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Drug tests & stadium debate: How Ukraine presidential duel has turned into a reality TV SHOW

Drug tests & stadium debate: How Ukraine presidential duel has turned into a reality TV SHOW
The three weeks leading up to Ukraine's presidential run-off are set to become an all-out spectacle, as the two contenders – incumbent Petro Poroshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky – stop at nothing in their absurd duel.

The comedian not only managed to win almost twice as many votes as the president in the first round, but has cranked up his trolling campaign to the max. A video of Zelensky accepting Poroshenko's challenge, and in turn setting his conditions for a duel, shows him fully tapping into his showman vibe. Walking in epic slow motion into the center of Ukraine's Olimpiyskiy stadium, with blues guitar music playing in the background, he speaks in his signature gravelly voice.

You challenge me to a debate. Did you hope I would run, tune out, hide? No. I’m not you in 2014.

'2014' is a reference to Poroshenko's refusal to hold a similar debate that year with Yulia Tymoshenko, when he said war is no time for political shows. This time, however, he appears to be getting pulled into just that. Zelensky, who excels putting on a show, seems to be deliberately maneuvering his opponent into familiar ground. He is demanding that the debate takes place in that same Olimpiyskiy stadium, that every channel has the right to stream it, and no media is denied access.

But the requirements do not stop at there, with the comedian demanding to exclude "alcoholics or drug addicts" from the debates… with a publicized medical test of each candidate. This is an apparent dig at Poroshenko over persistent rumors of a booze dependency problem. At the same time, Zelensky demands respect fit for a candidate, banning disparaging references to him – such as a Kremlin stooge, a redneck or a clown.

Poroshenko has previously derided the comedian as a "Kolomoysky puppet" – referring to the powerful rival oligarch Igor Kolomoysky who owns the TV channel where Zelensky runs his studio's shows.

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Given 24 hours do decide, Poroshenko appears to have taken the bait, agreeing to both the stadium debate and the drug test. But his tactics are the opposite to that of the comedian, as he responds that presidency is serious business. He has declared that his debates "are not a show," that he has accepted tougher challenges "from powerful enemies" before (a reference to what Kiev calls a "war with Russia") – and, he adds, he wants a European Ukraine.

It would seem that the guns are loaded and both are now set for an epic stand-off, but there is still a catch. No one really knows if and when the debate is going to take place. It's speculated that it could be held April 19, before the "day of silence" ahead of the decisive vote. But for now the show must go on – and the blood tests are on.

Drug test: Fear and loathing in Kiev

While there's still plenty of room for absurd stunts and sick burns ahead of the vote, the most absurd event so far must have been the Friday drug and alcohol test both candidates underwent. First, the two bickered over where and when exactly to take the tests, and in the end Poroshenko took his at the Olimpiysky medical office, while Zelensky did it at a private clinic.

Both candidates posted pictures of themselves submitting blood samples – to the amusement of everyone watching. Poroshenko was declared clean within minutes of his test, with the doctor saying he used express testing methods. Zelensky's result was not available as quickly, and Poroshenko's campaign HQ swiftly accused him of cheating.

It remains to be seen whether the two will repeat the test right before the debate, when its results will actually mean something other than an exchange of showmanship.

Losing gas princess invited as referee

For his next move, Zelensky invited the notorious political figure Yulia Tymoshenko, who came in at about three percent behind Poroshenko in the first round of the election, to moderate the debate. Tymoshenko has refused to support any other candidates, and Zelensky argues her presence thus would help "avoid bribery, provocation and administrative pressure." Of course, she was also given 24 hours to consider the invitation – and has even responded that she would think about it.

Despite all the jokes Zelensky and his comedians have made at her expense over the years, Tymoshenko has a bigger bone to pick with the president. She claims Poroshenko has stolen votes from her during the first round, and says she sees no point in taking it to the courts, because she doesn't believe in their honesty.

‘Puppet’ v Pinochet?

Zelensky's long-winded demand for Poroshenko to publicly acknowledge him as his own man and not an instrument of Kolomoysky's influence is one concession the incumbent has refused to make. In fact, one of his responses was reportedly supposed to include a reference to the "millions of dollars" the billionaire has paid Zelensky and the comedian's promotion on Kolomoysky's channel, but was not included in the final version.

Meanwhile, a Poroshenko aide has managed to add some ominous notes to the debate expectations as he accompanied Poroshenko's "challenge accepted" quote with a photoshopped picture of him dressed as Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Incidentally, Pinochet used Chile's national stadium as a venue for political executions.

Also on rt.com Between circus and civil war: Poroshenko aide trolls election frontrunner with Pinochet pic

And that’s just the first round

With two weeks still to go to the debate, some observers have already claimed Zelensky is only bluffing, and will keep upping the stakes and making outrageous demands so as to find a way to call it off at the last moment. What this does show, however, is that the comedian has the initiative firmly in his hands – at least for now.

Despite his political experience being limited to playing a president in a comedy TV series, Zelensky has shot up in the ratings over the past year, as Poroshenko's ratings tanked amid his failure to address rampant corruption and bring about his election promises. By handing 'Ze' a third of their votes, the weary Ukrainian population may have shown that he is a breath of fresh air, or perhaps they have lost all trust in the post-coup authorities, and are enjoying black humor as a better alternative to keeping calm and carrying on.

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