Comedy, drama, and the Ukraine election

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 18th of April, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: comedy and drama in Ukraine.

Europe’s only active war is now in its sixth year. Russian separatists took over eastern Ukraine in 2014, and Moscow quickly annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

More than 10,000 Ukrainians have died in the conflict. And since its foray into Ukraine, Russia’s bad behavior elsewhere has only gotten worse.

Washington and its NATO allies want to bolster Ukraine in the struggle.  But an interesting election is underway that makes things more complicated.

REICHARD: Ukraine is about to elect a new president. Two candidates will face off in a second round of voting on Monday. The incumbent is a wealthy oligarch known as “the chocolate king” for his candy business.

His rival? A TV star and comedian with no political experience. But he does play a president on television.

WORLD Radio’s Jill Nelson explains why the comedian is leading in the polls and what’s at stake for Ukraine and the West.

AUDIO: [Sound of Maidan revolution]

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Ukrainians are tired of Moscow’s meddling. That frustration fueled the 2014 revolution that ousted a president with close ties to the Kremlin.

Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko, is no friend of Moscow’s, but many Ukrainians say he hasn’t done enough to fight corruption.

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky says he can do better.

AUDIO: [Servant of the People trailer]

Zelensky is the producer and star of a hit TV series called Servant of the People, now available on Netflix. He plays a high school history teacher whose rant about corruption is caught on video, earning him instant fame and the presidency.

Now, it seems many Ukrainians like this theme enough to see it replayed in real life. Zelensky swept the first round presidential elections with 30 percent of the vote. Poroshenko got just 16 percent.

Zelensky’s character in the TV show is honest and frugal:

AUDIO: [Sound of TV scene]

In one scene, the new president saves money by ditching his security detail and taking the bus to work.

Ukrainians long for that kind of leader. Just days before the first round of voting, the constitutional court struck down Ukraine’s primary anti-corruption law. And the country’s defense department is embroiled in an embezzlement scandal.

Steven Pifer is a Brookings Institution scholar and former ambassador to Ukraine. He says Zelensky’s first-round win was a huge protest vote.

PIFER: I think there’s a lot of frustration in people about the lack of further progress in curtailing corruption, in particular curtailing the outsized political and economic influence of oligarchs. Poroshenko is seen by many as part of the oligarch class.

But critics of the 41-year-old Zelensky argue he’s not qualified to lead a country or deal with Putin’s Russia. U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker shared his perspective with PBS in early April.

VOLKER: Do they want someone who is just going against the establishment, promising massive reform? Or do they want someone who maybe has been disappointing to them in some respects, but has done more on reform than anyone else has in Ukraine for the past 20 years and stood up to Putin?

No matter who wins the April 21st runoff election, he will need assistance to stand up to the Russian superpower.

During its 70th anniversary this month, NATO approved a support package for Ukraine that includes an increased NATO presence in the Black Sea.

The U.S. also has provided lethal weapons and military training to Ukraine. About 150 American soldiers will arrive in mid-April to help develop a combat training center.

Pifer says the U.S. owes that much to Ukraine. Back in the 1990s, Washington convinced Kiev to get rid of its nuclear arsenal, the third largest in the world.

PIFER: Nobody expected what happened in 2014. My guess it that had the Ukrainians had some inkling about that, they may not have given up their nuclear weapons.

The U.S. also signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, along with Great Britain and Russia. All three countries committed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. Pifer says Russia has clearly violated the agreement.

PIFER: I took part in these negotiations personally.  I was telling the Ukrainians, if there’s a violation of the assurances, we’re gonna care, we’re going to pay attention.

The winner of the election will have to deal with those violated assurances, and so far, Zelensky hasn’t articulated a plan for pushing back the Kremlin. But he has created a high drama campaign season.

AUDIO: [Sound of Zelensky video]

In one slick video, Zelensky strutted across Ukraine’s largest soccer stadium as he challenged his opponent to a debate and listed his demands. Then, he gave Poroshenko 24 hours to respond.

AUDIO: [Sound of Poroshenko video]

Poroshenko accepted in a much more subdued video response, but he issued a stern warning: “There’s no room for jokes here.”

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.

(AP Photo/Sergei Grits) Cardboard images of presidential candidates Volodymyr Zelensky, foreground, and Yulia Tymoshenko, right, on display in central Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, March 28, 2019. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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