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As Ukraine Elects A Comedian, Russians Declare Its Election A Joke

Russians loved making fun of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko since his election in 2014 and reveled in his defeat to Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Russians loved making fun of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko since his election in 2014 and reveled in his defeat to Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

MOSCOW -- Ever since he clinched Ukraine's presidency at the outset of its war with Russia-backed militants, Petro Poroshenko has been relentlessly attacked and trolled by Russia's state-dominated media machine.

Confronted by Russian reporters at international summits and other high-profile events, the 53-year-old billionaire businessman has at times succumbed to seeming provocations, serving up material that adversarial Russian media could exploit in reports mocking the state of Ukraine under his leadership and perceptions of rampant corruption that he's failed to staunch.

So when exit polls in Ukraine's presidential runoff indicated a landslide victory for comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy late on April 21, many prominent Russians wasted no time in celebrating the resounding defeat of a politician Moscow had long sought to discredit and derail.

"Poroshenko's term ends in disgrace," presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, one of Russia's most powerful media figures and head of state media behemoth Rossia Segodnya, declared in his weekly TV news roundup. "The country has degraded economically and ecologically, demographically and culturally."

Dmitry Kiselyov
Dmitry Kiselyov

Ukrainians wanted "anyone but him," Russian Federation Council deputy Konstantin Kosachyov wrote of Poroshenko in the government newspaper Rossiyskaya gazeta. "That's not just sad for Poroshenko, but humiliating and shameful. And it serves him right."

Poroshenko "buried hopes for justice and a better life," tweeted another upper-chamber lawmaker, Aleksei Pushkov. "Ukrainians never forgave him for that burial, and for the corruption, immeasurable lies, and hypocritical histrionics." He added: "Finita la comedia."

It was a moment of triumph for the pundits on Russia's talk shows, documentaries, and news programs who for years had given voice to Moscow's official distaste for a Ukrainian president who has spent years trying to stymie Russian efforts to consolidate regional influence.

But no one, perhaps, sounded as triumphant as Olga Skabeyeva and Yevgeny Popov, the husband-and-wife duo who've targeted Poroshenko numerous times in recent years as part of their boisterous and wildly popular 60 Minutes talk show.

"We began abusing Poroshenko before it was even cool," Skabeyeva said during a live election-night special that ran for over five hours. "Now, when Poroshenko's effectively lost, everyone's abusing him."

Poroshenko, in conceding defeat, suggested on April 21 that he was well-aware of the schadenfreude that might be sweeping Moscow's corridors of power.

Olga Skabeyeva and Dmitry Popov
Olga Skabeyeva and Dmitry Popov

"You may (sic) just look at the celebrations in the Kremlin on the occasion of the elections," the outgoing Ukrainian president tweeted. "They believe that with a new inexperienced Ukrainian President Ukraine could be quickly returned to Russia's orbit of influence."

In fact, it seems few in Moscow expect relations with Ukraine to improve under a President Zelenskiy. Russia has been instrumental in fueling the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed over 13,000 lives since it erupted in April 2014 and has increased exponentially the challenge of reviving Ukraine's economy.

"Russia is not banking on changes," Aleksei Makarkin, deputy head of Moscow's Center for Political Technologies, told the newspaper Vedomosti. "We've already been burned by Trump," he said of the U.S. president whose 2016 election was greeted with a wave of optimism in Moscow.

Vadim Karasev, a Ukrainian political analyst, also predicted little change under a new leadership in Ukraine. "There'll be no reversal" in Ukrainian politics, he told Vedomosti, "but we also won't see a deepening of that confrontational path that was present in Poroshenko's politics, especially in recent years."

While attacks on Poroshenko might not be anything new for Russian state media, its coverage of the Ukrainian runoff appeared to differ from the first-round vote in at least one respect: With Poroshenko's defeat all but assured, Russian accusations that he was fixing the results no longer appeared tenable, if they ever were.

Aleksei Makarkin
Aleksei Makarkin

The same might be said of Russia's oft-repeated assertions of a neo-Nazi resurgence in Ukraine, in light of what was reportedly Ukrainians' first election of a president of Jewish descent -- making it only the world's second country, after Israel, with both a Jewish prime minister and a Jewish head-of-state.

Instead, the whole election campaign was portrayed in Russia as a farce.

"The event was just another show," Kiselyov said in his evening roundup. "A spectacle."

"Whomever they chose, they'll remove him pretty fast," said TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov, according to "The country's a disgrace and this campaign is a joke."

That claim might not wash outside Russia either. Western observers have hailed the election as a largely democratic process in a country still struggling to cast off the remnants of its authoritarian Soviet legacy.

In a preliminary statement, the OSCE lauded a "democratic and orderly transfer of power" in Ukraine, even as the organization criticized a lack of genuine discussion of core political issues.

And despite the sneering tone in their state media, some Russians were looking on with envy.

"Congratulations to Ukraine and Ukrainians," Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny wrote on Twitter. "And to everyone for a fair election -- a rare thing on the territory of the former USSR. Let Ukraine flourish, and Russia will only benefit."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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