Two metres tall and barrel-chested, Yuriy Koryavchenkov draws plenty of attention on the streets of Kryviy Rih.
Not only is the tough Ukrainian mining town Mr Koryavchenkov’s home turf, it is also where the actor and longtime collaborator of new president Volodymyr Zelensky is taking his own first steps into politics. Mr Koryavchenkov is running in Sunday’s parliamentary election under Mr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party.
“The people want honest politicians . . . this is the idea behind Servant of the People, to usher them in,” said Mr Koryavchenkov, who never imagined a political career, as he campaigned in the town. “It’s a very difficult situation for my friend [Zelensky] . . . we have to help him succeed.”
Three months ago Mr Zelensky capitalised on widespread anti-establishment sentiment and converted a public profile as an actor — he played a fictional president on Ukrainian television — into a stunning real-life election win over incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
Now Mr Zelensky, who is also from Kryviy Rih, is seeking to consolidate his power, hoping public dissatisfaction will sweep away Ukraine’s ruling class of politicians and give him a parliamentary majority for his own new party, made up in large part of neophytes such as Mr Koryavchenkov.
Mr Zelensky would be the first Ukrainian president to take such wide political control of the country’s affairs since independence in 1991. Polls predict the party will muster 40 per cent to 47 per cent nationwide, putting it within striking distance of a ruling majority.
The question is what an unknown political movement would do for Ukraine at such a critical juncture — with a continuing IMF programme to prop up the ailing economy and pressure from Russian president Vladimir Putin, five years after Moscow annexed the Ukrainian province of Crimea and fomented a continuing separatist conflict in Ukraine’s east.
“It’s a party with new faces — largely with liberal and progressive views — who were not in politics before, but it has not yet fully formed and so it is obviously not entirely clear what to expect from them,” said Yevhen Bystrytsky, a Kiev professor and civil society expert.
Since becoming president, Mr Zelensky has been warmly greeted by Ukraine’s western backers, after his reassurances that Kiev would preserve EU and Nato integration plans while sticking to reforms at home.
Tomas Fiala, chief executive of Kiev-based investment bank Dragon Capital, said structural reforms could “speed up” should Mr Zelensky’s party secure an absolute majority or form a ruling coalition with the reformist Voice party, formed by former pop star Slava Vakarchuk and also stacked with new political faces.
But concern has also mounted about the president’s populist streak. In a bid to rally voters last week, Mr Zelensky proposed purging officials who served under his predecessor, a plan swiftly condemned as undemocratic by ambassadors representing G7 countries.
Mr Zelensky has also targeted ArcelorMittal, one of Ukraine’s top investors, accusing the company of polluting Kryviy Rih, where he won 90 per cent of the vote in the presidential run-off. The city’s steel mill, acquired by ArcelorMittal in 2005, is the largest in Europe.
On Wednesday the state security service, headed by a close associate of the president, launched a criminal investigation against ArcelorMittal’s domestic subsidiary, citing the alleged pollution. ArcelorMittal called the move “ecopopulism”.
Servant of the People includes activists and middle-class entrepreneurs. Some were chosen through social media voting. Among the ranks are a few journalists from television channel 1+1, which is owned by Igor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who backs Mr Zelensky.
Mr Koryavchenkov, who for years performed alongside Mr Zelensky in comedy acts including a role as a goofy medieval Kozak warrior, is running to represent Kryviy Rih as one of nearly 200 MPs elected in single mandate contests. The other half of parliament will be chosen through votes for party lists.
While western backers have said Ukraine made economic progress under Mr Poroshenko, life remains hard in dilapidated cities far from Kiev such as Kryviy Rih — something Mr Koryavchenkov said he witnessed while on the road with Mr Zelensky’s comedy troupe.
“We travelled the entire country with our performances and saw the situation first hand . . . People are supposed to live happy and pleasant lives, but it’s not so. The people want change,” he said.
As Mr Koryavchenkov campaigned, children ran up to take selfies while pensioners shouted their support for him and the new president. “Only your team can bring order to the chaotic public services, sweep out the corruption and end the war,” Ludmila, a Kryviy Rih resident, told Mr Koryavchenkov.
Another resident, 78-year-old Maria, said her entire family would vote for Mr Zelensky’s party. “Current lawmakers are not worthy of our Volodymyr, not a single one of them,” she said. “We need to oust all of these serpents who are hunting down our honest boy like an injured sparrow, so that he can fly like an eagle.”
Mr Koryavchenkov cast aside doubts about the credentials of the inexperienced president and his party, citing Mr Zelensky’s education as a lawyer, as well as his own engineering and economy degrees, along with past management experience at a local mine.
Pointing to the multimillion-dollar comedy and movie production business that Mr Zelensky established with partners, he said: “The people trust us . . . we became successful making our money honestly.”
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