Apr 18, 2019

Ukraine's TV president on verge of turning fiction into reality

"Are you politically active?" Zelensky undergoes a blood test in Kiev ahead of his debate with Poroshenko. Photo: AFP/Getty

Ukraine appears to be 3 days away from electing a man best known for playing a president on TV as its actual president.

Why it matters: One recent poll shows Volodymyr Zelensky leading incumbent President Petro Poroshenko by a whopping 47 points ahead of Sunday's runoff. It's all the more remarkable because Zelensky has hardly campaigned and has few clear policy positions.

  • Poroshenko's unpopularity is tied to his failure to tackle corruption. The president has suggested the inexperienced Zelensky would be a dream come true for Vladimir Putin.
  • What to watch: Zelensky is slated to debate Poroshenko on Friday in front of a crowd of up to 60,000 at Ukraine's national stadium.

Claire Kaiser, an expert on Eastern Europe at McLarty Associates, says that if Zelensky wins, he'll have to build a strong national security team and send an early signal he has a handle on foreign policy.

  • "Anyone running the show in Ukraine has the dual challenge of managing the economy and finding some sort of solution to the war in the East," she says.
  • Kaiser says Zelensky hasn't sent any signals that he plans to shift Ukraine's orientation away from Europe and the U.S., so while "there will definitely be a getting to know you phase," U.S. policy toward Ukraine is unlikely to change significantly.
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