Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, and Ukrainian presidential candidate and popular comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend debates at the Olympic stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, April 19, 2019.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, and Ukrainian presidential candidate and popular comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend debates at the Olympic stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, April 19, 2019.

This story originated in VOA's Ukrainian Service. Valeria Jegisman of VOA's Russian Service contributed original reporting.

Facing incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a final raucous debate Friday at the 70,000-capacity Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv, comedian and leading presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy described himself as the product of Ukraine's corrupted political system.

"I'm not a politician," Zelenskiy, the 41-year-old political novice, told Poroshenko in their only debate before Sunday's run-off election. "I'm just an ordinary person who has come to break the system. I'm the result of your mistakes and promises."

"How is it that Ukraine is the poorest country with the richest president?" he asked, invoking his well-worn campaign trail narrative of a nation beset by corruption.

But Poroshenko, the 53-year-old confectionary magnate who ascended to Ukraine's highest office after the 2014 Euromaidan protests toppled a pro-Russian former leader, was quick to fire back.

Speaking as an experienced politician, he said: "You'd be a weak head of state who would be unable to defend yourself from Putin's blows."

"I don't believe that Mr. Volodymyr (Zelenskiy) dreams of handing over Ukraine, of dragging Ukraine back into the Russian empire," Poroshenko said. "But Putin has such a dream."

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the cro
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the crowd during a concert marking the fifth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea, in Simferopol, March 18, 2019.

Friday's debate was one of the last opportunities for Poroshenko to try to overhaul a significant lead in the opinion polls enjoyed by his challenger Zelenskiy, an actor who plays an anti-corruption crusader who assumes the presidency in a popular television sitcom.

Poroshenko's invocation of Putin has been a constant in the closing weeks of the campaign, during which time he has issued multiple mea culpas for his failure to tackle endemic corruption in the former Soviet Republic, while warning voters against supporting "the candidate Putin wants."

Many voters have been disenfranchised by what they see as the wealthy Poroshenko's inability to extract himself, let alone entire branches of Ukrainian government, from an entrenched culture of avarice and oligarchical rule. Poroshenko saw his approval ratings slip amid Ukraine's economic turbulence during the first part of his term.

While a substantial portion of young voters are cautiously optimistic that Zelenskiy's inexperience could be the key to better future — that his relative youth and political inexperience is exactly what could alter Ukraine's political landscape — others aren't so sure. 

Presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko is greeted
Presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko is greeted by soldiers during her last campaign rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, March 29, 2019.

In recent weeks, even young progressives who are leery of mainstream politicians, such as Poroshenko and former President Yulia Tymoshenko, who came in third in the general election, point to Zelenskiy's own ties with corruption and dirty money.

One of Ukraine's most popular TV channels 1+1, owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, has given Zelenskiy a powerful platform in recent months during his meteoric rise to the brink of the presidency.

The FBI has been investigating Kolomoisky, who has been accused of commissioning contract killings, over potential financial crimes such as money laundering.

Kolomoisky has not been charged and his lawyers have denied any wrongdoing.

Some international observers say the surging support for Zelenskiy may be the result of deep cynicism over Ukraine's domestic affairs — from ongoing corruption to the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea to a grinding war with Russian-backed separatists on the country's eastern flank.

Zelenskiy, who has largely avoided media interviews, opting instead to tour the country with a comedy routine, has advocated for closer ties with the EU and NATO. He has also called for greater efforts to reintegrate the pro-Russian rebels in the east of the country.

These are the same objectives Poroshenko has sought throughout his own presidency.

"Since nobody knows what (Volodymyr)  Zelensky stands for, I don't think that people can really be voting for him," said renowned international affairs scholar Francis Fukuyama in a recent interview with VOA's Russian Service.

"Clearly, this is a protest vote," he said. "People are tired of Poroshenko and Tymoshenko and all of these leaders that they don't believe have delivered, so it is a kind of anti-establishment vote the way we've seen in a lot of other countries.

"Unfortunately, since we don't know what he stands for, we don't know what we're going to get," he added. "And that's a dangerous situation. Because maybe he'll be good. But it could also set the country back in many ways."

The Kyiv-based polling firm called Rating on Thursday gave Zelenskiy 58% to 22% edge over Poroshenko among people planning to vote this week. Twenty percent said they were undecided.