Boris Johnson and Volodymyr Zelenskyy share the unusual experience of rising to the highest office in the land after appearing in comedy shows. There the similarity ends.
The Ukrainian president was creating the satire and voicing the concerns of ordinary people, whereas the British prime minister was usually the object of the jokes on ‘Have I Got News for You’ and frequently resorted to the persona of a self-deprecating buffoon to limit the damage.
Prime Minister Johnson: a shameless liar
Johnson got to the top courtesy of an incredibly privileged background and connections that secured him opportunities in journalism that others have to work for. He used his easy access to those opportunities not to promote honest journalism but to make up stories that he thought would be convenient.
He got sacked twice for lying but didn’t allow himself to be diverted from a career of shameless self-publicity. Along the way he dumped a couple of wives, casually acquired several children, was caught discussing whether to have a journalist beaten up, and used public office to promote the career of a woman he was having an affair with. Before lying shamelessly about it.
Just as he lied shamelessly about what deal he had signed about Northern Ireland, which parties he had attended in Downing Street and how much money his party had taken from wealthy Russian donors with direct links to Putin.
President Zelenskyy: an honest man
Zelenskyy got to the top despite his background not because of it. He comes from a Russian-speaking part of Ukraine and is Jewish. Not characteristics that made it easy to win support in a country that is fiercely proud of its language and hasn’t always benefitted from universal acceptance of the need for equal treatment of people from the Jewish community.
He used comedy to show people the difference between what an honest politician could achieve and what they had been subjected to. Corruption at the heart of government, organised crime and oligarchs aren’t just a Russian phenomenon. The horrible combination has been exported with great success to many of the countries of the former Soviet Union and the Ukraine got more than its fair share. So Zelenskyy ripped into the corruption and as he did so people laughed and learned.
Eventually it occurred to him that if there was such a thirst for honest politicians inside his country, then he had an obligation to try to meet that thirst. He stood for president, and won a landslide victory. Ordinary Ukrainians had seen enough of what professional politicians could do and ignored all the warnings about what would happen if they elected an honest man with no experience.
Zelenskyy busy resisting Putin’s corruption
Ironically, before Putin launched his invasion, a degree of cynicism had set in about Zelenskyy’s achievements. Almost inevitably, it proved impossible to deliver a successful economy and a fair society in the teeth of a system that had become seriously corrupt. Progress was being made and there were signs of many parts of the country becoming at ease with itself and enjoying its freedoms, but other parts of the country still endured grinding poverty and a hard life, with people living in crumbling Soviet high-rise blocks built near crumbling Soviet disused factories.
It is a very long time since I went to Ukraine. Way back in 1975, I travelled most of the length of the country visiting Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv. I still remember two things very vividly. One is the staggering beauty of the buildings in the centre of Kyiv. The other is the stark reality of the housing conditions in the miserable estates on the outskirts of the cities.
Over the past 47 years, that contrast seems to have become worse not better for many. There seems to be a sharp divide between the world of comfortable café society and high-tech employment that some enjoy, and the hard jobs and ugly back street poverty that others endure.
Nevertheless, a strong case can be made that Zelenskyy was taking the country in the right direction. He seemed to have his eyes firmly fixed on the vision of trying to copy the best of the transformations that have been achieved in countries like the Czech Republic or Latvia since they joined the EU, and a serious determination to dismantle the very real power of Ukraine’s own share of corrupt oligarchs.
Johnson busy importing Putin’s corruption
Johnson’s interaction with corruption is less impressive. He has allowed it to grow and to prosper and to become deeply interlinked with the power structures of his own party. Whilst Zelenskyy has been trying to reign in the oligarchs, Johnson has allowed the Conservative Party to receive millions in ‘donations’ from Russian nationals who are close to Vladimir Putin. Johnson has conspired to help suppress the publication of an enquiry into the way Putin’s money was used to interfere with British politics.
Johnson inherited an honest civil service and a country with a reputation for scrupulously awarding government contracts on the basis of merit. He has created one where billions changes hands without proper scrutiny and shadowy lobbyists can buy access to the heart of government and influence decision making.
Zelenskyy has been widely admired for sharing the fate of his country and telling Joe Biden that he needed weapons, not a lift out of danger. Johnson has been widely condemned for telling people that we were all in it together and must all stick to the rules, whilst he, his health minister and his chief political adviser all broke those rules.
Look after this bear
In happier times, President Zelenskyy was the voice of Paddington Bear, when the film was dubbed into Ukrainian. We must all wish that the people of his country are soon able to return to such innocent pleasures and do everything we can to support the victims of Putin’s ugly shooting war.
In happier times, the UK was at the heart of the EU helping to shape a common response to shared problems. Unfortunately, the UK has been wrenched out of that collaborative venture. Largely thanks to the efforts of Boris Johnson.
Zelenskyy has proved to be a real thorn in the sign of the horrible Putin regime. For all his bluster, Johnson has spent most of his recent career as his useful idiot. The contrast could not be more extreme.