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Reality Show: Zelenskiy's Big Day In Six Surreal Moments

Volodymyr Zelenskiy (second from right), the apparent next president of Ukraine, was fined by police for showing his marked ballot.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy (second from right), the apparent next president of Ukraine, was fined by police for showing his marked ballot.

KYIV -- Fact has followed fiction.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comic actor who plays a common man accidentally catapulted into an exasperated Ukrainian presidency on TV, has won big in the country's real presidential election.

Almost as remarkably, he appears to be doing it in runaway fashion in a process that both he and defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko cited after the vote as a model for all post-Soviet states.

Here are six enduring moments from a historic, if surreal, day in Ukrainian politics.

Pumped Up With Eminem

After he had cast his ballot -- and having acknowledged that he got "little" sleep -- Zelenskiy hinted that he had awakened on election day with some nerves. His wife, Olena, had tried to calm and energize him with some music, he said.

Her choice of artists? Eminem.

We don't know if Zelenskiy "lost himself" or "sang for the moment," as he couldn't recall the American rapper's exact song. Could have been Lucky You.

But he demonstrated just how he bobbed his head to it.

Busted By The Cops

With scores of cameras rolling inside a packed polling station at Kyiv's Maritime Academy, Zelenskiy had cast a vote for himself. Then he flashed it to reporters before dropping it into the ballot box.

While the cameras loved it, the police did not. It apparently broke Ukrainian legislation aimed at preventing campaigning by candidates on election day.

Shortly thereafter, officers arrived at Zelenskiy's office to fine him less than $30 for the display.

Zelenskiy Fined For Showing Marked Ballot In Ukrainian Presidential Vote
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Afterward, one of the officers who wrote up the citation, Viktor Stolyar, told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, that police had "consulted about it and decided to draw up an administrative protocol" since that would be "more effective than a criminal case that couldn't be completed."

For his part, Zelenskiy said it seemed like a fair cop: "OK, I broke the law. The law is the law."

A 'Pig In A Poke' Again

Meanwhile, a topless activist from the homegrown protest collective Femen challenged the notion that a vote for the TV president was a step in the right direction for Ukraine.

"We don't know who will come with Zelenskiy; he's a cat in a bag," she said outside the polling station where Zelenskiy cast his ballot in Kyiv, invoking the Slavic equivalent of a pig in a poke.

It was a direct quote from Poroshenko at the raucous stadium meeting on April 19 that was as close as the two runoff candidates came to a presidential debate, with the incumbent accusing the challenger of ducking policy questions and providing little of substance that he or voters could latch onto, saying he was a "cat in a bag." (Zelenskiy countered by calling Poroshenko a "wolf in sheep's clothing.")

"It can turn out to be a funny mistake -- funny and fatal," the protester, who identified herself as Julia, told reporters on April 21, with a Zelenskiy victory seemingly assured.

Femen Activist In Topless Protest Against Zelenskiy
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"Right now, all Ukrainians' hopes are in his hands.... I'm asking Zelenskiy and all politicians, including old ones, to stop raping our country. Enough of that; people have stopped hoping."

Femen's website added that Ukraine had been "raped by a gang of crooks" and suggested "a pig in a poke is the logical fruit of such love."

Hard To Swallow

Novaya Vremya reported that in Zelenskiy's hometown, Kriviy Rih, a woman "in a state of intoxication ate part of a ballot."

The paper quoted local election commission member Inna Ivanchenko, who posted on Facebook evidence of the defiled ballot, with an "X" mark next to Zelenskiy's name and a line drawn through Poroshenko's.

"They managed to snatch a piece," Novaya Vremya quoted Ivanchenko as saying.

It was one of the seemingly lighter moments caught on video for the Ukrainian Electoral Commission's Facebook page.

But it was also part of what the electoral commission warned was an election-day spoiler for some voters, with reports that social networks were disseminating misleading information about how to fill out ballots. Not only should the preferred candidate be marked, the bum advice went, but also the other candidate's name should be crossed out. That misinformation, the commission warned, was getting thousands of views and shares and would spoil the ballots in question.

5...4...3...2...President-Elect Of Ukraine

Finally, as election night fell, with the flair of -- well, of a 41-year-old actor/entertainer, Zelenskiy strode into the spotlight at his campaign headquarters with a wide smile and to the theme song of his Servant Of The People sitcom. He took the stage about a minute before polling stations closed and the embargo was lifted on exit polls that were predicting his landslide win.

Then he counted down from five before numbers flashed across the huge video screen showing him leading all the exit polls with around 73 percent of the vote to Poroshenko's 25 or so.

"Thank you," he shouted into a microphone as the crowd cheered and confetti rained down.

The Result In Two Pics

Within minutes of Zelenskiy's triumphant countdown, across town, Poroshenko would take the stage in a considerably less festive appearance to concede the election.

But no words could capture the two sides' electoral fates better than the images that were starting to come out of Kyiv.

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    Christopher Miller

    Christopher Miller is a correspondent based in Kyiv who covers the former Soviet republics.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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