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A Comedian Who Plays President of Ukraine on TV Might Actually Become President

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  • Polls from Monday’s election in Ukraine show comedian Volodymyr Zelensky in a massive lead with over 30 percent of the vote.
  • Zelensky has no political experience and is best known for playing a teacher who accidentally becomes president after going viral for ranting about government corruption in a popular TV show.
  • Zelensky, who ran primarily on an anti-corruption platform, will now have a runoff election against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko on April 21.

Election in Ukraine

Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is the front-runner to become the next president of Ukraine, according to polls from the country’s presidential election on Monday.

Zelensky, who most famous for starring in a TV show where he plays a teacher who unintentionally becomes the president of Ukraine, has run an extremely popular presidential campaign in real life.

The election on Monday is the first of two parts of the presidential election, sort of like a primary. During the first election, Ukrainians vote for the top two candidates in a field of many. This year, Ukraine saw a record number of 39 contenders running for president.

With 92 percent of all votes counted, election officials announced that Zelensky leads the polls with 30 percent of the vote, while incumbent President Petro Poroshenko is far behind with only about 16 percent of the vote.

The third-place candidate is former two-term Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who is widely considered one of the most influential women in Ukraine, and currently holds about 13 percent of the vote.

While the polling is still not entirely finished, it seems almost certain Zelensky and Poroshenko will go head-to-head in the final runoff election three weeks from now, on April 21.

Zelensky’s Rise to Power

With Zelensky polling nearly twice as high as Poroshenko, many are wondering: who is Volodymyr Zelensky?

Zelensky is the star of a Ukranian TV show which translates to “Servant of the People.” In the show, he plays a schoolteacher who becomes president after a video of him ranting about corruption goes viral.

The similarities between his character on the show and his actual campaign are striking.

Both Zelensky and his character have absolutely no political experience, and both are extremely popular because they ran on anti-corruption campaigns.

Zelensky and his character are also both viewed as fresh new leaders who do not have ties to Ukraine’s political elite and who are popular with the younger population.

Zelensky even is part of a new political party that was created by the show’s producers and is literally named the Servant of the People Part, which is the same name as the show Zelensky stars in.

However, Zelensky’s campaign has not been without controversy. In addition to criticisms that he has no political experience, some have claimed that he is just the surrogate for a wealthy oligarch named Ihor Kolomoisky.

Kolomoisky is a well-known rival of Poroshenko, who moved to Israel after he was involved in a multi-billion dollar banking scandal. Kolomoisky and Zelensky have been business partners, as Servant of the People is aired on Kolomoisky’s TV channel.

Zelensky even announced his candidacy on Kolomoisky’s TV channel.

Unsurprisingly, both men have denied any connections to Zelensky’s campaign.

Ukraine’s Political Turmoil

Poroshenko was first elected back in 2014, after Ukraine’s former Moscow-backed president was ousted as a result of the 2014 Ukranian Revolution, which also overthrew the Ukranian government.

The 2014 Ukrainian Revolution was followed by Russia’s infamous annexation of Crimea, which was part of Ukraine.

Many world leaders criticized Russia for annexing Crimea, saying it violated both international law and a series of agreements between Russia and Ukraine that protected land belonging to Ukraine.

As a result, Poroshenko campaigned and was elected on the promises of getting back control of Crimea, as well as fighting an uprising of Russian-backed separatists that took control over parts of eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko has billed himself as a strong defender of Ukraine’s territory and a champion of Ukraine joining the EU and NATO, a move that is widely supported by Ukrainians.

However, he is currently failing with his people for two main reasons.

First, many Ukranian’s believe Poroshenko has not done enough to stop the pro-Russain separatists. Since 2014, Ukrainian government forces have fought a brutal war against the separatists which has killed more than 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine and has reflected poorly on Poroshenko.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Second, and perhaps most significantly, Poroshenko has failed to crack down on government corruption, such as recovering money that had been stolen from the government before he came to power.

In addition to not cracking down on corruption, Poroshenko has also been accused of being complicit in it. Poroshenko himself is a wealthy oligarch, which has lead many to question his connections to other oligarchs.

His campaign also suffered significantly from a military corruption scandal involving some of his top associates.

What Next?

Much of Zelensky’s support comes from a general frustration with Poroshenko’s lack of efforts to crack down on corruption, as well as the deteriorating economic conditions which have made living standards even lower in Ukraine

Many believe that Zelensky will be a pro-Ukraine president who can offer new approaches to confront Russia and to address the war with the separatists in the east. He has also billed himself as a pro-market candidate who will work to join the EU and NATO.

While Zelinsky seems to be very popular and has received 30 percent of the vote so far, he will still need to reach over 50 percent in order to win the election.

According to polls held by the three main Ukrainian sociological institutes: “37-42 percent of Ukrainians are planning to vote for Zelenskiy in the second round while between 17-19 percent of respondents will vote for Poroshenko. 20 percent said they’ll yet to decide while 21-24 percent said they won’t vote.”

In general, Ukraine’s voting system is much more democratic than Russia’s. Despite the fact that it has troubles, citizens are offered a real choice.

Though it is important to note that several million eligible voters were unable or unwilling to cast ballots in Crimea and in the areas of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

It will be interesting to see what the next few weeks will bring, as the Ukraine gears up for its April 21 election.

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (Fox News) (Kyiv Post)

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International

Trump Administration Labels Iran Military Unit a Terrorist Group

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  • The Trump Administration has designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, marking the first time the U.S. has given the designation to a foreign government
  • This choice has received criticism from military leaders and the intelligence community, as it could set a dangerous precedent for U.S. foreign relations.
  • Iran responded by classifying U.S. Central Command as a terrorist organization and promising further retaliation.

IRGC Designated As Terrorist Organization

The Trump administration announced Monday that the United States was designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. The unprecedented move marks the first time the U.S. has ever named a part of another country’s government a foreign terrorist organization.

Iran’s IRGC is a military unit that was originally created after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 as security for Iran’s religious rulers. Since that time, the IRGC has become Iran’s most powerful security organization.

The unit has an estimated 125,000 personnel, that compose army, navy, and air units, and includes control of Iran’s ballistic missiles and nuclear programs.

The IRGC owns a huge network of businesses that range from oil and gas to construction and telecommunication, essentially giving the unit unlimited political influence in business, real estate, and other sectors of the economy.

The U.S. blames the IRGC for facilitating the deaths of U.S. service member in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East because they have financed, trained, and given weapons to terrorist networks.

What Does This Mean?

In a statement released by the White House, Donald Trump said, “The IRGC is the Iranian government’s primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign.”

“This action will significantly expand the scope and scale of our maximum pressure on the Iranian regime,” said Trump, “This action sends a clear message to Tehran that its support for terrorism has serious consequences.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also addressed the situation in a press briefing, where he further elaborated on the reasoning behind the decision.

“We’re doing because the Iranian regime’s use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government,” Pompeo said. “This historic step will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world.”

Pompeo also said that the designation will allow the IRGC to, “Take its rightful place on the same list as terror groups its supports.”


With the new designation, many are wondering what the label entails.

Much like Trump said, the designation, which is set to go into effect next week, will give the U.S. a huge scope of actions they can take against Iran. This includes imposing significant economic sanctions and travel bans on the IRGC and any organizations, companies, or individuals that might have ties to it.

It will also allow the Trump administration to bring criminal charges against the IRGC and any foreign officials that aid them.

Opposition From Military & Intelligence Officials

While the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization is new, it is something that has been debated for years because it is highly controversial in the military and intelligence communities.

The Trump administration has championed the move as a step forward in cracking down on Iran, but top Pentagon and C.I.A. officials strongly oppose the designation.

They argue that it is too strong of a hardline, and could allow Iranian officials to retaliate and justify dangerous and deadly actions against U.S. personnel abroad, especially Special Operations units and paramilitary units that work under the C.I.A.

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies are also concerned that the designation would prohibit all contact with foreign officials who may have met with or communicated with Guard personnel – a move that could severely damage diplomatic relations in the region.

U.S. military and intelligence officials also oppose the designation because it sets a dangerous precedent that other countries could use against the U.S.

Matt Levitt, the director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the move could prompt Russia and China to start designating U.S. agencies and use the same actions against them that they are taking against Iran.

Others, including an interagency lawyers group, have said the designation is too vague and broad. Some U.S. officials are saying the terrorist designation could include 11 million people, according to the New York Times.

Due to the fact that the IRGC itself is only about 125,000 of that number, the number of people and organizations that have “ties” to the IRGC under the broad definition could be disproportionately targetted, including U.S. allies.

The Iraq Problem

For example, the designation will likely apply to officials in Iraq, which is a key U.S. ally in the region.

Iraq shares a border with Iran, and the two countries are major trading partners. Senior Iraqi officials are against the designation because it could impose travel bans and sanctions on some lawmakers in the government who have ties to Iranian officials.

U.S. officials are also worried that the move could encourage Iraqi parliamentarians to limit the movements and actions of 5,000 U.S. troops who are based in Iraq. This plan has been proposed before and is very popular in Iraq’s parliament. If Iran’s parliament felt as though the U.S. is unfairly restricting them, they could easily retaliate against U.S. troops in their country.

Additionally, U.S. troops and diplomats could be banned from contact with Iraqi authorities who interact with the IRGC and can give the U.S. important intel. That could complicate and even endanger U.S. operations in the region and will most likely complicate U.S. efforts to stop a resurgence of ISIS.

“This isn’t about taking a tough approach to Iran’s support for terrorism,” Said Jeffrey Prescott, a former senior Middle East director at the White House National Security Council, “Rather, it will put our service members in Iraq and throughout the region at additional risk with nothing to show in return.”

Prescott also argued that the backlash against the U.S. will be way worse than any potential benefits, saying:

“There is a reason that successive administrations have held off designating the I.R.G.C. as a terrorist organization, and why many of Trump’s own military and intelligence officials are said to be highly opposed to the move: The potential blowback vastly outweighs the benefits.”

Iran Responds

Iran has already begun its retaliate against the U.S. designation.

Following yesterday’s announcement, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), which is a state-run news source in Iran, reported that Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called for Central Command to be deemed a terrorist organization, writing:

“Zarif in its letter referred to the US military forces’ covert and open support for the terrorist groups in the region and their direct interference in terror activities and offered the Supreme National Security Council to enlist CENTCOM in its terror list.”

According to Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) declared the U.S. a “terrorist government,” and blacklisted CENTCOM.

Fars also reported this morning that Iran’s parliament ratified a bill that stated:

“All US military, security and intelligence forces active in West Asia and all real and legal persons representing them in West Asia region will be declared as terrorist and any financial, technical, training and service and logistical assistance to this group of forces is considered as collaboration in terrorist acts.”

The bill also aims to strengthen the IRGC.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is also the head of the SNSC, responded angrily to the designation in a televised statement.

“You want to use terrorist groups as tools against the nations of the region,” said Rouhani.“You are the leader of world terrorism.”

Other leaders in the Iranian government have threatened reciprocal action against the U.S. if they actually enforce the designation, including Iran’s Defense Minister and the IRGC General Commander.

The Trump Connection

Some people in both the U.S. and Iran have criticized the move as an effort to help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the day before the Israeli election.

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif referred to the move as an “election-eve gift to Netanyahu” in a tweet.

Netanyahu himself seemed to reinforce this idea, thanking Trump for this decision in a tweet.

Additionally, others have criticized Trump for a different reason.

Back in 2017, The New Yorker published an extensive investigative report that discovered the Trump Organization had been involved in building Trump Tower Baku a hotel in Azerbaijan.

According to the report, the hotel never opened, and was found “to be a corrupt operation engineered by oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.”

Currently, it seems like Iran will take action against the U.S. if the designation does take effect, which is it set to do in about a week.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NPR) (Fox News)

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International

Trudeau Expels MPs From Party, Threatens to Sue Opposition Leader

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  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expelled Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal Party and banned them from running in October’s election as Liberals.
  • Wilson-Raybould, who previously served as the Attorney General and Justice Minister, accused Trudeau of pressuring her to drop a criminal case against Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin and reassigning her when she refused.
  • Opposition leader Andrew Scheer released a letter he received from Trudeau, threatening to sue him for libel over statements he made regarding the case.

Trudeau Kicks Former Ministers Out of Party

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expelled two former ministers from the Liberal Party, in a move intended to create unity between members of his party.

Trudeau said Tuesday that former Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould and former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott are no longer allowed in the Liberal Party.

Trudeau also banned Wilson-Raybould and Philpott from running for the party in the federal election in October.

The move comes as Trudeau has been embroiled in a corruption scandal that alleges his office attempted to settle a criminal case against SNC-Lavalin, a huge engineering and construction firm based in Canada.

The criminal case against SNC says the company paid millions in bribes to officials in Lybia in order to secure lucrative contracts between 2001 and 2011, including millions of dollars to the regime of Lybian dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

When Trudeau and the Liberal Party took office in 2015, Wilson-Raybould was given oversight of the case against SNC in her role as Justice Minister and Attorney General.

A Scandal is Born

Then in January, Trudeau reassigned Wilson-Raybould to the Veterans Affairs Department, which was considered a major demotion.

On February 7, The Globe and Mail published an investigative report claiming Trudeau and his aides had tried to direct Wilson-Raybould’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin case. Wilson-Raybould resigned less than a week after the story was published.

Shortly after that, Wilson-Raybould testified before a parliamentary committee, and claimed that Trudeau and his aides had pressured her to settle the case by using “political interference” and “veiled threats.”

She said what they did was not illegal, but that it crossed informal lines intended to keep politics and criminal prosecutions separate.

Following Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, Philpott resigned from her post as Treasury Board president, saying in a resignation letter that she had lost all confidence in the government.

Both women remained as members of the Canadian Parliament in the Liberal Party after they stepped down from their cabinet positions.

Why Were They Expelled?

Trudeau has continually denied any wrongdoing and has said he takes the concerns very seriously.

Trudeau’s decision to eject Wilson-Raybould and Philpott is largely considered part of his broader efforts to do damage control as he faces a federal election in October.

However, it has not been unprompted. Parliamentarians have recently pushed Trudeau to remove both women from caucus on the grounds that they were undermining party unity.

“The trust that previously existed between these two individuals and our team has been broken,” Trudeau said in a press conference on Tuesday, “It’s become clear that Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Philpott can no longer be part of our Liberal team.”

Wilson-Raybould & Philpott Stir the Pot

Trudeau’s decisicion to remove Wilson-Raybould and Philpott did not come out of the blue.

About two weeks ago, Wilson-Raybould publicly released a secret a recording of a phone call she had in December with Canada’s clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, who is Canada’s top civil servant.

In the phone call, she told Wernick that Trudeau “was on dangerous ground.” Wilson-Raybould released the records shortly after Wernick announced that he was going to step down from his position before the election.

In addition to continually supporting Wilson-Raybould, Philpott also angered members of the Liberal Party after she gave an interview with MacLeans on March 21.

“There’s much more to the story that should be told,” Philpott said in the interveiw, “I believe the former attorney general has further points to make. I believe that I have further issues of concern that I’m not free to share.”

Both women can still run for election again, but they would have to run as a different party, which could be challenging. Though neither Wilson-Raybould nor Philpott have said they are going to run for Parliament again in October under another party yet.

Wilson-Raybould & Philpott Respond

Wilson-Raybould responded to Trudeau’s move to expel her in a series of tweets on Tuesday, writing, “I have no regrets. I will speak the truth as I will continue to do.”

In a letter to the Liberal Party, Wilson-Raybould wrote a letter to the Liberal party, in which she stated:

“I am angry, hurt, and frustrated because I feel and believe I was upholding the values that we all committed to. In giving the advice I did, and taking the steps I did, I was trying to help protect the Prime Minister and the government from a horrible mess. I am not the one who tried to interfere in sensitive proceedings.”

Philpott also responded to her expulsion in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

“It appears that the caucus is intent on staying the current course, regardless of its short-term and long-term consequences to the party and to the country,” Wrote Philpott, “And it has been decided that there is no place for me in the caucus.”

Unprecedented Action

Trudeau’s move to expel Wilson-Raybould and Philpott may have come from internal pressures inside the Liberal Party as they inch closer to the election, but this kind of action is largely unprecedented in Canadain politics.

“There’s been resignations on disagreements to government policy, there’s been resignations relating to scandal,” said Chris Cochrane, a University of Toronto politics professor, “There’s never been two resignations in recent memory of people resigning on principle … together.”

Cochrane also said that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott’s ejections especially come as shock because they represent a change of course for Trudeau, who has continually said that Liberals needed strong legislators with different points of view, and who also campaigned on transparency and government accountability.

“The difference here is that Trudeau explicitly promised in the last election to do business differently than previous governments,” Cochrane told the National Post.

Trudeau is also receiving criticism because he has been championed in the past as a self-described feminist and a supporter of indigenous rights.

Now his opponents have used this incident to portray him as a leader who directed aides to bully Wilson-Raybould, an Indigenous woman, in order to protect a corporation from a criminal conviction in a corruption case.

Trudeau Threatens Lawsuit Against Opposition Leader for ‘Libel’

On Sunday, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer released a letter he received from Trudeau’s lawyer on March 31 threatening to sue him for libel.

On March 29, Scheer posted a statement on Facebook and Twitter regarding Wilson-Raybould and the SNC case. According to Trudeau’s attorney, Scheer’s statement was“beyond the pale of fair debate” and “libelous.”

The lawyer also said the statement, “Contained highly defamatory comments about Prime Minister Trudeau.” The letter concludes that it should be taken as a notice for any subsequent action.

Scheer responded to the letter in a tweet, writing, “I stand by every single criticism I have made of Justin Trudeau’s behaviour in this scandal.”

The tweet also included a letter from Scheer’s own lawyer in response to Trudeau’s letter, which called the libel claim “completely without merit,” and claimed Scheer was “performing his constitutional duty to hold the Prime Minister and his government to account.”

Scheer also later tweeted that he welcomed Trudeau’s lawsuit, “Because he will finally be forced to testify under oath.”

Whether or not Trudeau will move ahead with the lawsuit is yet to be known.

See what others are saying: (National Post) (CBC) (The Washington Post)

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International

Australian Law Criminalizes Internet Companies that Don’t Remove Violent Content

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  • Australia passed a law that would criminalize tech companies who don’t remove violent materials from their social and online platforms.
  • The legislation was proposed as a direct response to the attacks in Christchurch, and was passed within a week.
  • Tech companies and others are criticizing legislators for passing the law too quickly, and for unintended consequences and complications could arise.

What Does the Law Say?

Australian lawmakers passed legislation that will criminalize internet platforms that fail to remove violent content from their site.

The bill, passed Thursday, states that this new law will, “address significant gaps in Australia’s current criminal laws by ensuring that persons who are internet service providers, or who provide content or hosting services, take timely action in relation to abhorrent violent material that can be accessed using their services.”

The goal is to make sure social media and other sites with user-based content “cannot be exploited and weaponised by perpetrators of violence.”

The legislation was created as a response to the attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, which were partially live-streamed to Facebook, and viewed by thousands of people. Since then, Facebook has worked to remove 1.5 million versions of the video.

The attacks are mentioned in the bill, and Attorney General Christian Porter also opened his remarks on the bill by paying tribute to the victims.

“Together, we must act to ensure that perpetrators and their accomplices cannot leverage online platforms for the purposes of spreading their violent and extreme fanatical propaganda.” he added during his reading. “These platforms should not be weaponised for evil purposes.”

According to the bill, “violent content” ranges from anything containing images or audio of terrorist attacks, to murder or attempted murder, and torture, among other things.

Companies who don’t take down these kinds of materials from their sites could end up with penalty fines of up to 10% of the corporate body’s annual turnover. Individuals found responsible could land in jail for up to three years.

Criticism of the Law

The legislation was first introduced by Australia’s Prime Minister last week, and many are critical of both the content of the bill and the speed in which it was passed.

The Law Council of Australia released a statement saying the bill, “could have serious unintended consequences and should not be rushed through the parliament.”

The council’s president, Arthur Moses, also said it could lead to increased amounts of censorship. “As we know, laws formulated as a knee-jerk reaction to a tragic event do not necessarily equate to good legislation and can have myriad unintended consequences,” he said.

“Whistleblowers may no longer be able to deploy social media to shine a light on atrocities committed around the world because social media companies will be required to remove certain content for fear of being charged with a crime. It could also lead to censorship of the media, which would be unacceptable.”

Tech company leaders are also taking issue with the law. Sunita Bose, the managing director of the Digital Industry Group Inc., which is an advocacy group that represents companies like Facebook and Google, told the New York Times that a lot of work has to be done to find a solution to this problem.

“With the vast volumes of content uploaded to the internet every second,” Bose said, “this is a highly complex problem that requires discussion with the technology industry, legal experts, the media and civil society to get the solution right — that didn’t happen this week.”

See What Others Are Saying: (The New York Times) (Associated Press) (Radio New Zealand)

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