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Ukrainian President Arrives For Debate In Kyiv, Challenger Doesn't

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With No Rival To Debate, Poroshenko Talks To Journalists, Supporters
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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko went to Kyiv's Olimpiyskiy Stadium for a presidential election debate, but his challenger didn't show up after a disagreement about the timing.

Poroshenko is to face Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Ukraine's presidential runoff on April 21. Zelenskiy won the first round earlier this month by a large margin, and most, if not all, opinion polls put him well out in front of the incumbent ahead of the final vote.

Both candidates have agreed to hold a debate, but disagreed on the date, with Zelenskiy insisting that it should take place on April 19.

Poroshenko, accompanied by his wife and children, walked inside a glass-encased room sandwiched between the stadium and the adjacent hotel where dozens of journalists were waiting. He took to the stage, with the moderator off to the side. They welcomed Zelenskiy as well but noted his absence.

"It was not me who proposed the site of the event, it was a certain man," Poroshenko told the audience, standing next to an empty lectern bearing Zelenskiy's name.

He then addressed Zelenskiy, saying, "I know you're watching," and added, ironically, that Zelenskiy must be having a rest after his trip to Paris where he met French President Emmanuel Macron.

Poroshenko also called on Zelenskiy to show up at the stadium, saying that otherwise he would invite him to a televised debate every day.

"Don't be afraid. A debate is nothing horrible," he said.

Asked by a reporter if he would cooperate with Zelenskiy if the latter won the presidency, Poroshenko replied, "If, God forbid, he were to be elected, that would still be the choice of the Ukrainian people and I would respect that choice."

About 2,000 people stood outside the stadium to listen to a broadcast of Poroshenko's statements and his answering of journalists' questions.

The president later led them into the stadium where they sang the national anthem.

Poroshenko hugged supporters, posed for selfies, and roused the crowd with chants including "Glory to Ukraine."

Ukraine's Poroshenko Takes Supporters Into Stadium
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Speaking to RFE/RL, his spokesman, Svyatoslav Tseholko, described the gathering inside the stadium as impromptu and the president's idea.

Security officers said they did not expect Poroshenko's move to lead his supporters into the stadium.

The stadium has confirmed it also received a request to hold a debate on April 19, leaving open the possibility that Zelenskiy will show up on his preferred date and speak to supporters alone.

The campaign has been marked by theatrics on both sides, including public moves by both candidates to be tested for drugs and alcohol.

On April 12, Poroshenko traveled to Berlin and Paris to seek international support ahead of the April 21 runoff.

Zelenskiy traveled only to Paris, where he met French President Emmanuel Macron, who separately met with Poroshenko as well.

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) and Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy hold talks in Paris on April 12.
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) and Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy hold talks in Paris on April 12.

In Berlin, Poroshenko met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who praised the "very close relations" her country has built with Ukraine in recent years.

At a joint news conference, Merkel deflected a question about the impression that she favors Poroshenko in the election. She said that she was in "permanent contact" with the incumbent.

Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said a meeting with Zelenskiy "is not planned at present."

Germany, France, and Ukraine are part of the so-called Normandy Format of countries seeking a resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists are fighting against government forces.

Russia is the fourth country in the format, which has not held talks in two years.

Poroshenko said he would be prepared to hold a summit "immediately after the election."

He later met Macron in Paris.

Macron first hosted Zelenskiy, who told journalists that his meeting with the French president was held in a "very nice, warm atmosphere."

Zelenskiy won the first round by a wide margin over Poroshenko, but he did not receive enough support to avoid the runoff.

An independent poll released on April 11 suggests that Zelenskiy enjoys a commanding lead ahead of next week's runoff, but Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine's deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told RFE/RL that Poroshenko's "readiness to talk to people, to go out and deliver his vision, answer difficult questions, make painful decisions for himself, admitting his mistakes" could allow Poroshenko to correct the situation.

The Sociological Group "Rating" said its polling early this month points to 51 percent popular support for sitcom star Zelenskiy, who appeared on the political scene late last year, versus 21 percent for Poroshenko.

The race was even more lopsided in Zelenskiy's favor among respondents who intend to vote in the second round of the election -- 61 percent to 24 percent.

With reporting by Christopher Miller in Kyiv, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, AP, AFP, and Reuters
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