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

Volodymyr Zelensky is the front-runner ahead of Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election. He is a comedian who also plays the nation’s president on the television series “Servant of the People.” (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

KIEV, Ukraine — In the second season of the Ukrainian hit TV show “Servant of the People,” comedian Volodymyr Zelensky plays a schoolteacher turned presidential candidate who shoots to the top of the polls amid voter disgust with the political establishment.

Zelensky is now running for president in real life. 

With just weeks to go until Ukraine’s March 31 election, he has shot to the top of the polls amid — as in the show — voter disgust with the political establishment. 

And just to blur the lines even more: His party is called Servant of the People.

“People are voting for the plot of the show,” said Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko. “They want to bring the plot of the show to life.” 

As Ukraine’s deadly conflict with Russian-backed separatists drags on, a 41-year-old comedian with no political experience is increasingly a favorite to take over as its commander in chief. The reason? Five years after the country’s pro-Western revolution, its people still thirst for change.

Street protests in 2014 marked a decisive turn away from Moscow, but they did far less to modernize the economy or root out corruption. President Petro Poroshenko’s government and administration have been beset by infighting and state spending scandals. The economy, suffering from weak investor confidence and the war in the heavily industrial east, still hasn’t recovered from its near-collapse five years ago. 

The most prominent candidates heading into the election campaign represented the old guard: the incumbent Poroshenko, who is also a chocolate tycoon and one of Ukraine’s richest men, and the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

For them, things have not gone according to plan. 

Zelensky, who declared his candidacy on national television on the New Year’s Eve edition of his variety show, has led Tymoshenko and Poroshenko in almost every published poll since early February. 

The building disbelief among Ukraine’s political class echoes the furor of the establishment as Zelensky’s character rises in the polls in “Servant of the People.” Voting for Zelensky for president, Tymoshenko told a Ukrainian interviewer recently, was like making the beet soup borscht out of Cheburashka, a Soviet-era cartoon character. 

“This is a sort of experiment, but it’s certainly not tasty,” Tymoshenko said. 

In “Servant of the People,” which premiered in 2015, the schoolteacher played by Zelensky becomes an overnight sensation after his impromptu rant against government corruption goes viral. 

He is elected president and goes on to fight the entrenched elites, refusing to be bought. In Season 2, which started airing in late 2017, Zelensky’s character resigns as president after facing down the International Monetary Fund and then stages an improbable, underdog reelection campaign. 

In a popular Ukrainian TV series, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky plays a president who is scrupulously honest. In real life, he's a top presidential contender. (Video: Reuters)

“We’re living in a parallel universe,” said a senior Western diplomat in Kiev who, like many colleagues, has been catching up on the show. “People are confusing what’s real and what’s fiction.” 

Coming in the wake of President Trump’s election and the success of comedian Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement in Italy, Zelensky’s rise echoes that of other outsiders storming into politics.

But it is possible that no recent presidential campaign has featured such a head-spinning blend of fact and fiction.

Just like his character in Season 2, Zelensky, the real-life candidate, has taken to addressing voters in selfie videos and recording himself talking to regular Ukrainians. Zelensky’s campaign videos on his YouTube channel include clips from “Servant of the People” interspersed amid footage from Zelensky’s actual campaign. 

Unlike his character, Zelensky has not yet pulled all the funds from his campaign coffers to install safer, glowing sidewalks across the country. And Zelensky says that as president, he wouldn’t hurl an obscenity at the IMF as his character does in the show because “in life, we don’t have the right to.” 

He claims his real-life principles do match those of the incorruptible, everyman character he plays on TV. 

“To some degree, maybe people really do have the feeling that the guy on screen and the guy in real life are one and the same person,” Zelensky told foreign journalists earlier this month in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. “This might even be true, to some extent.” 

Zelensky’s true politics are a mystery. 

He says he’s in favor of Ukraine seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, but that those moves should be endorsed by the public in a referendum. He says he’s ready to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war in eastern Ukraine, but he’s offered few specifics on how he would accomplish that without ceding any territory to Russia. 

He insists all of Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs will be equal before the courts. But critics doubt the same will hold for Ihor Kolomoyskyi, the billionaire rival of Poroshenko who owns the channel that aired Zelensky’s show. 

“It’s extremely difficult right now to say what kind of a president he’ll be,” said Fesenko, the analyst. “I think he himself doesn’t know what his politics will be.”

Zelensky asked his 2.8 million Instagram followers recently to send him their picks for prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and even security service chief and prosecutor general. Some Western diplomats in Kiev say they worry Zelensky’s inexperience will be a particular risk when dealing with Putin. The comedian has promised to negotiate with the Russian president, though he has provided few details on how he will do that.

“There needs to be some kind of negotiating table with Russia. It’s necessary to talk and discuss things,” Zelensky said in the interview with foreign journalists. 

Pressed on what he would do differently from Poroshenko in dealing with Putin, Zelensky said he would insist the Russian president explain his past actions and his demands on an official piece of paper. 

Fesenko said Zelensky is a rare candidate who has managed to transcend the divide between East and West and Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers in the country. His image is as that of a young, pro-Western actor and entrepreneur, but he hails from Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking southeast. 

Poroshenko’s campaign has focused on issues of identity and security. Many of his billboards have said “Army! Language! Faith!” and one of his achievements has been to help create a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Moscow. 

But his tenure has been overshadowed by corruption scandals, including allegations last month of embezzlement in arms procurement involving a top aide. 

The U.S. ambassador to Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch, excoriated the Ukrainian leadership for failing to do enough to fight corruption. 

“It is increasingly clear that Ukraine’s once-in-a-generation opportunity for change, for which such a high price was paid five years ago on the Maidan, has not yet resulted in the anti-corruption or rule of law reforms that Ukrainians expect or deserve,” she said earlier this month, referring to the square in central Kiev where protesters were killed in 2014.

Corruption scandals mean the rhetoric of Zelensky — and of the character he plays on TV — falls on fertile ground. 

Maxim Chinenov, a 24-year-old sailor from Crimea who lives in the southeastern port city of Odessa, said he likes Zelensky’s pledge to lift immunity from prosecution from members of parliament. 

“This would really make a difference,” Chinenov said. “People are ready to strive for something better.”

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