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In Dueling Videos, Zelenskiy And Poroshenko Debate A Debate. Can They Fill A 70,000-Seat Stadium?

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and his challenger Volodomyr Zelenskiy.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and his challenger Volodomyr Zelenskiy.

KYIV -- If politics is a show, then Ukraine's is a surreal dramedy.

Think Monty Python meets Game Of Thrones.

In dueling video addresses with dramatic lighting and set to music, presidential rivals Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Petro Poroshenko have laid out their terms for a possible debate and thrown jabs at each other.

The two will go head-to-head in a second-round vote on April 21.

Zelenskiy, whose major qualifications are zero political experience and his role as a president on a popular sitcom, trounced Poroshenko 30 percent to nearly 16 percent in a field of 39 candidates last week.

But the 41-year-old entertainer was also accused of ducking specifics during his campaign, which focused on perceptions of a corrupt political landscape that oligarchs like the 53-year-old Poroshenko have failed to change.

Presidential debates are rare in Ukraine, and a handful of legal and logistical hurdles appear to stand in the way of one now.

That has not stopped all the posturing, however.

Throwing Down The Gauntlet

Poroshenko, who has declined to debate challengers in the past, challenged Zelenskiy to a face-to-face appearance even before the first-round vote tally was settled.

Zelenskiy tentatively agreed before appearing to backtrack, leading to criticism on social media.

Then on April 3, in a video that looked more like a movie trailer than a political message, Zelenskiy accepted Poroshenko's challenge -- with preconditions.

"I am appealing to Petro Poroshenko. You are calling me out for a debate. You thought I'd run away, freeze, hide," he said, before adding in an apparent allusion to Poroshenko's presidential victory with war raging in eastern Ukraine five years ago, "No. I am not you in 2014."

"I am waiting for you here, at the Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex," he said.

The challenge came with other demands, too. It would have to take place publicly, in front of all interested journalists, broadcast on all TV channels, and with a drug-and-alcohol test beforehand, Zelenskiy said.

That last demand appeared to be a backhanded reference to unsubstantiated rumors that the president may enjoy a drink or several, or perhaps a way for Zelenskiy to quash the gossip that he may have had one too many himself after exit polls were announced last weekend.

Poroshenko's campaign manager, Oleh Medvedev, responded on April 4 by saying the president was willing to meet Zelenskiy at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium "for all the necessary tests, including for alcohol and drug use."

Zelenskiy also insisted that Poroshenko acknowledge him as a serious candidate rather than dismissing him -- as he did on election night -- as "the Kremlin's candidate" and a "puppet" of oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, whose TV station airs Zelenskiy's comedy shows.

The Zelenskiy video quickly went viral on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. His campaign also started a live countdown, giving Poroshenko 24 hours to respond.

They didn't have to wait long. Early on April 4, Poroshenko answered bluntly in his own video.

"The rules of [any] debate are stipulated in the Law on Presidential Elections. Please read them," he began, adding that such debates "may [only] be held on the premises of the national broadcaster" but may also be aired on all channels "for tens of millions of people to see."

Poroshenko also sought to further contrast himself with Zelenskiy, saying, "We are very different."

"The main difference is that the arrows of [our] geopolitical compasses are pointing toward diametrically opposite parts of the world," he said in a thinly veiled reference to Russia, which is backing armed separatists in eastern Ukraine and where Zelenskiy has had business interests. "My country is a strong European Ukraine, which will not be brought to its knees before anybody under any circumstances."

'I'm Waiting For You'

Poroshenko described a presidential debate as "not a show but a serious discussion about the strategy of the state's development, its values, the historical vector and priorities."

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

Still, that wasn't enough for Zelenskiy's camp, which reportedly said Poroshenko would need to apologize for his name-calling and agree to submit to a medical exam.

Neither Zelenskiy nor Poroshenko appears to have formally inquired about holding the debate prior to agreeing on its location.

Local reports suggested that while the Ukrainian National Public Broadcasting Company could broadcast such proceedings from the stadium, they may not be described as an "official" debate.

The head of civil society watchdog Opora said that, under such a nontraditional format, the candidates -- rather than the state budget -- would have to cover the costs themselves.

And a statement from the Olimpiyskiy Stadium's management said that "There were no official applications or draft agreements for holding debates between the presidential candidates at Olimpiyskiy."

"The proposal…is on his own initiative," the statement said in reference to Zelenskiy.

Real Debate Or Entertainment?

News of a potential stadium debate spread like wildfire on social media on April 4.

Opera-trained pop singer Kamaliya offered to sing the national anthem.

And the Interior Ministry and National Police said they were ready to provide security.

Oleksiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy and head of research at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, said civil society and experts strongly favor a televised debate, but one "structured along very specific topics."

By calling on Poroshenko to debate him in front of a stadium audience, Haran said, showman Zelenskiy was attempting to "transform the real debates into a show."

"We know Poroshenko agreed," he said.

But now, he added, the question is "how it will be done to address serious issues."

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