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Could a rock star become Ukraine's next president?

Nick Connolly
August 24, 2018

The unofficial start of Ukraine's presidential race begins on August 24. After years of unrest, Ukrainians are clamoring for new politicians and appear ready to throw support behind their most famous rock star.

Ukrainian musician performs at a concert in Sochi
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/RIA Novosti/R. Sitdikov

For all his denials, Ukraine's most famous rock star, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, has done much to feed rumors of his political ambitions over the past year. He has given lectures to politics students, taken policy classes at Stanford University and scheduled a rare concert for August 24, Ukraine's national holiday. The day just happens to mark the unofficial kick-off of the country's presidential election race. Expectations are sky high, with many in Ukraine awaiting some kind of announcement – despite the fact that he's dubbed the concert "Nothing but music."

But many Ukrainians aren't buying the rock star's efforts to dispel the rumors: Bookmakers are already taking bets and, with six months to go before elections, most polls put the Okean Elzy front man ahead of incumbent Petro Poroshenko and within a few points of front-runner Yulia Tymoshenko.

Who is Svyatoslav Vakarchuk?

It wouldn't be Vakarchuk's first excursion into politics. Back in 2007 Vakarchuk was elected to the Rada, Ukraine's parliament. After just a year he resigned, accusing Ukraine's political class of spending more time fighting amongst themselves than thinking about policy. In recent years, he's grown circumspect about political engagement. In the wake of the 2014 Maidan revolution Vakarchuk said, "under no circumstances would I stand aside from what's happening in the country."

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But what exactly are his politics? A physicist by training, Vakarchuk has been a professional musician since Okean Elzy formed back in 1994. At 43, he belongs to the generation that came of age in the early 1990s as Ukraine gained independence, witnessing a string of false starts along the country's path to closer ties with the West. Vakarchuk has been vocal in his support of closer integration with the EU and efforts to combat corruption and has spoken of the need for far-reaching reforms, from electoral law to the security services, without offering much in the way of detail. But in a country where policy-heavy manifestos are the exception, this approach could help him win support with the public.

But where does support for Vakarchuk as a politician come from? Why should musical stardom qualify him for political office?

"He has his own brand of moral authority," says Oleksiy Haran, professor of political science at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy. Vakarchuk has been in the spotlight for over two decades and largely avoided scandal. Very few Ukrainian politicians can say the same.

Comic competition 

Ukrainian politics has seen other celebrities enter the ring, for example, former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, one of the key figures of the Maidan protests. In the elections that followed Klitschko considered running for the presidency, but eventually endorsed Petro Poroshenko and became mayor of Kyiv instead.

This time around Vakarchuk is not the only show-business figure doing well in the polls. The hugely popular actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is also stirring speculation. And he also has presidential experience — albeit exclusively on screen. In the smash-hit series "Servant of the People," Zelensky plays a history teacher catapulted to the presidency after a video of him ranting against corruption goes viral.

Now, the real-life Zelensky is polling between 6 and 7 percent, putting him level with Vakarchuk. So far Zelensky has denied any presidential ambitions, although he does admit to registering a Servant of the People political party. A move, he says, necessary to prevent others from misusing the brand for political ends.

Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr ZelenskyImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/A. Gusev

'Desire for new faces'

Vakarchuk and Zelensky appeal to very different parts of Ukrainian society, but they do have one thing in common. They fulfill what Professor Oleksiy Haran, calls Ukrainians' "desire for new faces." Aside from Vakarchuk and Zelensky, the frontrunners in the polls all have decades in politics behind them. Most have been ministers. Nearly all of them are over 50. Frustration with the status quo — "the same old faces" — is a problem Ukraine's established politicians are responding to in very different ways. 

Two-time Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko currently leads the polls with around 10 percent support. Only a few percentage points separate her from her nearest rivals.  Among the men in suits that long dominated Ukrainian politics, Tymoshenko always stood out. Her signature blonde braid was instantly recognizable at home and abroad. But the braid and the folksy visuals of her past campaigns are long gone. Instead, Tymoshenko's new manifesto comes complete with high-tech graphics and promises to introduce blockchain technology. Although she has never really left the political stage, Tymoshenko is now trying hard to reinvent herself as an innovator and a modernizer. 

Meanwhile incumbent Petro Poroshenko is heading in the opposite direction, making an effort to appeal to conservative, patriotic voters. His campaign hinges on promises to strengthen Ukraine's armed forces and a commitment to gaining international recognition for the independence of Ukraine's Orthodox Church from the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchy. 

Despite the ever louder calls for new politicians and promising polling figures, it remains unclear whether celebrities will toss their hats into the ring. If they don't, it is left to the political veterans to reinvent themselves yet again. With a race as tight as this one, an endorsement from either Vakarchuk or Zelensky could make a crucial difference to any of the other candidates. And if either were to change his mind, he would still have until February to register his candidacy.