Kyiv, Ukraine – Alla Butsko hoped the comedian whose routines and television series made her laugh for years would also make her proud as Ukraine’s first corruption-free president.
In 2019, the 62-year-old retired librarian cast her vote for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, head of the comic strip group District 95, in Ukraine’s most unusual presidential election.
Zelenskyy said at the time that his total political inexperience would help him eradicate the country’s ubiquitous corruption.
But more than two years in office yielded no results, Butsko said.
Zelensky’s ratings have plummeted, while his anti-corruption measures have been mostly cosmetic and failed to land anyone infamous in jail, she told Al Jazeera.
On Monday, she watched Offshore 95 on her son’s laptop, a video by Slidstvo.info, a group of leading investigative journalists in Ukraine, which “finally opened her eyes.”
“I was duped, we were all duped. I don’t vote for him anymore,” she said.
The findings were based on the Pandora Papers, leaked a wealth of millions of documents from 14 offshore service providers to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its partners, including Slidstvo.info.
The story describes how Zelenskyy and his partners launched a network of offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands, Belize and Cyprus.
The companies date back to at least 2012, the year District 95 rose to prominence in Ukraine with regular shows on a television channel owned by Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch sanctioned in the US and the European Union for alleged multi-billion dollar fraud, the report said.
Zelenskyy’s business associates include Ivan Bakanov, the current head of the SBU, Ukraine’s main intelligence agency that often investigates corruption cases, and presidential aide Serhiy Shefir, who controls the offshore companies but shares the profits with Zelenskyy’s wife, it said. report.
At the time of publication, Al Jazeera’s requests for comment from those accused of the leaks had gone unanswered.
Shefir defended their decision to use offshore companies in the Slidstvo.info report because of the business climate in Ukraine.
“You’d better ask our lawmakers who caused this situation when a company is under constant threat from bandits coming to power. At the time, it was very important to defend our interests,” he said.
The trio’s control of the assets could ruin Zelenskyy’s reputation in the West; its financial and political support has anchored Ukraine through two political uprisings and an economic collapse that followed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“To Europeans, to Americans, this looks super compromising,” Kiev-based analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky told Al Jazeera.
‘Everyone would steal’
However, tax evasion is a daily reality in Ukraine, where most companies prefer to work with cash and where it is often problematic to get a receipt from a small shop.
Many Ukrainians do not consider what Zelenskyy did a serious offense, Pogrebinsky said.
“This theft, this tax evasion is not seen by the majority as something that seriously endangers a person, and a lot of people think anyone would sneak in. [Zelensky’s] place,” said Pogrebisnky.
A show business insider said Zelenskyy’s moves could be explained by the specifics of the industry.
“Everyone works in the gray area because it’s all about money. If you declare all your earnings, it draws the attention of tax inspectors who are worse than bandits,” the insider, who hosts live shows of Ukrainian and Western artists in Kiev, told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
However, the leak could cost Zelensky a second presidential term.
“The Ukrainian public has a very high tolerance for corruption when it comes to the incumbents, and low when it comes to wannabe politicians,” Kiev-based observer Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
“Therefore, Pandora’s box could ruin Zelensky’s chances for a second term in office, but not spark a wave of public outcry and his early retirement as president,” he said.
Ex-president weighs in
Another factor bolsters the appeal of the Offshore 95 video which has been viewed over 700,000 times.
Some footage in the hour-long documentary mimicked something that made Zelenskyy immensely popular and paved the way for his presidency in a way that mimics life.
His television series Public Servant was launched in 2015, ran for three seasons and spawned a feature film. The plot followed a poor teacher whose furious rant about the corruption and politics in Ukraine made him a YouTube star and propelled him to unexpected presidency.
“To hell with the cavalcades, the suburban mansions… a humble schoolteacher should live like a president! And a president—like a schoolteacher!” was the teacher’s quote that preceded the documentary.
Zelenskyy used the show’s popularity to launch his presidential campaign in late 2018 — becoming the most powerful politician in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.
His election victory with 73 percent of the vote was followed by the triumph of the hastily assembled Civil servants political party that now dominates the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house.
In the polarized country of 43 million, all previous helmsmen never won a landslide, never had a majority in parliament, and depended on political horse trading that fueled corruption and stalled reform.
However, Zelenskyy has been accused of squandering this political capital by failing to initiate reforms and firing key advisers as his party succumbed to infighting.
After the release of the Pandora Papers, his predecessor took every opportunity to challenge him.
“Because of President Zelenskyy’s actions, the world sees Ukraine as a nation whose leader is involved in global corruption, in order to launder the money he stole in Ukraine along with his business partner Kolomoisky,” ex-president Petro Poroshenko, who in 2018 lost to Zelenskyy, tweeted Monday.
But Poroshenko has been involved in several corruption scandals, and one of them contributed to his loss to Zelenskyy. In 2018, a media report claimed that Poroshenko’s childhood friend was selling weapons and military equipment smuggled from Russia to the Ukrainian military at inflated prices.
Poroshenko’s comment made some Ukrainians laugh.
“He should shut up and keep quiet about this scandal. Zelenskyy is just a boy compared to how Poroshenko robbed the country with blindness and got away with everything,” Pavlo Kudryavtsev, who sells souvenirs in central Kiev, told Al Jazeera.