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VICE News

Meet the comedian about to become Ukraine's next president

An actor who plays the Ukrainian president on TV looks set to do it for real.

by Sean Stephens
Apr 7 2019, 12:59pm

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s second presidential election since the 2014 revolution is an unlikely race between the current president, Petro Poroshenko and a popular TV star, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Poroshenko’s popularity has faded considerably five years after he took office. Many voters are frustrated at the slow pace of reforms, a stagnant economy, and the ongoing war with Russia in the east which has seen 13,000 fatalities.

"I don’t feel any kind of euphoria," Poroshenko told reporters at a press conference after the exit poll figures were announced Sunday evening. "I critically and soberly understand the signal that society gave today."

And he might have an uphill battle to stay in office. The run-off on April 21 is Zelensky’s to lose. The comedian and actor has led almost every opinion poll since he announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve.

Zelensky has zero political experience, but he’s familiar with being President — because he plays one in a popular TV comedy show, Servant of the People.

That inexperience hasn’t put voters off though.

"We need a person who can take the complete mess we have, find something to monetize, and grow our economy," Mikhail Fedorov told VICE News at Zelensky’s digital campaign hub. Mikhail Fedorov left his IT consultancy job to run Zelensky’s online campaign. "It doesn't matter whether he has a political background or something academic, or whatever. I think the fact that he doesn't have political experience is actually a plus."

Mikhail took part in the protests in 2014 — back then, he voted for Poroshenko, a decision he now regrets.

"My mom's salary is only enough to pay for her utilities. For the older generation, everything got much worse — our grandparents can't pay their bills."

It’s hard to see Zelensky’s star fading, but his relationship with oligarch Igor Kolomoisky could be his undoing. The day before the first round, the TV channel 1+1 — which Kolomoisky owns — filled its schedule with back-to-back shows by the comedian and actor. But Zelensky dismisses the claims he’s just a puppet.

"First of all, nobody finances our shows," he told VICE News. "We produce everything at our expense and then sell to the TV channel 1+1. That is important."

VICE News met Zelensky backstage at a taping of his popular comedy sketch show, League of Laughter just days before the first vote.

"I would put corruption to the top of the problems to tackle and I would also want to stop the Donbass war because we don't want our people to perish any more." Scant on further detail, Zelensky still bristled at the idea he’s thin on strategy. "The Donbass war is not a vague thing. This is a particular problem that applies to us, Ukrainians, most of all. Because Ukrainians die and it is very painful." One thing the showman is clear on, he’s ready to take office: "why not?" he laughs.

This segment originally aired March, 29, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.