Volodymyr Zelensky: Ukrainian Jew entangled in Trump's impeachment scandal

#8: Volodymyr Zelensky

Volodymyr Zelensky (photo credit: REUTERS)
Volodymyr Zelensky
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Besides Israel, Ukraine is the only country that has a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky – and until the end of August, it also had a Jewish prime minister, Volodomyr Groysman. Zelensky has served since May, and has already proved to be both popular and powerful, while at the same time being colorful and controversial.
Zelensky has been in the news recently at the center of a scandal that could lead to the impeachment of US President Donald Trump. According to news reports, Trump - in a July 25 phone call - asked Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son’s ties to an allegedly corrupt Ukrainian natural gas company. The report prompted a call by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for an impeachment inquiry of Trump.
A former comedian as well as an actor, director and screenwriter, Zelensky has a degree in law, but rather than following a legal career decided to establish Kvartal 95, a company that produces films and TV shows. 
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Under his leadership, the company created a satirical television series titled “Servant of the People,” in which Zelensky played the role of Ukraine’s president, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko. It became a huge hit among Ukraine’s population of 45 million, and led to Zelensky challenging then-president Petro Poroshenko in the 2019 election.
In his reelection campaign, Poroshenko accused Zelensky of being a puppet of Jewish billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who operates a business empire in Ukraine and has a home in Israel. Kolomoyskyi ran Zelensky’s comedy shows on his TV station and despised Poroshenko for nationalizing his bank, PrivatBank. A month after taking office, Zelensky appointed Andriy Bogdan, Kolomoysyi’s personal lawyer, as his chief of staff.
Since Zelensky took office, antisemitic incidents in Ukraine have apparently increased and the far-right seems to have strengthened, together with a worrying rehabilitation of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists such as Stepan Bandera. The number of Jews is estimated to be under 150,000, with at least two-thirds living in the capital, Kiev, making it remarkable that the country had until recently both a Jewish president and prime minister.
In an interview with Der Spiegel, Zelensky said he went into politics to restore trust in politicians, “to bring professional, decent people to power” and “to change the mood and timbre of the political establishment as much as possible.”
He took office five years after the Ukrainian revolution, in which Ukrainians rioted on the streets of Kiev and ousted the pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych. This triggered a Russian military intervention in which Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula and backed separatists in a war in the eastern Donbas region, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 13,000 people.
Zelensky swept to victory in the first round of elections on March 31 and the run-off election on April 21, and was inaugurated as president on May 20. In his inaugural speech, he dissolved the existing parliament and called early elections in July.
His classic address is worth reading. “Dear Ukrainians!” he began. “After my election win, my six-year-old son said: ‘Dad, I saw on TV that Zelensky is now the president! Does that mean I’m the president too?’ Back then, it sounded like a childish joke. But I came to realize that it was actually the truth. Because each and every one of us is the president. Not just the 73% who voted for me, but the entire 100% of Ukrainians. This is not my victory, it’s our shared victory.”
In remarks reminiscent of US President Donald Trump, he then declared, “My election only proves that the citizens are tired of the experienced politicians who over the past 28 years created a country of opportunities – opportunities to steal, bribe and loot. Let’s build a country of opportunities, where everybody is equal before the law and where the rules of the game are honest and transparent, and the same for everyone. And for this to happen, people who want to serve the nation need to take office. And please, I really don’t want you to hang my portrait on your office walls. Because a president is not an icon and not an idol. A president is not a portrait. Hang pictures of your children. And before you make any decision, look into their eyes!”
Zelensky, 41, was born to Jewish parents in Krivyi Rih, a mostly Russian-speaking industrial city in southern Ukraine. He is married to Olena Kiyashko, with whom he has a daughter and son, and reportedly has assets worth about $1.5 million.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first foreign leader to visit Zelensky in August, signing bilateral agreements on a range of issues from technology to sports, and visiting Babi Yar, where more than 30,000 Jews were massacred by the Nazis over a period of two days in 1941. They also took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Holodomor Victims’ Memorial — commemorating the famine of 1932-1933 in which millions of Ukrainians lost their lives.
Zelensky urged Netanyahu to recognize Holodomor as an act of genocide by the Soviet Union.
“Ukraine and Israel have long-standing historical ties,” he said. “Our nations have together experienced all the tragedies in recent history — the Holodomor and the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the totalitarian Soviet regime.”
Netanyahu pointed out that Ukraine’s once flourishing Jewish community had produced writers such as Shalom Aleichem, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Hayim Nahman Bialik, and visionaries such as Ahad Ha’am and Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Today Zelensky is Ukraine’s top Jew, even if he doesn’t publicly talk about his faith. “Faith is something we never discuss at the dinner table in my family, but I do believe in God,” he said in an interview with the RBK-Ukraine news agency after being named president.
The US’s Charge d’Affairs in Ukraine, William Taylor, said recently that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a better relationship with Zelensky than with his predecessor.
“President Putin answered three calls from President Zelensky and I do not think that he answered so many calls from President Petro Poroshenko,” Taylor said.
Ukraine’s new foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, insisted that Zelensky would not bend to the tough Russian leader at a Paris summit in late September.
“President Zelensky isn’t tall but he’s very strong physically, he trains a lot, and it will be very hard to twist his arms,” he quipped.
In the conclusion of his inaugural address to parliament, he summed up himself – and his mission – as only he could: “Dear nation, throughout my life, I’ve been trying to do everything for Ukrainians to smile. I felt with my heart that it wasn’t just my job, it was my mission. In the next five years, I will do everything so that you, Ukrainians, don’t cry.”