04 March 2022

Servant of the People

Do you know “Servant of the People”? Everyone’s watching it now. Me too. On German public television, you can still watch the first 23 episodes until mid-May. If you haven’t yet: it’s worth it.

You’ve heard of it though, right? The series is a few years old, from 2015. Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyi plays a highschool teacher whose tantrum about corruption and state failure is secretly filmed by a student on his cell phone. The video goes viral, gets millions of clicks, the students organize a crowdfunding campaign, and lo and behold, the miracle happens: the man is elected. The history teacher is suddenly president. With no party, no experience, surrounded by corrupt political insiders who seek to control and manipulate him, distrustfully eyed by a public just waiting to write him off as another dashed hope, undermined by ministers, civil servants and parliamentarians who care about nothing except enriching themselves. And his family! His father drives a cab without a license, and the election is hardly over before he’s promising jobs in the public sector to all his extended family and starts filling his apartment with gold-plated bling-bling. His sister unceremoniously appoints herself deputy head of the financial supervisory authority, and who would blame them: Their life has been hard, and now is their chance to improve it. But the brave teacher doesn’t let himself get tripped up by any of that, gathers five friends from his youth whose professional unsuccessfulness vouches for their honesty, fills the most important positions in the state with them, and truly, little by little, step by step they are setting out to clean the pigsty up.

Yes, I know. That’s populism. Also, the humor is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s worth it. Perhaps even more so.



Call for Abstracts!

Das deutsche Chapter der International Society of Public Law (ICON-S) freut sich über deutsche und englische Einreichungen zur nächsten Konferenz in Gießen am 15.-16.9.22 rund um das (weit verstandene) Thema “Spielräume des Rechts”, Frist 15.4. – The German Chapter of ICON-S invites German and English submissions on the conference theme “Margins in/of Law” – deadline April 15. – More information on the conference on our website.


The opening credits show the president cycling into office on a white bicycle, through the streets of Kiev, through a beautiful city full of water and parks and friendly, ordinary people. I love my country, are the lyrics of the wonderfully relaxed theme song, I love my wife, I love my dog. I’ve been whistling this tune to myself for days. The whole backyard, it continues, knows my slogan, I’ll have it tattooed on my belly: Servant of the people.

Yes, I know. That’s kitsch. The fellow who is blithely cycling through the streets of Kiev, which are possibly bursting into flames at this very moment, is not the President, who is possibly being killed at this very moment by Putin’s hired assassins. That’s a role. That’s staged.

The show is seven years old. It’s only now, while the country it is about is possibly going under, that I’m interested in it. And I realize how little I know about the actual President Volodymyr Zelenskyi. How little I know about Ukraine in general. How little I have actually cared all these years. The Euromaidan in 2014: a newspaper event in a distant country. Zelenskyi’s election as president in 2019: a curiosity. I never even went there.

In 2015, while this series was aired on Ukrainian television, Vladimir Putin was preparing to reduce Aleppo to rubble. Another country I knew next to nothing about at the time: Syria. Then the Syrian refugees started arriving.

Ukraine, unlike Syria, lies directly behind the EU’s external border. It’s not a faraway country. You can get there in a few hours. Many are now going to Poland to the border to help refugees with their journey. Anyone who had tried that a few weeks earlier a little further north on the Polish-Belarusian border would have gone to jail for it. Which, of course, in no way diminishes the merit of those who are now helping, nor the plight of those who are now fleeing.

Ukraine is a border country, just like Poland. One inside, one outside. There’s a scene in the series where the cell phone suddenly rings in the president’s pocket, and Angela Merkel is on the line. Hello, she says, your country is to be admitted to the EU. The president is in utter bliss, the fountains come on, the air is full of music. Oh, says Angela Merkel, sorry. My mistake. I thought I was talking to northern Macedonia. The music dies, the fountains dry up.

What lies beyond the border – that’s how borders work – you no longer perceive. It’s outside, even if in truth it is not outside at all, but completely interwoven with references to the inside, the great, longed-for, unreachable empire on the other side of the border, promising protection and prosperity. Looking from inside to outside, it’s easy to ignore these borderlands altogether and to notice only the empire beyond, as your gaze goes over the heads of those in between: buffer zone. Sphere of influence. Neighborhood policy.

The last episode of the first season – spoiler alert! – ends with another cell phone ringing. That of the foreign minister, also a school friend of the president. They are celebrating their great victory, the corrupt Prime Minister has finally been proven guilty and arrested. But the foreign minister is dead serious as he hands the cell phone to the president. It’s the Russian president, he says. The (Ukrainian) president laughs in disbelief: Putin? No, says the other. His successor.

What that means? No idea. The second season is on YouTube. I’ll watch it right away. I find this tremendously interesting.

The week on Verfassungsblog

Here we are again, at our limit. Our team has acquired, edited, and published an enormous amount of material this week, as you can see, on the many different aspects of the current crisis. We can’t do this without your help. We need your support. Please become a Steady member! One-time donations or standing orders to IBAN DE41 1001 0010 0923 7441 03 or via Paypal will help us, too. Thank you!

We have set up an ad hoc blog symposium to collect our articles on the war in Ukraine:

About Russia’s law violations: the international courts are taking action, the European Court of Human Rights has ordered interim measures, and what those mean and what they reveal about the Strasbourg Court’s positioning is examined by CHRISTIAN JOHANN and ISABELLA RISINI. PATRICK R. HOFFMANN shows that Russia’s attack on Ukraine was prepared by the mass granting of Russian citizenship to residents in the occupied part of the Donbas – a practice that clearly violates international law. LANDO KIRCHMAIR calls for information campaigns in Russia in Russian: Correcting the misinformation Putin uses to justify the war does not violate international law.

About the West’s reactions: MATTHIAS VALTA looks at economic sanctions against Russia in general. MATTHIAS GOLDMANN examines what to make of the sanctions against Russia’s central bank in legal terms. ROBBY HOUBEN analyses to which extent cryptocurrencies may thwart attempts to put financial pressure on Russia. Germany has halted the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and CHRISTIAN TIETJE and JANNIS BERTLING show that this measure is legally sound. Switzerland has joined the sanctions against Russia after initial hesitation, and ANNA PETRIG says this does not mean that it is abandoning its neutrality.

About the possible expansion of the war: KAI AMBOS explores whether Germany might itself become a party to the conflict by supplying weapons to Ukraine. Finland is no NATO member, nor is Sweden, but the EU treaty also contains a kind of military assistance clause, which PÄIVI LEINO-SANDBERG and HANNA OJANEN examine. JELENA VON ACHENBACH sheds light on the EU’s arms deliveries to Ukraine and their legal basis, and criticizes the lack of publicity surrounding the establishment of the European Peace Facility.

About the German financial constitution: In a historic Bundestag session last Sunday, to the surprise of even members of his own cabinet, Chancellor Scholz announced his intention to create a 100 billion euro special fund for the Bundeswehr. Not an easy undertaking in view of the debt brake, the financial constitution and EU law, comments HANNO KUBE.

About the refugee regime: TOM DANNENBAUM calls for recognizing and protecting Russian deserters as refugees. (Several posts are forthcoming on the EU mass influx directive).

About what links Putin’s rights violations and those of the Polish PiS government: EWA ŁETOWSKA warns against absolving the Polish government of its sins because of the joint fight against Putin.


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A lot has happened beyond the war in Ukraine as well. In Germany, climate change protesters have started blocking highway to protest against food waste. Can the climate crisis justify criminal acts in general? FRANCESCA MASCHA KLEIN shows that some courts in other countries already adjudicate in this direction and thinks that the argument could also be transferred to Germany. LAURA SPRINGER deals not with the methods, but with the demands of the protesters: The demanded “food-saving law” is the wrong way to fight food waste.

The debate about the EU directive on due diligence in the supply chain continues. The EU Commission’s strategy of relying on certifiers, however, only promotes private parties as barely regulated “substitute authorities” and could further increase the market concentration of already large companies, says SAMY G. SHARAF.

In Hungary, government agencies use the Constitutional Court to get rid of court rulings that don’t suit them via constitutional complaints. VIKTOR KAZAI explains this dubious oddity.

In Chile, members of the Constituent Assembly have started writing the norms of a new constitution. In the first week, the plenum voted on rules on the legal system and state structure. SVENJA BONNECKE reports on the background to these norms, which are intended to remedy past injustices against the indigenous population.

Electoral reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina is long overdue. The next elections are due in the fall. BENJAMIN RASIDOVIC discusses the options for reform to prevent the country from sliding into the next crisis.

German and European lawmakers are still in the process of legally containing the digital platform economy. In dealing with blockchain, there is now a danger that the old pattern of naïve enthusiasm followed by astonishment will repeat itself, warn JANNIS LENNARTZ and VIKTORIA KRAETZIG.

One thing I am particularly glad about is our new cooperation with African Law Matters. That is a new blog based in Johannesburg. Africa: I know far too little about it. We are looking forward to working with Rebecca Rattner, Ropafadzo Maphosa, Helen Taylor, and David Bilchitz.

That’s it for this week. A lot to digest, for sure, but these are, once again, special times. All the best to you, please remember to support us on Steady, stay healthy, help Ukraine and bon courage!

Max Steinbeis

SUGGESTED CITATION  Steinbeis, Maximilian: Servant of the People, VerfBlog, 2022/3/04, https://verfassungsblog.de/servant-of-the-people/, DOI: 10.17176/20220305-121120-0.

One Comment

  1. Betsy Cawn Fri 13 May 2022 at 18:04 - Reply

    After reviewing the results of a Google search for information about the Ukrainian TV series, “Servant of the People” (and having watched the 23 “episodes” available on Netflix at least twice through), I am grateful for this commentary, and extensive links to additional documentation about the hero/star/politician who is currently occupying the cat-bird seat in the most significant confrontation of this era. I am wholly captivated by Mr. Zelensky’s real life service in this time of tremendous upheaval, of our planet’s survival and “life as we know it” under the threat of nuclear devastation. Love to you all from Northern California, member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 71.

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