The Ukrainian comedian tipped to become president and his incumbent rival travelled to Paris and Berlin on Friday to seek international backing nine days before the run-off in a high-stakes vote.
French President Emmanuel Macron first hosted comic Volodymyr Zelensky, a political novice, for talks in Paris before meeting later with current President Petro Poroshenko.
Polls show Zelensky, whose only political experience to date involves playing president on TV, easily defeating Poroshenko for the leadership of a country seen as a buffer between Europe and Russia.
Poroshenko, who is anxious to make up ground lost to Zelensky by showing off his experience, travelled earlier in the day to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
Ukraine’s five-year war with Russian-backed rebels in the country’s east, a conflict in which France and Germany have attempted to broker peace, was one of the main talking points.
Merkel told a news conference with Poroshenko that she had invited him to Berlin to continue their “constant exchange” on security.
“I think it’s important that we continue to discuss, even at a time when the elections are underway,” she said.
France and Germany are part of the so-called Normandy quartet, along with Russia and Ukraine, created to try end the conflict between Kiev and Moscow-backed separatists.
The war has killed 13,000 people since 2014.
Poroshenko, a 53-year-old tycoon who made a fortune in chocolate, has positioned himself as the only candidate able to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Friday, he downplayed the significance of Zelensky’s outsider status, telling reporters in Berlin: “We have politicians who are not part of the political system but that also exists in other parts of Europe. Ukraine is not an exception.”
Ahead of the Paris and Berlin visits, he had vowed to defend against what he called Western “attempts” to lift sanctions against Russia, imposed after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Kiev and its Western allies accuse Russia of supporting the rebels militarily. Moscow denies that.
After his meeting, Poroshenko released pictures on social media of himself and a smiling Macron looking comfortable and close together on the steps of the Elysee palace.
“Happy to meet with Ukraine’s sincere friend,” he wrote.
For 41-year-old Zelensky, a consummate showman who has managed to tap into frustration with mainsteam politics five years after Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, winning an audience with Macron, also aged 41, was a coup.
“It was a very positive meeting. A meeting during which the two men got to meet each other, heard opinions on the development of both bilateral ties and the country,” his campaign chief Ivan Bakanov told AFP.
The president and candidate discussed the conflict in Ukraine’s east, corruption, economic reforms and “of course, the second-round run-off,” Bakanov added.
Zelensky has suggested including Britain and the US in the Ukraine peace talks.
– ‘Strange situation’ –
Zelensky has shunned traditional rallies, instead continuing to perform satirical shows during the campaign.
Macron’s decision to welcome the candidate — breaking with tradition whereby leaders usually only receive foreign politicians of their ranking — caused some annoyance in Kiev.
“This is a very unpleasant and strange situation,” a high-ranking Ukrainian diplomatic source told AFP.
Sources in the French presidency linked the decision to Zelensky’s success in the first round of voting on March 31, when he won 30 percent of the vote, nearly double that of Poroshenko.
“France is showing that it knows what direction the Ukrainian electorate is heading in and that it has to make contact,” said Leonid Litra, an analyst at the Kiev-based New Europe Centre.
A poll released Thursday showed the entertainer winning 61 percent of the vote in the second round, compared with just 24 percent for Poroshenko.
While the campaign has descended into farce at times, with both men undergoing drugs tests at Zelensky’s insistence, the stakes are high for Ukraine, a country of 45 million that is one of Europe’s poorest.
Speaking in Berlin, Poroshenko said he would relish a debate with his opponent, “so that Ukrainians know they are supporting a real candidate and not a virtual candidate.”
In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and war erupted in the east.
Before the conflict with separatists began, Zelensky had struck a conciliatory tone, saying he was ready to “kneel” in front of Putin to avoid a military conflict.
But after the first round of the vote, he said he would ask the Kremlin for compensation for the war and for taking Crimea.