As It Happens

Comedian who played Ukraine's president on TV in the lead to become actual president

Before Volodymyr Zelenskiy ran for his country's highest office, he starred in a TV series about a regular man who fights corruption and becomes president.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy represents 'fresh air that this country badly needs,' says his adviser

Ukrainian comic actor and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy gives a thumbs up as he visits his campaign headquarters following a presidential election in Kiev on Sunday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)
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Before Volodymyr Zelenskiy ran for Ukraine's highest office, he starred in a TV series about a regular man who fights corruption and becomes president.

With nearly 92% of the polling stations counted, Zelenskiy — star of Netflix's Servant of the People — had 30 per cent support in Sunday's vote, while incumbent president Petro Poroshenko was a distant second with just under 16 per cent. They will face off in a run-off election next month.

If Zelenskiy wins, the comedian-turned-politician will take the helm of a country five years deep into conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has left 13,000 dead since 2014.

Aivaras Abromavicius, Ukraine's former economic development minister and an adviser to Zelenskiy, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about his boss' presidential campaign.

Here is part of their conversation.

Are Ukrainians so fed up with their politicians they're willing to elect a comedian who plays the president on TV?

Absolutely, and in this respect, Ukraine is no different from many other countries — Brazil; my home country [of] Lithuania, where presidential election is looming in May and we have a frontrunner, also a novice in politics; and Saturday elections in Slovakia, where a female anti-corruption fighter and anti-establishment figure has been elected as president.

So [there is] a huge demand for new faces in Ukrainian politics as well.

But you're talking about a range when you speak of Slovakia or Brazil. Completely different politics, right? In Brazil, somebody who is a populist, who's taken [the country] much further to the right. A Slovakian who's taking it into liberalism. Where do we put Mr. Zelenskiy?

Clearly, he is a pro-liberal camp, especially when it comes to personal liberties, as has been now the trend in Central Europe. Perhaps a bit more socially-sensitive economic policies.

But a top priority as I see it at the moment of his presidency should be and will be fighting corruption, which has not been a successful agenda point when it comes to the incumbent president.

Zelenskiy hosting a comedy show at a concert hall in Brovary, Ukraine, on Friday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

People want to know, will Mr. Zelenskiy,  should he become the president of Ukraine, will he pull you more toward the European Union or will he pull you more toward the Russian sphere?

I think he's a modern, pro-Western Ukrainian, even though a Russian speaker like such a substantial part of Ukraine.

He has clearly expressed his views towards Russia. He has called the Russians the terrorists. He clearly admits and acknowledges that, you know, temporary occupied territories, including Crimea, need to be returned.

So I think we are quite safe when it comes to his geopolitical views, and only his opponents tried to stir up some confusion, which is not there, from my point of view.

[Poroshenko] has said that to have Mr. Zelenskiy as the president is Vladimir Putin's dream. This is a quote, he said: "Vladimir Putin dreams of a soft, submissive, gentle, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically uncertain president."  What do you say back to Mr. Poroshenko? Is there any truth to that?

I think that Vladimir Putin knows very well how to deal with traditional Ukrainian politicians, including Poroshenko and including [third-place presidential candidate Yulia] Tymoshenko, with whom he has dealt on a number of occasions in different roles.

He doesn't know how to deal with a new politician like Zelenskiy.

Some are even suggesting, though, that Vladimir Putin would be possibly quite nervous about someone like Mr. Zelenskiy becoming the president because it sends a signal that, hey, you know, anything's possible. Maybe we don't have to keep with the status quo. Maybe there are other possibilities. So what does he represent? What do you think Mr. Zelenskiy — beyond whatever he can do as president — what does he represent as a new leader?

As a new leader, I think he represents, you know, some fresh air that this country badly needs.

Because Maidan, the Revolution of Dignity, was very much about bringing justice. But the incumbent president has not been able to bring that justice.

The law enforcement agencies, the justice system has not been reformed. And this is complaint No. 1 when it comes to Poroshenko.

Someone like Zelenskiy can bring that hope again and possibly be a catalyst for a wave of a new generation of politicians, you know, going into the parliament, going into the government and really pushing Ukraine, you know, closer towards Europe, towards Poland in living standards, in economic development standards, and you know, values wise.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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