The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hoping for peace, Ukraine’s voters appear likely to elect a comedian as president 

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky reacts during a debate with incumbent Petro Poroshenko at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kiev on April 19. (Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Placeholder while article actions load

KIEV, Ukraine — Zoya Troshina said she plans to vote for a comedian for president Sunday because she wants peace in her country.

“At any price,” the 69-year-old retired engineer added. 

The comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, is the front-runner against incumbent Petro Poroshenko in Sunday’s runoff, putting Ukraine on the cusp of becoming the latest nation to cast its future with an untested outsider. 

Driving Zelensky’s surge is voter disdain for Poroshenko, president since 2014, and widespread fatigue with the war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Zelensky offers few policy specifics but the promise of a fresh start and the fantasy of the perfectly incorruptible leader whom he plays on TV. 

Polls have predicted a landslide for Zelensky, a star whose popular sitcom, “Servant of the People,” features Zelensky as a schoolteacher turned righteous president of Ukraine. His entertainment-driven campaign reached its apex Friday as he debated Poroshenko in a 70,000-seat stadium in Kiev — a spectacle proposed by Zelensky.

What happens when a comedian becomes a politician?

“Why hasn’t the war ended yet?” Zelensky shot across the stadium stage to Poroshenko. “That’s the kind of commander in chief you are.” 

A survey published this week by Rating, a Ukrainian polling firm, showed Zelensky leading Poroshenko 58 percent to 22 percent among those planning to cast a ballot, with 20 percent undecided. 

Other polls have shown Zelensky with a similar margin, while Poroshenko’s standing has been dragged down by the war, corruption scandals and the economy.

“I want change,” said actress Yana Kozak, 48, a Zelensky supporter in Zaporizhia, an industrial city a few hours’ drive from the front line in eastern Ukraine. “I want the thieves to be punished and the war to be stopped.” 

How a comedian rose to the top of the political heap in Ukraine

Zelensky has no political experience — other than what has been scripted in his show. Its third season, which began airing last month, includes scenes of an imagined future Ukraine in the aftermath of the Zelensky character’s presidency, a country prosperous and free of corruption.

Zelensky has relied on his TV shows and Instagram account to reach voters, investing little in traditional advertising and largely avoiding unscripted interactions with journalists. 

The two remaining candidates in Ukraine’s presidential race underwent televised drug and alcohol tests April 5, after goading each other into a policy debate. (Video: Reuters)

“I’m not a politician,” Zelensky said in the stadium debate, channeling his character in his show. “I’m just a simple person who came to break the system.” 

The organizers split the stadium field down the middle, with the thousands of opposing supporters on the field divided by a barrier and a phalanx of security personnel. Poroshenko organized buses to bring in his supporters from across Ukraine, and his larger crowd often drowned out Zelensky with chants. 

Poroshenko painted Zelensky as a slick entertainer who is a tool of the emigre Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, who controls the television channel that airs Zelensky’s show. 

“You didn’t come here by tram and not even by bicycle,” Poroshenko told Zelensky, in a dig at his TV character, who prefers humble modes of transportation. “You are the main conduit for oligarchs and certainly of one fugitive oligarch.” 

While Zelensky blamed Poroshenko for the ongoing war, the incumbent said true responsibility lay with “Putin, the Russian army and Russian aggression.” 

Moscow annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and backed a separatist war that the United Nations says has claimed about 13,000 lives. Zelensky has provided few details on how he would stop the conflict in the east, other saying he would not give up territory and was prepared to negotiate directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But a Zelensky victory could spell a mandate for a different approach to the conflict with neighboring Russia as the Kremlin tries to keep Ukraine within a post-Soviet sphere of influence. 

It would also signal that many voters’ dreams of a more progressive state have been dashed five years after Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution, referred to as Maidan after the Kiev square that was its focal point. 

“Maidan was about better governance and a different state,” said Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Not about war with Russia, not about language.” Zelensky, Jarabik said, “gets it.” 

Poroshenko built his campaign around the slogan of “Army! Language! Faith!” — strengthening Ukraine’s army to better resist Russia, promoting the Ukrainian language over Russian and forming a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent from Moscow. A victory for anyone but him in the presidential race, Poroshenko said, would mark a victory for Putin. 

But analysts say the patriotic message rang hollow as many Ukrainians struggled to make ends meet, while a drumbeat of media reports alleged that members of Poroshenko’s inner circle have been enriching themselves at Ukrainians’ expense. International Monetary Fund data shows Ukraine fell behind Moldova in recent years to become Europe’s poorest country. Ukraine’s $2,963 gross domestic product per capita in 2018 was roughly one-fourth that of Russia and one-fifth that of neighboring Poland. 

Their pension is waiting. But they literally must cross a minefield to get it.

Poroshenko has made a last-minute push to paint a Zelensky presidency as a gamble that puts Ukraine’s very existence at risk. “Most important: Don’t lose the country,” his new campaign billboards say. 

“I don’t really want to vote for him, but what to do?” said Tetiana Lisova, a programmer in Kiev who said she would reluctantly vote for Poroshenko. “Zelensky is a dark horse, and we don’t know whom he’ll bring with him.”

But polls suggest that many voters are willing to give Zelensky the benefit of the doubt. The comedian’s anti-corruption message — dramatized by his television show — also resonates. Reformers have joined Zelensky’s team, including former finance minister Oleksandr Danylyuk and anti-corruption specialist Ruslan Riaboshapka.

Zelensky’s ambiguous ties to Kolomoisky leave the candidate open to criticism that he could be swayed by Ukraine’s oligarchs, despite his rhetoric. Both men deny that Kolomoisky is behind Zelensky’s political ambitions. 

Artem Romanyukov, an anti-corruption activist in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, said Friday that he was still making up his mind about whether to vote for Zelensky or not vote at all. He said that even if the allegations that Kolomoisky holds sway over Zelensky prove true, one should keep in mind that Poroshenko — a confectionery magnate — was himself one of Ukraine’s richest men.

“Zelensky is a huge risk,” Romanyukov said. “In the worst-case scenario, we’ll simply replace one oligarch with another. This is bad, but not a catastrophe given the current context.” 

Oksana Parafeniuk in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

‘Parallel universe’: the front-runner seeking to be Ukraine’s president plays one on TV

Ukraine tore down its Lenin statues. The hard part is filling the space left behind.

How Mostik the cat became the official mascot for annexed Crimea

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news