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Russians rejoice as their favorite Ukrainian presidential hopeful, a comedian with no political experience, wins first round

Volodymyr Zelensky (fourth from right), the unexpected frontrunner in Ukrainian presidential elections, tours with District 95, a TV comedy troupe he co-founded in 2003. Photo by Vadim Chuprina, CC 4.0

On March 31, Ukrainians voted on the first round on its presidential elections. This is the seventh time the country will choose its president since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991—and the second since the so-called Revolution of Dignity unseated then-president Viktor Yanukovich and elected Petro Poroshenko by a landslide amid a looming war with Russia over the breakaway regions of Eastern Ukraine.

Since then, the popularity of Poroshenko, who is seeking reelection this year, has dropped sharply, but no other candidate has mustered enough support to take his place — except one.

Forty-one-year-old comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, whose main experience in politics consists of playing the lead role in a TV series about a history teacher who accidentally becomes president, won the first round with 30 percent of the total vote and a 13-point lead over runner-up Poroshenko. Such is the disillusionment of Ukrainian voters in conventional candidates — there were 39 in total on the ballot.

The elections attracted intense attention from neighboring Russia, with state television channels—usually extremely hostile to post-Maidan Ukraineattempting to paint a picture of chaos and disarray:

However, both pro-Kremlin channels and opposition-minded Russians have been sympathetic to Zelensky, for different reasons. Many pointed out that the very fact that an outlier like Zelensky can pose a serious threat to establishment politicians is worthy of praise and envy in a country like Russia, where presidential elections don’t give voters much of a choice.

The fact that an incumbent president can lose an election is a testament to a healthy democracy. That sometimes happens even in Africa, but for us it’s still an exotic notion.

My Twitter feed is divided: Ukrainians are saying that the country has gone mad and is doomed for electing a comic, wannabe actor instead of someone older and experienced, while Russians think that it’s great that Ukraine can elect a comic, a wannabe actor or even someone’s puppet instead of an ageing member of bureaucratic elite.

I don’t understand why Poroshenko and others are so dismissive of Zelensky’s career in standup comedy. I have many friends who were on KVN [a Russian humor show dating back to 1961]. Most of them are extremely bright people. Much smarter than most Russian politicians at least.

Others focused on Zelensky’s ethnicity, saying that a Jewish president might be too progressive even for the United States:

I’m not at all sympathetic towards Zelensky, but electing a Jew in a post-Soviet country with a high level of anti-Semitism is cool as it is
It’s worth noting that even America has never had an atheist president

However, given Ukraine’s tense relations with Russia — after all, the two countries are at war, albeit an undeclared one — it’s inconceivable for a Ukrainian politician who values their office to express any sympathy towards Russia. That fact didn’t escape Zelensky’s Russian fans:

Today is the last day when it’s fine to say something nice about Zelensky. Starting from Monday, he’ll have to get tough on Russia. So, I’ve been a huge fan of this actor! And I’ll still be rooting for him today, with apologies to my only Ukrainian follower who will be voting for Poroshenko.

Meanwhile, Russian state TV’s power couple, Olga Skabeyeva and Evgeny Popov, the hosts of popular talk show “60 Minutes”, ran a live-streamed election night marathon, endorsing Zelensky’s candidacy on air and cheering on his lead in the polls.

That gave Ukrainian observers and candidates, including Zelensky’s competitor in the second round, grounds to think that Zelensky is the preferred candidate for Russia because he’s weak:

Zelensky, however, didn’t mince words when pressed for answers on his Russia policies:

However, Zelensky does not actually have many coherent policy proposals beyond that, and now he will be facing off seasoned politician Petro Poroshenko, not a motley crew of filler candidates. It's as of yet unclear who his Russian fans will be rooting for in the second round, scheduled for April 21.

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