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As a comedian wins Ukraine's presidency by a landslide, Russians watch with awe and envy

Olga Skabeyeva and Yevgeny Popov, Russian state TV's power couple, hosted a 6-hour long live commentary show about the Ukrainian presidential debates on April 19. Photo by Rossiya 24, screencapped by Runet Echo.

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:

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.

Many Russians, however, watched the debates with envy:

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:

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)

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.

Others were filled with hope and admiration for Ukraine’s democratic success:

Ah, such a spirit-lifting sight. Not to worry, we’ll have the same in Russia soon, you’ll see.

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.

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