Ukrainians caught a possible glimpse of the future on Friday, as comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy met French leader Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace in Paris, nine days before the political novice seeks to become his country’s next president.
A few close advisers joined Mr Zelenskiy for his first such encounter with a foreign head of state, just hours before current Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko met Mr Macron after holding talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mr Zelenskiy comfortably won the first round of their election battle on March 31st and, as an increasingly bitter campaign enters its final stretch, polls give him a commanding advantage over the incumbent ahead of their April 21st run-off.
Having led the country through the aftermath of the 2014 Maidan revolution, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a continuing war with Moscow-led militia in eastern Ukraine, Mr Poroshenko is telling voters that it would be dangerous to replace him with an actor famous for playing the president in a television comedy.
Mr Poroshenko’s supporters, meanwhile, have used social media to make unsubstantiated claims about Mr Zelenskiy’s alleged cocaine use, adding an edge to preparations for a televised debate next week and prompting both candidates to take drug tests.
Stance on reform
The comedian’s campaign team, whose snappy posts and videos have helped swell his popularity, released a short clip showing him sitting opposite Mr Macron and flanked by former Ukrainian finance minister Oleksandr Danyliuk and anti-corruption expert Ruslan Riaboshapka.
There was no immediate information on what was discussed, but analysts said France was keen to gauge Mr Zelenskiy’s attitude towards reforms that have moved slowly under Mr Poroshenko, and his stance on the war in the Donbas region that has killed 13,000 people and displaced 1.6 million.
Mr Zelenskiy (41) has pledged to intensify efforts to fight corruption and to make Ukraine’s struggling economy more attractive to foreign investors, and he has advocated including the US and UK in moribund peace talks that currently involve Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany.
He has failed to flesh out promises with policy detail, however, and he has rejected Mr Poroshenko’s call to meet for a debate this Sunday as well next Friday, when Kiev’s 70,000-capacity Olimpiyskiy Stadium is earmarked for the event.
They sparred over the issue on Ukrainian television on Thursday evening, when Mr Zelenskiy called into a political talk show on which Mr Poroshenko was appearing, prompting an unedifying exchange in which the pair talked over the top of each other until the comic said goodbye and hung up.
“You really expect me to comment on that?” Mr Poroshenko (53) said in Berlin. “I’m sure that those who watched the programme saw everything themselves and are able to draw conclusions.”
After talks with Dr Merkel, Mr Poroshenko emphasised Ukraine’s need for statesmanship and expressed his determination to lead the country towards the EU and Nato.
The confectionary billionaire also said that Mr Zelenskiy’s popularity mirrored the success of other anti-establishment politicians around the world: “I don’t think it’s anything special . . . that in Ukraine ‘non-systemic’ politicians are getting certain results today.”