As the Russian threat looms, the Ukrainian government is no laughing matter

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KYIV, Ukraine – Nations have chosen their leaders from many fields, including the military and academia, but the Ukrainian government may be the first to rely heavily on television and film.

Before turning to politics, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a television actor and comedian, and he placed allies with similar histories in key positions in government, including high-level advisers, lawmakers, administrators. and even a chief of intelligence.

At a time when Russia has reinforced its forces on the Ukrainian border and the fear of an invasion grows, Zelenskyy has surrounded himself with people from his comedy studio, Kvartal 95. Few have the experience diplomacy or war.

“There is this risk that people do not have gravity and do not have experience,” Orysia Lutsevych, director of the Ukrainian studies program at Chatham House in London, said in an interview. “I wouldn’t want to be in the room when there are only a few guys who know how to produce videos. It is not a peaceful time. It is a time of war.

Zelenskyy was elected two years ago as an outsider to dysfunctional and often corrupt Ukrainian politics and, trying to sidestep its bitter bickering and opaque motives, he inaugurated a government as unorthodox as himself. He appointed other veterans of the comedy industry, drawing on personal loyalty rather than expertise or building coalitions in Ukraine’s tense democracy, political analysts say.

Bihus, a Ukrainian investigative news site, has counted three dozen people with ties to Zelenskyy’s comedy studio and his family who are now in government, including in national security positions within the defense intelligence agency, which is responsible for monitoring the Russian build-up.

Zelenskyy has repeatedly dismissed accusations of frivolity, and his allies say his background in comedy and tongue-in-cheek humor are in fact political assets.

Ukraine has been at war with Russia-backed separatists since 2014, long before Zelenskyy took office.

Today Russia has amassed troops in the north, east and south. The United States has leaked information showing that the Russian military has a war plan for an invasion with up to 175,000 troops which the Ukrainian military, despite the equipment and training provided by the United States, is believed to have little ability to stop.

US officials said it was not clear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade.

Russia demanded that NATO pledge to refrain from any eastward expansion, that Ukraine stop deploying NATO weapons and that Kiev comply with Russian conditions for a settlement of the war. in eastern Ukraine.

The build-up places Zelenskyy’s government in a melting pot of diplomacy and military posture, which includes U.S. and European military flights near Russian borders in the Black Sea and a video call between President Joe Biden and Putin.

Military analysts have described a range of conflict scenarios, including Russia’s limited use of force. But a full invasion would become the biggest military action in Europe since World War II, harden the continent’s East-West divide, and kill untold numbers of soldiers on both sides, as well as civilians in Ukraine.

It’s no light moment, and yet comedy was an integral part of Zelenskyy’s political rise and personality, and his supporters defend its relevance in times of crisis.

On television, he plays a schoolteacher whose tirade against corruption is filmed by his students, ends up online and goes viral, propelling him to the presidency.

In a campaign of life imitating art, Zelenskyy named his political party after his TV show “Servant of the People”. Actors, filmmakers and media officials led the party and followed it to power.

The head of the presidential administration, Andriy Yermak, was a media lawyer and film producer. The head of the domestic intelligence agency, Ivan Bakanov, had been director of Kvartal 95. A chief presidential adviser, Serhiy Shefir, was a screenwriter and producer whose main credits included a successful romantic comedy film, “Eight Premieres dates “, and a television series” The in-laws “.

Roman Hryshchuk was the head of a comedy show called “Mama Busted Up” before winning a seat in Parliament with Zelenskyy’s party. Like the other actors in power, he does not apologize.

“Humor is a sign of intellect,” he said in an interview. “A sense of humor is a gift.”

In Ukraine’s international relations, “this is really an advantage,” he added. “In diplomacy, humor is always an instrument. You can set the right tone with a joke.

But the view that only comedians run the government is a “stereotype” promoted by opposition parties, Hryshchuk said, noting that many non-comedians also serve. To avoid playing into this Zelenskyy review, he said he hadn’t told a joke in public for two years – and in the interview, he flatly refused to do so.


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