KYIV – The race for Ukraine’s presidency has turned into a show, and its chief spectacle is a comedian performer who has not once in nearly five months of campaigning publicly appeared before voters, choosing instead to engage them in the realm of online social media.
Also highly selective of the limited interviews he has given to journalists, front-runner Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, is the favorite ahead of incumbent Petro Poroshenko, according to two successive polls that the Rating Sociological Group has conducted since the March 31 first-round vote.
As he consistently ducked journalists, Mr. Zelensky has conveyed messages through virtual platforms on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the Telegram cellphone application.
These include videos of him bravely challenging Mr. Poroshenko to a policy debate and images of him taking a doping test at a laboratory owned by his associate. Other appearances include him in an empty Olympic Stadium in Kyiv disputing the format for a contest of words that is scheduled for April 19 and a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and foreign businesses and dignitaries in Kyiv.
Both candidates still haven’t agreed to the debate’s format yet have provisionally agreed to meet in the 70,000-capacity venue at 7 p.m. Kyiv time. In anticipation of the event, Mr. Zelensky’s team this week held a motor rally through regional capitals to bring backers to the country’s capital city.
More than 70 percent of voters who intend to vote and are decided favor the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast native whose campaign has been vague on national security and contradictory in terms of promises that don’t pertain to the president’s mandate.
Mr. Zelensky’s consultants and advisers have instead spoken for him, often contradicting each other on crucial issues that pertain to the country’s future. Personally, the candidate has provided little insight into how he would establish peace in the Moscow-stoked war in the Donbas, aside from suggesting that the U.S. and Britain be brought to the negotiating table along with Germany, France and Russia, the latter of which has indicated it will not discuss the inter-state conflict based on the false assertion that it’s not a party to it.
Nothing specific is known of which reforms he would continue, whether in health, anti-corruption or in the murky energy market. The central bank’s independence remains in question. That very same institution took Ukraine’s biggest private lender, PrivatBank, under receivership and nationalized it after a $5.5 billion hole was found on its balance sheets. PrivatBank has since turned a profit under government control.
Previously owned by billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky – whose television network has aired the front-runner’s comedy shows for seven years – PrivatBank allegedly funneled over $40 million through Mr. Zelensky’s accounts and never was paid back, purported National Deputy Volodymyr Ariev of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.
Mr. Zelensky never commented on this matter, nor did he reply to a request for a statement from The Ukrainian Weekly.
Volodymyr Zelensky presidential campaign
Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky (left, center) meets with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris on April 12.
On April 18, the Kyiv Administrative Circuit Court ruled that the nationalization of PrivatBank – a prerequisite of International Monetary Fund funding – was unlawful. The National Bank of Ukraine subsequently announced that it would appeal the ruling.
Some policies, like NATO accession, have been relegated by Mr. Zelensky to the results of referenda that are part of a campaign of “crowdsourcing” ideas that include future appointees and questions that should be posed to the incumbent during the debate – if it takes place. The neophyte politician has indicated that he supports “direct democracy” and that referenda should be held on the national and local levels on issues facing the country and specific communities.
Mr. Zelensky promised to reveal future appointees by the time of the April 19 presidential debate. The president gets to name the foreign affairs minister, the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine and, with Parliament’s approval, the central bank chief and prosecutor general.
Mr. Zelensky’s cocooned behavior has led to more than 20 Ukrainian media outlets publishing an open letter demanding that he make himself accessible no later than April 18. That hasn’t occurred.
Writing under the banner of Mediarukh (Media Movement), the letter states: “Our readers, viewers and listeners are asking questions we cannot answer since we have not once talked with you directly… Since you ignore our interview requests, we cannot fulfill this function.”
Despite his isolation from the general public, journalists have discovered that the presidential hopeful owned businesses in Russia when he announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve. One of his entertainment business entities was in the process of applying for a Russian-government grant, based on a January 18 report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Another investigation, by Kyiv-based Slidstvo.Info, found that he hadn’t declared a 15-room villa in Italy worth $4.3 million.
Furthermore, the Defense Ministry said that Mr. Zelensky had not responded to four army conscription summons to serve in 2014-2015 in the first two years of the war in easternmost Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The notice was sent to an address where he has been registered since 2008 in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast city of Kryvyi Rih. His mother told the Hromadske media outlet that she never received a conscription notice in her son’s name.
Another RFE/RL investigation found that Mr. Zelensky flew 13 times in the last two years to Geneva in Switzerland and Tel-Aviv in Israel, where Mr. Kolomoisky was known to reside outside Ukraine. Mr. Zelensky has maintained that his relationship with the businessman is purely professional and contractual. Other flights included private plane trips with Mr. Kolomoisky’s longtime business partner and former PrivatBank shareholder Gennadiy Bogolyubov.
Further reports, including one by the Reuters news agency, found links to billionaire Mr. Kolomoisky. The oligarch’s personal lawyer, Andriy Bohdan, who was seen at the candidate’s campaign headquarters on March 31 during the first round election, accompanied Mr. Zelensky on five of those flights, RFE/RL reported.
Additionally, Mr. Zelensky has used a security detail and two automobiles linked to Mr. Kolomoisky, Reuters reported.
RFE/RL also reported that the Washington lobbying firm Signal Group was hired to represent Mr. Zelensky in the past week and arranged meetings for Oleh Dubyna, a senior energy official under successful governments in the previous decade, with officials of President Donald Trump’s administration and U.S. lawmakers.
Mr. Zelensky denied that Signal’s April 12 Foreign Agents Registration Act filing on his behalf is related to him.
Poroshenko stays on the trail
Mr. Poroshenko, 58, turned his debate challenge on April 14 into a rally at Olympic Stadium as the challenger remained in France after his meeting with the French president.
The Internal Affairs ministry said 5,000 supporters assembled, whereas the incumbent’s team said that four times more were in attendance.
Mr. Poroshenko questioned Mr. Zelensky’s absence beyond rare scripted appearances.
The president appeared over the course of the next two days on local television channels ICTV, owned by oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, and the pro-Russian 112 channel and challenged Mr. Zelensky to come out. The challenger kept insisting on the April 19 date.
Regardless of the April 21 run-off outcome, Mr. Poroshenko told journalists last week that he will “accept the people’s choice because this is democracy,” even if, “God forbid,” Mr. Zelensky is elected.
According to election law, the official runoff result should be announced no later than May 1 and the inauguration should take place by June 3.
In a spontaneous six-minute TV address April 18, Mr. Poroshenko apologized for his mistakes as president and said that “what hurts the most is that I couldn’t end the war, but peace never depended on us.”
He urged voters on election day to not think about “Zelensky or Poroshenko, think about Ukraine and how to preserve it… and don’t allow [the country] to be transformed into Little Russia.”
The presidential election on April 21 will be followed in late October by parliamentary elections.
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