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Comedian appears headed for landslide victory in Ukraine

Comedian appears headed for landslide victory in Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine – A comedian whose only political experience consists of playing a president on TV cruised toward a huge landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election Sunday in what was seen as a reaction against the country’s entrenched corruption and low standard of living.

Exit polls and early results from about 8% of polling stations showed sitcom star Volodymyr Zelenskiy receiving nearly three of every four votes cast in the runoff against President Petro Poroshenko, a crushing rebuke of Poroshenko’s five years in office.

Even before results started trickling in, Poroshenko accepted defeat, saying: “I am leaving office, but I want to firmly underline that I am not leaving politics.”

Zelenskiy, for his part, promised wide changes at the top echelons of government and said his No. 1 task would be securing the release of about 170 Ukrainian military members taken prisoner in the east or in Russia.

Ukraine has been plagued by rampant graft, a sickly economy and a grinding, five-year war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country that has killed over 13,000 people.

After his apparent election, Zelenskiy said he would engage Russia to try to end the conflict. He also said, without giving details, that “we will make a very powerful information war” in order to stop the fighting.

He also suggested, in a remark that could grate on Russia, that his victory could be a model for other former Soviet states that want to move forward from ossified politics: “To all the countries of the former Soviet Union — look at us, everything is possible.”

Although the early results were a small fraction of the vote, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine congratulated Zelenskiy, as did NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.

Although Zelenskiy was criticized for a vague campaign platform and never holding public office, voters appeared to cast aside those concerns in favor of a thorough sweep of Ukraine’s political leadership.

“I have grown up under the old politicians and only have seen empty promises, lies and corruption,” said Lyudmila Potrebko, a 22-year-old computer programmer who voted for Zelenskiy. “It’s time to change that.”

Poroshenko was a billionaire candy magnate and former foreign minister before he took office in 2014 after huge street protests drove his Russia-friendly predecessor to flee the country. Although he instituted some reforms, critics said he had not done nearly enough to curb corruption.

Poroshenko positioned himself as a president who could stand up to Russia and said Zelenskiy would be easy prey for Moscow.

Although the Kremlin despises Poroshenko, Zelenskiy’s apparent victory was greeted noncommittally in Russia.

“We do not yet associate hopes with the winner,” Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian Parliament, was quoted as saying by state news agency Tass. /gsg