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It Appears A Sitcom Star Will Be The Next President Of Ukraine


Art is imitating life in Ukraine. Almost all the votes have been counted in the presidential election there, and the winner is a comedian who plays a president on television.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: (Foreign language spoken).


MARTIN: And that is the voice of Vol - Volodymyr - I'll get it out - Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He was greeting supporters Sunday night after his landslide victory. He made a name for himself in a TV show, called, "Servant Of The People," in which he plays a high school teacher who becomes Ukraine's president by a twist of fate. NPR's Lucian Kim has been covering the election, and we've got him on the line from Moscow. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So Zelenskiy has no political experience, unless you count playing a president on TV as experience. Clearly, Ukrainians were willing to take a risk here. Why?

KIM: Practically everybody in Ukraine knows Volodymyr Zelenskiy, thanks to his various TV shows and especially that show, "Servant Of The People," where he plays this honest, incorruptible guy who ends up being president. What's amazing is that despite Zelenskiy being a household name, people don't really know what he stands for.

And during the election campaign, he was very vague about his positions. And in that way, he really became a blank slate for people to project whatever they wanted on him. Ukrainians expected real change from the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, whom they elected five years ago. They wanted a resolution to a Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine. They wanted an end to corruption and a turnaround in the economy.

And I think the fact that they chose Zelenskiy shows how desperate people are. But at the same time, I think it's worth noting that this was a victory for democracy in Ukraine. Poroshenko almost immediately conceded defeat. And now there will be a peaceful transfer of power.

MARTIN: Right. So that is significant. But what about Ukraine's conflict with Russia? It's been going on for years now. I mean, what will Zelenskiy's victory mean for that?

KIM: Well, this is the big question, and maybe even the biggest question. Poroshenko, the incumbent, had tried to portray himself as the only candidate who could stand up to Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. This is what Poroshenko said after conceding on Sunday night.


PETRO POROSHENKO: You may just look at the celebration in the Kremlin of the occasion of the election. They believe that with a new, inexperienced Ukrainian president, Ukraine could be quickly returned to the Russian orbit of influence.

KIM: So there's been a real personal animosity between Poroshenko and Putin in recent months, and Putin pretty much made clear that he didn't want to deal with Poroshenko anymore. So now with Zelenskiy's victory, there may in fact be an opening. I think by voting for Zelenskiy, Ukrainians showed that they're really tired by this low-level war with Russia.

MARTIN: What about Ukraine's relationship with the U.S.? I mean, Poroshenko was a close ally. Does Zelenskiy see the United States in the same way?

KIM: Well, Poroshenko has certainly made a lot of his relationship to the U.S. And as we just heard, he portrayed Zelenskiy as someone who could be easily manipulated by the Kremlin. So it remains to be seen how Zelenskiy will develop his relations with the U.S. We're hearing that President Trump has already congratulated Zelenskiy and said that the U.S. would continue to support Ukraine.

But Ukraine's big problem has always been that it's never really been front and center in U.S. foreign policy. Zelenskiy may actually have a chance to meet President Trump at the beginning of June. They're both expected to be at the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Lucian Kim for us from Moscow. Lucian, thanks. We appreciate it.

KIM: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.