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Ukraine election reality TV: Puppets and chopped-off hands in final debate warm-up

Ukraine election reality TV: Puppets and chopped-off hands in final debate warm-up
As the pre-election debate in the surreal Ukrainian presidential race draws close, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky and incumbent Petro Poroshenko are warming up before a final debate, cranking up the levels of absurdity.

Friday evening is gearing up to become the most spectacular political performance in Ukraine’s modern history. For the past 20 days, Ukrainians have been treated to a show, which hasn’t disappointed, up to its upcoming climax.

‘Not sure he’ll have a hand to shake’

In a big, and otherwise mostly serious, interview on Thursday, Zelensky couldn’t help but fire off one last sick burn. Asked whether he was ready to shake Poroshenko’s hand after the debate, the joker recalled a bold promise Poroshenko made in 2017.

After Mr. President’s promise to chop off all corrupt officials’ hands, I’m not sure he’ll have anything I could shake.

Rampant corruption under Poroshenko’s post-Maidan rule is one of the main grievances that now has Zelensky massively ahead in the polls – estimates give him 73 percent against Poroshenko’s 27.

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So, who is whose puppet?

Accusing an opponent of being an oligarch’s puppet is one of the top tropes of Ukraine’s pre-election circus. Poroshenko maintains that billionaire Igor Kolomoysky is pulling Zelensky’s strings, while Zelensky joked Poroshenko is in the pocket of businessman Oleg Svinarchuk (Gladkovsky).

Kolomoysky himself isn’t helping. He recently boasted that Poroshenko is his puppet, and “will do whatever he is told.” It was probably just Kolomoysky’s way of celebrating the court decision to return to his previously-nationalized PrivatBank to him – but that certainly snarls up the already tangled puppet strings.

Reality TV surrealism

Those were just the latest numbers in the gripping performance that the past 20 days have been for Ukrainian politics. They were jam-packed with scandalous gestures and flashy insults almost from day one – starting with Zelensky challenging Poroshenko to hold tonight’s debate in the country’s largest stadium, instead of a TV studio.
Then they both took a doping test, having their blood checked for drugs and alcohol, which triggered a wave of outrage about Zelensky’s choice of laboratory and sample-taker – a person who played a medic on one of the comedian’s TV shows.

Also on rt.com Drug tests & stadium debate: How Ukraine presidential duel has turned into a reality TV SHOW

Poroshenko made generous use of his go-to warning – that anyone who is not him is literally Putin. This included putting up billboards with himself facing off with the Russian president and claiming Zelensky would only “make Putin laugh.” Zelensky’s team responded with a lawsuit, saying Poroshenko slandered him by implying links to Russia, but the suit was dismissed.

Then, a short video, edited from one’s Zelensky’s campaign clips, appeared on Poroshenko’s Telegram channel. It showed the comedian getting hit by a truck, followed by a line of cocaine appearing across the screen. The comedian’s outraged staff said his security detail would be boosted because of the implied threat to his life. Poroshenko’s team denied any involvement in making the “funny video,” as they put it.

Poroshenko repeatedly tried to press Zelensky into meeting him on his terms. First, he interrupted a live talk show being broadcast on the TV channel which hosts Zelensky’s programs, and phoned him to demand a debate right there and then. Zelensky reminded him that he was in Paris at that time.

Then, the incumbent, who had previously demanded that the debate should be held a week earlier (and was turned down), arrived at the stadium on April 14 and made a show of expecting Zelensky to show up. The comedian didn’t, and Poroshenko spent the time repeating campaign talking points to a crowd of supporters.

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Overall, Zelensky looks headed for a commanding win in Sunday’s runoff, barring an appropriately-dramatic bungle in the upcoming debate. But before that, Ukrainians will no doubt be treated to a final act in the baffling theatre of the bizarre.

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