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Ukraine's Presidential Race Takes A Turn For The Nurse

Presidential candidates Petro Poroshenko (left) and Volodymyr Zelenskiy undergo blood tests on April 5.

KYIV -- It was the latest surreal twist in a presidential race chock-full of them.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on April 5 gave blood, urine, and hair samples to prove he is not a drug or alcohol abuser and clear the path to a serious debate in a sports arena with his runoff opponent, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Two days earlier, Zelenskiy, the star of a hit sitcom in which he plays an accidental president and who routed Poroshenko in last weekend's first-round vote, had challenged the incumbent to undergo drug testing in a slick but arguably bizarre viral video that outlined his preconditions for a debate before Ukrainians return to the polls on April 21.

In doing so, Zelenskiy turned Ukraine's presidential race into what some have subsequently mocked as a "pissing contest."

His terms also included moving the venue from a public-television studio to Kyiv's 70,000-seat Olimpiyskiy Stadium, the country's biggest arena.

Zelenskiy gave the president 24 hours to respond.

Zelenskiy, 41, had seized the initiative in what's now a two-man race by winning 30 percent of the vote in the first round -- almost double Poroshenko's 15-plus percent but far short of the majority that could have precluded the runoff.

So Poroshenko responded -- and accepted -- in a video of his own before the clock ran out.

"You want a stadium, you got a stadium," he told Zelenskiy. "I'm waiting for you."

To demonstrate he was up to the challenge, the 53-year-old president arrived at Olimpiyskiy Stadium early on April 5 with more than 100 journalists, rolled up his sleeves, and gave a doctor two vials of blood. He then provided a urine sample and a hair from his salt-and-pepper locks.

"I am here and you [Zelenskiy] are not," Poroshenko said, addressing his opponent directly with cameras rolling. "I am sure that he is mustering up the courage to come here and that the debates will take place, as that is what is required under Ukraine's laws," he added, seemingly overstating his case since the law does not require such debates.

Ukraine Presidential Rivals Take Blood Tests
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Poroshenko himself declined to participate in candidate debates when he won the presidency in 2014, and experts have noted that there is sparse tradition of such events since Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Meanwhile, accompanied by his own throng of journalists, Zelenskiy submitted to samples for a drug test at a different lab across town, saying he did not trust the one at the sports arena because of its ties to the state.

His campaign aired the process live on Facebook and Instagram, where the candidate has a combined 4 million followers.

Adding to the bizarre nature of it all, journalists uncovered details about the doctor who administered Zelenskiy's drug test. He is also a massage therapist and actor who has played roles like "killer," "nurse," and "German soldier" in 17 film projects, including some for Zelenskiy's Kvartal 95 film studio.

'Political Circus'

The showy antics appear to be wearing thin on some Ukrainians, who say they want to hear the candidates' positions on crucial issues like the fight against corruption, the economy, and the war raging in eastern Ukraine that will enter a sixth year this month.

A journalist visiting the war-wrecked town of Mariynka near Ukraine's eastern front line, where around 13,000 people have been killed since 2014, wrote on Twitter that one resident had wondered aloud, "Why don't they end the war, instead of putting on a show?"

Back in the capital, Alyona Zlobina, a 30-something IT-sector worker who paused for a selfie in the morning sun on the square outside Olimpiyskiy Stadium, told RFE/RL she was frustrated by what looked more like hijinks than high politics unfolding inside.

"It's a political circus," she said. "Maybe instead of a sports stadium they should have their debate at the circus."