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Ex-actor Zelenskiy faces real political drama

Roman Goncharenko
September 26, 2019

While Ukrainian government figures have downplayed the controversial phone call between Volodymyr Zelenskiy and US President Donald Trump, some opposition figures have lambasted the Ukrainian leader's conduct.

New York UN Generalversammlung Zelenskij
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Loeb

A day after the release of a memo revealing the details of a damaging conversation between US President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that phone call remains a hot topic in Kyiv. Government officials, politicians and some commentators have downplayed the call that saw Trump ask Zelenskiy to launch an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden. The hope is that Ukraine will avoid being negatively impacted, even though Trump could now face impeachment proceedings and be forced from office. But not everyone is convinced. 

The Ukrainian lawmakers siding with Zelenskiy

In the phone conversation with Trump, the Ukrainian president complains that the European Union, a well as Germany and France, are not doing enough to help Ukraine. He says they "are not enforcing the sanctions" against Russia, adding that the allies were "not working as much as they should work for Ukraine." But on Thursday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Zelenskiy's comments would not sour relations with Germany and France. Vasyl Mokan, a lawmaker and member of Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party, in a television interview said: "Our president is not getting involved in the US presidential race."

Joe Biden and his son Hunter in a shop in Beijing
Former Vice President Biden (right) and his son Hunter were the discussed in a call between Trump and ZelenskiyImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Wong

Mykhailo Volynets, a member of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland" party, said he doubted the phone call would negatively impact Zelenskiy's approval ratings. Talking to DW, Volynets said, "Ukraine's main political actors know that President Zelenskiy and his government are political neophytes." That is why, he continued, people will be lenient on the government. 

Kyiv political expert Viktor Neboshenko, too, believes the published notes will not have a major impact. He says the scandal is merely being used by US Democrats to increase the pressure on Trump. He added that if Ukraine had the chance to listen in on what German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron said about Ukrainian politicians, "it would be a hundred times worse."


'Foreign policy catastrophe'

But not everyone thinks the scandal will simply blow over. Lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko, of former President Petro Poroshenko's European Solidarity party, on Thursday announced he had requested the president's office release a Ukrainian version of the conversation. The opposition MP said Zelenskiy made a poor impression during his conversation with Trump. In particular, Zelenskiy's assurance to Trump that "the next prosecutor general will be 100% my person, my candidate" drew criticism. 

Read more: Ukraine's Zelenskiy is a servant of Donald Trump

Oleksandr Leonov, a political scientist with Kyiv's Center for Political Studies, even calls Zelenskiy's phone call with Trump a "foreign policy catastrophe." He told DW the Ukrainian leader was fully aware he was being sucked into the ongoing Trump-Biden power struggle. That is why Leonov argues that Ukraine will find itself confronted with "serious challenges" should Biden or another US Democrat win the 2020 US presidential race.

Ex-foreign minister: Ukraine could make history

Leonov said Zelenskiy's criticism of Merkel and Macron was misplaced, saying: "Zelenskiy has clearly destroyed the trust with European leaders ... we can only hope our partners will show some understanding."

Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on Facebook also mused that Ukraine may "go down in history as the first state to precipitate a US impeachment procedure." He joked that it would be "a dubious honor, but at least everyone now knows what we are capable of."

Social media, meanwhile, is awash with jokes making light of the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call. Many drew parallels to the US political thriller series House of Cards, as well as the Ukrainian comedy series Servant of the People, which stars Zelenskiy playing a teacher who becomes Ukraine's president.

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