Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 August 2019

Russian politicians deride comedian’s victory in Ukraine presidential vote

Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian with no political experience, has forced Ukrain's incumbent president into a runoff vote

Future Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky became well-known in the country for playing a teacher who accidentally became president in a satirical drama called 'Servant of the People'. AFP 
Future Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky became well-known in the country for playing a teacher who accidentally became president in a satirical drama called 'Servant of the People'. AFP 

As the preliminary results of Ukraine’s presidential elections trickled out overnight on Sunday, Russian lawmakers in Moscow were already raising the possibility that they would not recognise the outcome of the vote over allegations of vote rigging.

Some 35 million Ukrainians were eligible to vote on Sunday in a closely fought election whose front-runners included a cast of longstanding politicians, political neophytes, and a comedian with no political experience at all.

Of the three favourites, Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister known as “the gas princess” for leading an energy company in the 1990s, lost out to incumbent Petro Poroshenko, dubbed “the chocolate king” for his confectionary business.

Racing ahead of both in the polls, however, with more than 30 percent of the vote on Monday morning, was Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian with no actual political experience. Instead, Mr Zelensky – who was playing ping pong at his campaign headquarters as the votes were counted – acts as a fictional president in a popular television series called "Servant of the People."

The Central Elections Commission on Monday confirmed the vote will go to a runoff later in April between Messrs Zelensky and Poroshenko, who had just 16 percent of the vote as of Monday morning.

Konstantin Kosachev, a lawmaker and the chairman of the Federation Council's Committee on Foreign Affairs, said it was too soon to decide whether Russia would recognise the vote and that the decision would be left up to President Vladimir Putin. But, he said, "I do not rule out any option.”

Russia has a close interest in the election results. It has been locked in a military conflict with Ukraine since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea from Ukraine. Whoever wins the runoff vote in April will be tasked with negotiating with Mr Putin and resolving a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine where a majority of the population are ethnic Russians.

“We need to wait and see how the Ukrainian government deals with thousands of reports about irregularities, submitted after the first round," Mr Kosachev told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

Even before the polls opened on Sunday, Russian politicians were preparing to condemn the outcome. On March 27, three days before the vote, the firebrand leader of Liberal Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky said he had submitted a bill to the lower house of parliament to denounce the results.

Mr Poroshenko has sought to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union and NATO since he was elected president in 2014. His first term has been marred widespread allegations of corruption and a failure to resolve the war in the east of the country against separatists backed by the Kremlin.

The confectionery magnate came to power following a series of street protests on Maidan Square Kiev in 2013 which led the ouster of the Kremlin-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych.

Earlier in March, Mr Poroshenko criticised Mr Putin for visiting the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine five years ago this month. During the visit, Putin inaugurated two power stations and told crowds that the Kremlin was still at the beginning stages of integrating Crimea into Russia.

The chairman of Russia's Foreign Affairs Committee, Leonid Slutsky, on Monday morning said the preliminary election results reflected Mr Poroshenko’s failure as a president.

"The preliminary election results attest to the failure of the ‘Maidan’ president’s policy, who came to power as a result of a coup and is waging a war against his own people,” he said, noting that the incumbent had gained half as many votes as a “comic” and “showman.”

For Dmitri Trenin, the Director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, even though Mr Poroshenko won half as many votes as Mr Zelensky, the results should be a confidence boost for the incumbent. The Ukrainian electorate and Russia, however, have less to look forward to, he said.

“Coming very much from behind, Poroshenko has achieved hard-won victory by getting through into the run-off election, in which he is likely to prevail,” he wrote on Twitter. “For Russia-Ukraine relations, no change. Little change for Ukraine itself.”

Mr Kosachev, the lawmaker, expressed dissatisfaction with that status quo to Radio Ekho Moskvy, saying that a good outcome for Russia would be a runoff without Mr Poroshenko.

"For Russia, any Ukrainian president other than Poroshenko would be better,” he said. “We clearly understand that in case of his re-election, Ukraine would step up its anti-Russian policies."

Updated: April 1, 2019 05:48 PM

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