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The Unexpected Front-Runner In Ukraine's Election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The presidential election in Ukraine has an unexpected frontrunner. The election comes on Sunday, and many Ukrainians are disillusioned with the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko. He's been unable to end a low-level war with Russia and unable to raise living standards. Some are looking now to a comedian with no political experience and a vague platform. NPR's Lucian Kim reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE" INTRO MUSIC)

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Volodymyr Zelenskiy (ph) is one of Ukraine's most popular comedians. In his hit TV series, "Servant Of The People," he plays a history teacher who's accidentally elected Ukraine's president when a video of him ranting against dishonest politicians goes viral.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: (As Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko (ph), foreign language spoken).

KIM: Now the real-life Zelenskiy wants to repeat that fictional feat. The 41-year-old is promising to slash red tape for businesses, return Russian-occupied territory and defeat corruption. Most polls show the comedian leading with about 25 percent of the vote, which isn't enough to win Sunday's election but sufficient to get him into a runoff. The real question is who will come in second place - incumbent President Petro Poroshenko or Yulia Tymoshenko, a longtime fixture in Ukrainian politics. Compared to his opponents, Zelenskiy is a fresh face.

IVAN YAKOVINA: His main message is draining the swamp in Kiev.

KIM: Political commentator Ivan Yakovina says Zelenskiy is a largely virtual candidate.

YAKOVINA: He is not, like, making political rallies. He is, like, in YouTube, in Facebook, in Twitter only.

KIM: Zelenskiy's unlikely success makes some people suspicious about whom he's really working for. In Ukraine, business and politics are practically inseparable, and oligarchs vie for political influence. Roman Vintoniv is the host of a satirical TV news show.

ROMAN VINTONIV: I don't think Zelenskiy is independent. If you want to be president, you should be open. And you should be ready for the questions. You should be ready to show me all your team and not hide somebody.

KIM: Like many Ukrainians, he suspects Zelenskiy of being a proxy for Ihor Kolomoyskyi, a billionaire at odds with the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: At Zelenskiy's campaign headquarters in Kiev, I meet one of his top advisers, Dmytro Razumkov.

DMYTRO RAZUMKOV: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: He says Zelenskiy is absolutely not a virtual candidate and denies there are any secret links to an oligarch.

IRINA RATSEBARSKAYA: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Irina Ratsebarskaya is a fashion design student and one of Zelenskiy's campaign workers. She's talking on the phone with a supporter who wants to order some bright-green Zelenskiy campaign stickers.

RATSEBARSKAYA: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: She says she's helping Zelenskiy because she wants to change her country's future. The comedian is especially popular among young Ukrainians - but not everyone, as I hear on Independence Square in downtown Kiev.

DMITRY MYAKOTNIY: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Dmitry Myakotniy, a computer programmer, says everything Zelenskiy says is nonsense and populism and doesn't inspire any trust. But he says he still can't decide whom to vote for because he hasn't found a candidate who, in his words, won't break anything. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Kiev.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "SPRING EVENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.