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Desperate For Change, Ukrainians Choose A Complete Novice In Presidential Election


The people of Ukraine have spoken. In yesterday's presidential election, they overwhelmingly went for a comedian who plays a fictional president in a popular TV series. As NPR's Lucian Kim reports, the vote reveals how desperate Ukrainians are for change even if that means sending a complete novice to the highest office.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: As the polls closed after Sunday's runoff election, supporters of upstart candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy assembled in his campaign headquarters in Kiev.


KIM: First televised exit polls showed Zelenskiy with more than 70 percent of the vote and incumbent President Petro Poroshenko with just a quarter - practically out of the blue, a popular comedian who never held office and crushed one of the longtime heavyweights of Ukraine's political establishment. As he addressed his supporters and journalists, Zelenskiy first tried to practice his English.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: I'm very good. Thank you. Thank you, everybody.

KIM: Congratulations started pouring in from around the world - from French President Emmanuel Macron, from President Donald Trump and even from Venezuela's opposition leader, Juan Guaido. Zelenskiy's landslide came after a bitterly fought election campaign that started with 39 candidates. Zelenskiy managed to channel voter frustration with the status quo without offering any detailed proposals on how he'd end the war with Russia, clamp down on corruption or turn Ukraine's economy around.


ZELENSKIY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KIM: In a debate in Kiev's Olympic stadium Friday, Zelenskiy said he voted for Poroshenko five years ago but didn't get the president he thought he would. Poroshenko, for his part, called Zelenskiy a bright wrapper that's concealing the interests of oligarchs and Russians inside. Still, once the first tallies were made public, Poroshenko conceded defeat, though he didn't hide his disappointment as he spoke to foreign press.


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

KIM: It's not clear how hard Russia's leaders were partying in the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said it would be premature to congratulate Zelenskiy. However, Russian opposition leaders congratulated Ukrainians on holding free and fair elections that saw a peaceful transfer of power. Russian state media have been covering the Ukrainian election obsessively, contrasting it with the stability of the Putin regime.

Ukraine used to be the jewel in the crown of the Soviet Union and, before that, the Russian Empire. And many Russians still can't accept it's an independent country. Five years after Russia annexed Crimea and fomented an armed uprising in eastern Ukraine, relations are at a complete stalemate.


ANDREI CHESNAKOV: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Andrei Chesnakov, a Kremlin-connected political adviser, said in a TV interview it'll take years, if not decades, to restore relations between Ukraine and Russia. He said any improvement will depend on small confidence-building measures. Zelenskiy has said his first priority is to win the release of Ukrainian naval personnel captured by Russia last year. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.