nobody can argue with the incredible job Zelenskyy has done in leading Ukrainians to resist against Russian aggression and getting the world to believe in Ukraine, its people and its future over the last 16 months, but questions of how long the President can maintain this support from his people remain, particularly considering that allegations of corruption at government level have not gone away. Away from the war, high-profile scandals of corruption have a deep impact on public opinion and can prove detrimental to political careers as in the case of ex-President Petro Poroshenko. Zelenskyy seems eager to prove to the West his intention to stamp out corruption within domestic politics, having conducted a shakeup of his government earlier this year culminating in several high-profile resignations. Amongst them, ministers involved in the food provision for Ukrainian troops. This shakeup should be seen as a positive step forward in Ukraine’s fight against corruption, but when it involves a potential impact on national defence during wartime, it could prove to be detrimental to the trust Zelensky has regained from the public.


One can imagine that approval ratings will be the last thing on Zelenskyy’s mind at a time when Russia continues to take the lives of innocent Ukrainians, but longer term, after the end of the war, questions over the Government’s transparency and commitment to cracking down on corruption will remain. Volodymyr Zelenskyy has the opportunity to bring victory to Ukraine and has shown over the past year he will use whatever means necessary to convince the world to believe in and contribute to Ukraine’s fight for freedom. He has the backing of his people and world leaders to do this, but to liberate Ukraine from its corrupt past as he promises to do, he needs to show the same loyalty and resistance long after the war ends.



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