UKRCandidatePresidentKiev—Political newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky has become a surprise hit on the Ukrainian political stage with his anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform. In fact, in interviews, it's hard to tell if it is Mr. Zelensky the candidate speaking or the hapless teacher he plays on the hit television comedy, "Servant of the People."

Regardless, it's resonating in the lead up to the presidential vote March 31, says Wojciech Kononczuk, the head of the Department for Ukraine at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. Polls show he’s taken the lead over Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko.

“I think that many voters don't believe in the real Mr. Zelensky but in the image of him as an actor," said Mr. Kononczuk. "He plays a humble and very honest history teacher who by accident is elected the next Ukrainian president. I think that many voters believe that it could be repeated in real life.”

For the past three years, Mr. Zelensky has starred in “Servant of the People” while also naming his new party after the show, which features a teacher fighting against the country’s oligarchs and trying to fix the country.

The show – and the candidate – are appealing because many Ukrainians are tired of the country's oligarchs and elite, say voters.

"Why not him for president," asked Olga Kulov, 27, of Kiev, referring to Zelensky. "I don't know if he will do well. But I want to give someone new a chance to try."

Even though Mr. Zelensky’s got the star appeal, Mr. Kononczuk says his platform is vague and worse, his statements on the war in the east of the country are naïve: He has said he would be able to solve the stalemate in the east by sitting down with Vladimir Putin and "meeting him halfway."

There are also concerns over his financial backing: Mr. Zelensky’s show is shown on Channel 1+1 owned by Ukrainian billionaire oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, known for his questionable tactics in taking over companies and who has been accused of theft.

Kolomoisky's support of Mr. Zelensky’s campaign is unconfirmed but his channel has featured very pro-Zelensky content in the run up to the election. Also, there is speculation among pundits that Kolomoisky is trying to get back at Poroshenko for firing him as governor of the eastern Ukrainian province of Dnipropetorsk.

“His ties to Ihor Kolomoisky, although they are denied by both sides, are very hard to completely ignore," said Ukraine regional researcher for Amnesty International, Krasimir Yankov of Zelensky. "(It's also hard to ignore) that that they will not play a role in the potential future presidency of Mr. Zelensky.”

Andrey Dikhtyarenko, editor of Realna Gazeta, one of Ukraine’s independent news outlets, says there's no question though as to why Mr. Zelensky is so appealing to voters – and that has nothing to do with his plans for reform.

“I would say this is a protest vote," he said. "People see that that there is no worthy candidate and they very much would want to throw a spanner in the higher echelons of politics and place at the top a totally new figure. This new figure happens to be a comedian and actor Zelensky.”

Analysts say Ukraine is ripe for change. While the country's economy has grown in the low-single digits in the past two years, unemployment remains at almost 9 percent, and per capita income at under $9,000 income. The World Bank says that growth will slow this year if major reforms are not enacted. Meanwhile, the war in the east continues to plague the country, and drain its resources.

Mr. Poroshneko came into power after the revolution five years ago and turned Ukraine decisively away from Russia and toward the West and Europe. However, during his tenure, he’s made slow progress in reforms and tackling corruption, analysts say.

Even so, he's the stalwart candidate for many in these unstable times: Many voters say he is the least bad choice, and brings stability and experience with him, as well as solid support in Europe.

“I will be voting for Poroshenko – I will vote for a candidate with who I am familiar with and someone who will continue on the democratic path rather than stray toward a totalitarian state," said Irina Dovgan, 57, who fled eastern Ukraine for Kiev. "What I expect from Poroshenko, and the most important thing to me, is the country’s path toward NATO membership and the European Union.”

Meanwhile, trailing in third is two-time former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, 56, who has wanted to regain her former post even as she lacks credibility.

“She was highly influential in the past and would like to regain the power again but not for the sake of fixing the country or to implement some reforms but rather for power as a power," said Mr. Kononczuk.

Still, it's undecided voters – currently about 20 percent, according to the latest polls – who will make or break the election, analysts said.

Olga Ivanova, 35, from Kiev, who works at a charitable foundation, says a lot of people she knows are lost as to who to vote for.

“The problem is that there is no trust," she said. "(It's become about) who is more handsome, who is cool and who is not cool, and that’s very sad.”

Even so, it's clear that the two establishment candidates – Timoshenko and Poroshenko – are getting desperate, not least because of Mr. Zelensky's popularity.

“We see from their statements weeks before the crucial vote that they are (behaving as) complete populists," said Mr. Yankov. "They will say whatever is needed, even if they contradict themselves, to get that extra percentage point.”

Jabeen Bhatti contributed from Berlin.

Photo: Screenshot of comedian Volodymyr Zelensky during an interview with Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon, in "Visiting Gordon."
Credit: Courtesy of "Visiting Gordon" official YouTube page. (12/25/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 03/17/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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