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Hung Up: In TV Spectacle, Ukraine Presidential Rivals Keep It Simple

'No Comment' -- Doorstepping Ukraine's Candidates
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'No Comment' -- 'Doorstepping' Ukraine's Candidates (Video)

KYIV -- After dramatic video challenges and livestreamed drug tests, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskiy took their electoral sideshow to prime-time TV on April 11 with a linkup that ended with the challenger hanging up abruptly on the incumbent president.

It followed news that Poroshenko, head of state since a snap election followed a Russian invasion and the outbreak of military conflict in eastern Ukraine in early 2014, badly trails the comedian-turned-candidate Zelenskiy in national polling ahead of their presidential runoff on April 21.

A weeklong dispute over the timing and location of a possible debate resumed shortly after Poroshenko stepped onto the stage of the Right To Power TV program and Zelenskiy was patched through by telephone.

Poroshenko invited Zelenskiy down to the 1+1 studio for a debate on the spot, only to be told that the 41-year-old political novice was in France ahead of a scheduled April 12 meeting with President Emmanuel Macron -- with whom Poroshenko is also scheduled to meet after his visit earlier in the day to Germany to see Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Berlin on April 12.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Berlin on April 12.

The two men returned to a spirited if mostly petty back-and-forth that seemed to highlight the lack of high-politics discussions coming from the candidates since they beat out 37 other contenders in the first round on March 31.

Here's how the TV kerfuffle went down in the broadcast by the same 1+1 channel that airs many of Zelenskiy's comedy shows and is owned by self-exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, who publicly reviles Poroshenko.

"Petro Oleksiyovych is perfectly aware that I am visiting Paris, France, considering that the fine cars of the Ukrainian Security Service escorted me to the airport," Zelenskiy tells the show's host, using the president's patronymic.

Standing on center stage, Poroshenko quips back that he has no interest in Zelenskiy's movements before the two begin speaking over one another.

Fragments can be heard relating to their stadium debate challenge and recent name-calling and attack ads before Poroshenko asks, "Are you finished?"

Zelenskiy snaps back that "I'll finish in five years, and you'll finish on April 22," the day after the runoff, although the inauguration date for the next five-year presidential term is set for June 3.

After the 53-year-old Poroshenko urges his 41-year-old rival one more time to agree to an April 14 debate and Zelenskiy counters with April 19, Zelenskiy adds, "That's all, goodbye," and ends the call.

(View the full exchange on the Right to Power program at 23:17)

The exchange didn't sit well with some Ukrainians who voiced their frustration with both candidates on social media.

They included third-place presidential finisher and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who responded with a video of her own.

In the argument between the candidates, she said, "I saw the destruction of the status of the president, I saw the humiliation of the Ukrainian state."

"I think, like me, millions of Ukrainians did not want to see this," she added.

Adding to the drama, 1+1 director Oleksandr Tkachenko on April 12 accused Poroshenko of having turned up uninvited to the show, where he "shamelessly burst onto the air...using his status as head of state."

Tkachenko added that the channel was considering a defamation lawsuit against the president, who threatened to sue 1+1 last month for "lies" and "defamation."

1+1 raised some eyebrows when it broadcast several Zelenskiy productions during the so-called "quiet" period on the eve of the first round of voting last month.