In blow to Poroshenko, Macron to receive Zelenskiy before presidential run-off

Ukrainian showman and comedian, and Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy (C) speaks with journalists after undergoing a drugs and alcohol tests, which is a precondition to participate in a policy debate ahead of the second round of a presidential election, in Kiev, Ukraine, 5 April 2019. [Stepan Franko/EPA/EFE]

Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a political novice and favourite to win Kyiv’s presidential vote, will head to Paris Friday (12 April) to meet French President Emmanuel Macron.

While many dismissed as a joke his bid to lead Ukraine — a country at war with Moscow-backed rebels — Zelenskiy defeated President Petro Poroshenko in the presidential vote’s first round. Polls predict he will also win the election’s run-off next Sunday.

Not an April spoof: Comedian races ahead in Ukrainian presidential election

A comedian with no political experience raced ahead in Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday (31 March), offering a fresh face to voters fed up with entrenched corruption in a country on the frontline of the West’s standoff with Russia.

The actor, whose only political experience is playing the president in a TV show, is due to meet Macron at the Elysée palace.

Poroshenko, meanwhile, will head to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, before also meeting Macron in Paris later the same day.

The Ukrainian leader said the pre-election talks in France and Germany are crucial for “the fate of the Ukrainian state and of European security”.

They were “especially important”, he said, in the face of “attempts” to lift Western sanctions against Russia, imposed on Moscow after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

France and Germany are part of the so-called Normandy peace talks with Ukraine and Russia that aim to end a conflict between Kyiv and the Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The war has killed 13,000 people over the past five years.

Kyiv and its Western allies accuse Russia of supporting the rebels militarily. Moscow denies that.

Poroshenko, a 53-year-old former foreign minister, has positioned himself as the only candidate able to stand up to the Kremlin.

He is eager to make up lost ground before the run-off vote by showing off his experience and oratory.

Zelenskiy has said he will only debate Poroshenko in Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium, which seats over 70,000 people. The Ukrainian president has agreed, but the pair have so far given different dates for the event.

‘Strange situation’

Zelenskiy, 41, has shunned traditional rallies, instead performing satirical shows and capitalising on frustration over corruption and economic trouble.

By welcoming him, Paris has caused some annoyance in Kyiv.

“This is a very unpleasant and strange situation,” a high-ranking Ukrainian diplomatic source told AFP.

Analysts say the decision to host the comedian is explained by his success in the 31 March first round, when he won 30% of the vote. Poroshenko took almost 16%.

A new poll released Thursday showed 61% of Ukrainians intend to vote for Zelenskiy in the second round on Sunday. It found only 24% would back Poroshenko.

“France is showing that it knows what the direction the Ukrainian electorate is heading in towards and that it has to make contact,” said Leonid Litra, an analyst at the Kyiv-based New Europe Center.

Meeting Macron would allow the actor to make clear his vision of the peace process in eastern Ukraine that has currently stalled, Litra said.

Zelenskiy has suggested including the UK and the US in peace talks.

Despite Zelenskiy’s inexperience, Litra said there is little risk of the frontrunner committing a serious faux-pas in Paris.

“It is not complicated to exchange courtesies. He knows how to do that,” he said.

Despite the flamboyant media spectacle, the stakes are high for Ukraine, a country of 45 million seen as the biggest frontier between the European Union and Russia.

In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and war erupted in eastern Ukraine.

Before the conflict with separatists began, Zelenskiy had struck a conciliatory tone, saying he was ready to “kneel” in front of Putin to avoid a military conflict.

After the first round of the vote, he said he would ask the Kremlin for compensation for the war and for taking Crimea.

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