Ukraine's presidential runoff wrapped up with a crushing defeat to incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who lost by a 50-point margin to the 41-year-old comic actor with no political experience, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Zelenskiy seems to have embodied a widespread dissatisfaction with Poroshenko's government, particularly with the war against a Russia-backed insurgency in the eastern regions that has claimed 13,000 lives on both sides over the past five years.
While it's too early to say how a political novice will fare as a head of state, the elections that brought him to victory were attentively followed by an audience of millions across the contested border with Russia.
Russians have been glued to their screens as they watched a rare show: a genuinely unpredictable elections campaign where an incumbent can hold debates with an outsider, lose the vote, and concede peacefully.
When the two presidential candidates debated on a half-full stadium in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on April 19, both government-owned TV networks and several independent outlets from Russia ran simultaneous live broadcasts and online video streams.
Meduza, an independent news website, noted that TV debates in Russia’s own presidential elections in 2018 barely got any airtime—with the frontrunner, Vladimir Putin, not even participating—in comparison to the wall-to-wall coverage of Ukraine’s stadium debates:
Да, российскому ТВ украинские выборы интереснее российских.https://t.co/RedyixXBpw
— Meduza (@meduzaproject) 18 апреля 2019 г.
Yes, Russian TV is more interested in Ukrainian elections than in Russia’s own.
The Bell, another independent news website, counted six million views of the Friday debate on the largest Russian YouTube channels.
In addition to watching the debates online or on TV, or reading one of the many live blogs, Russians also took to Twitter en masse to comment and express a whole range of emotions. Sure, Russia’s state television—which is extremely hostile to Ukraine—mocked and derided the debates, casting the elections as a circus, a sign of Ukraine’s imminent collapse.
Not sure this is the lesson most Russians will take. TV broadcast the “debate” because the execs view it as a circus and cautionary tale. Anecdotal evidence goes both ways, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t drop the confetti for Ukraine’s “info success” just yet. https://t.co/UranKu5kGX
— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) 19 апреля 2019 г.
Russian state TV hosts spend an hour trying to convince viewers that today’s debate in Kiev was a pointless and cynical farce, naturally without mentioning last time Putin took part in such a debate as a candidate. Which was, uh, when again? https://t.co/gcewHcf1YP
— Joshua Yaffa (@yaffaesque) 19 апреля 2019 г.
Many Russians, however, watched the debates with envy:
Ukrainian debates were watched by almost half a million people on Nabalny Live YouTube channel alone. Many more watched it on Dozhd, RBC and many online outlets with audiences sympathetic to Ukraine. Don’t think it was for the circus.
— Leonid Ragozin (@leonidragozin) 20 апреля 2019 г.
I got an incredible lift out of the Ukrainian debate. Someday, we Russians will do similar things (with better results, I hope). Zelensky wins this one; does Ukraine win? Well, I don't believe so, but I sang the anthem with them. Hope dies last.
— Leonid Bershidsky (@Bershidsky) 19 апреля 2019 г.
Оказывается, президентов можно на выборах менять. Обалдеть. Вы знали вообще?
— ivan davydov (@ivan_f_davydov) 22 апреля 2019 г.
Turns out, you can actually use elections to change presidents! Mind-blowing. Did you even know?
Many pointed out the irony of so much attention to a political theater by a country where real political debates or elections haven’t happened in years:
Надеюсь российское ТВ продолжит традицию передирания офигенных украинских шоу и зафигачит такие же огненные дебаты на президентских выборах (нет)
— с у л т а н о с (@sult) 19 апреля 2019 г.
I hope Russian TV continues its tradition of ripping off awesome Ukrainian shows and holds similarly fiery debates for the presidential elections (it won’t)
Russian state media all over the presidential debates in Ukraine. Showing live on Rossiya 24 with commentators on stand by.
Worth remembering that Putin has never participated in a debate as a presidential candidate. pic.twitter.com/uaq22gXuxV
— Maria Antonova (@mashant) 19 апреля 2019 г.
A telling scene: I’m @ closed discussion club in Moscow hosted by one biz elite. A guest watching Ukr debates on phone. Speaker discussing Ru Econ policy&prognosis, lamenting unlikelihood of liberalization, growth. Ends w toast “to being able to have such debates here one day”
— Noah Sneider (@NoahSneider) 19 апреля 2019 г.
Я не очень понимаю как на выборах в другой стране можно за кого-то топить всерьез, а не как за любимый клуб нхл, и в этой вот системе сложно не топить за зеленского, конечно. Но для меня это политическое шоу, которого мы лишены уже лет 25, имею право удивляться дебатам и прочему
— P. (@3insy) 19 апреля 2019 г.
I don’t quote understand how you can seriously root for someone in another country’s elections, unlike a favorite NHL club, and in this system it’s hard not to root for Zelensky, of course. But it’s a political show of the kind we haven’t had for 25 years, so I have the right to be amazed at these debates and everything else.
Journalist Oleg Kashin, a prominent journalist, posted a meme with Putin saying to famous Russian comedian Mikhail Galustyan “Don’t even think about it!” — a reference to the fact that a popular TV personality challenged the president and won an election.
— Kashin⚓Kashin⚓Kashin (@KSHN) 22 апреля 2019 г.
Others were filled with hope and admiration for Ukraine’s democratic success:
Эх, духоподъемное зрелище. Ну ничего, скоро и в России так будет, вот увидите.
— Roman Dobrokhotov (@Dobrokhotov) 19 апреля 2019 г.
Ah, such a spirit-lifting sight. Not to worry, we’ll have the same in Russia soon, you’ll see.
Блестящая речь Порошенко с признанием поражения и поздравлениями Зеленскому. И революция их называлась Революцией Достоинства и ведут они себя достойно!
— Leonid Gozman (@Leonid_Gozman) 22 апреля 2019 г.
A brilliant speech from Poroshenko where he conceded defeat and congratulated Zelensky. Their revolution was nicknamed the Revolution of Dignity, and they are behaving in a dignified way!
And even though state loyalists were uniformly dismissive—Russian foreign ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the debates a “tent circus” while Vladimir Putin on Monday refrained from calling Zelensky to congratulate him, as other world leaders did—it’s clear that many Russians are more interested in their neighbors’ politics than their own.