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As Runoff Race Intensifies, Contrasting Ukrainian Campaigns Highlight Division And Unity

President Petro Poroshenko doubles down on division in campaign ad suggesting it's either him or Vladimir Putin.

KYIV -- The billboards are giant and purple. They have gone up on buildings and roadsides across Ukraine. And they convey a message from Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president who is fighting an uphill battle for a second five-year term.

That message?

In the April 21 runoff, Ukrainians will face "a decisive choice" between Poroshenko and...Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That's right. While the second name on the ballot is that of comic-cum-candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine's current president is trying to frame the race in dramatically starker terms, including by intimating that Zelenskiy represents Moscow's interests.

Zelenskiy, a predominately Russian speaker from south-central Kryviy Rih whose entertainment company has done business in Russia, has been criticized by Poroshenko's camp and his supporters for not speaking fluent Ukrainian, for opposing language quotas, and for saying he was ready to "kneel before Putin" to keep Ukraine off its knees amid a grinding war against Russia-backed separatists that has cost an estimated 13,000 lives in five years.

A billboard depicts Poroshenko and Putin and the inscription "April 21. Decisive choice."
A billboard depicts Poroshenko and Putin and the inscription "April 21. Decisive choice."

Meanwhile, in a video spread across his millions-strong social-media platforms this week, Zelenskiy, a political neophyte, pushed a different message: "unite."

In the campaign ad, a crosswalk signal turns from Poroshenko's campaign purple to green -- a play on Zelenskiy's name -- to encourage groups on opposite sides of the street to come together. The two sides meet and hug. Then Zelenskiy pops into view, telling voters that "there's only one choice" and it's not between Poroshenko and Putin but "the past and the future."

At the end of the ad a message reads, "The end of the old era."

Poroshenko initially launched his "me or Putin" message during campaigning for the election's first round on March 31. While it garnered media attention, it appeared to fall flat with voters, 30 percent of whom ticked their ballots for Zelenskiy versus a disappointing 16 percent for Poroshenko.

Poroshenko has nevertheless doubled down on the strategy, while seemingly attempting to reinvent himself to some degree.

In his election-night speech marking his advance to the second round, Poroshenko said the "protest" votes of younger Ukrainians had been heard and he vowed to change. Since then, he has met with anticorruption watchdogs who have criticized him for dragging his feet on crucial reforms. And he has promised not to appoint cronies to positions of power during a second term.

"There were obvious mistakes in the appointment of certain people," Poroshenko acknowledged this week on Ukraine's ICTV channel.

But Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Kyiv-based Penta Center for Political Studies, said he wondered if the president's efforts don't merely amount to trying to "mimic reinvention."

Poroshenko was "trying to create the impression of a 'new Poroshenko' for voters," Fesenko told RFE/RL.

Amid criticism over the new wave of "Poroshenko or Putin" ads, the incumbent's campaign team took pains to downplay any suggestion that they sought to paint Zelenskiy as an agent of the Kremlin. The point of the poster, the campaign wrote on its Facebook page, was "to remind the country that...a strong president and commander in chief, a professional, well-educated, and experienced diplomat, a skilled negotiator with high international prestige, is needed."

"The task of the head of state is not to make Putin laugh, as is the plan of our opponent," the campaign added in a clear jab at Zelenskiy, much of whose fame stems from portraying an accidental president on a TV sitcom, "and not to kneel in front of him but to boldly look into his eyes and firmly protect the country, national interests, and people's security."

The message angered some Ukrainians, including some of the 37 losing presidential candidates and other politicians.

On Facebook, former Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, who finished fifth with nearly 6 percent of the vote, said a similar tactic was employed in 2010 by Viktor Yanukovych, the former Russia-friendly president who was ousted by the Euromaidan uprising in 2013-14.

Such divisive tactics, Hrytsenko warned, are "dangerous" and "shameful and devastating...for the country."

Not to be left out of the conversation, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov quipped, "We elect Putin, let's see what Ukrainians do."