Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky casts his ballot at a polling station during Ukraine's presidential election in Kiev on March 31, 2019. Photo: AFP/Genya Savilov

“The dirtiest elections in Ukraine history” is how Russian state media dubbed the first round of Ukrainian presidential elections on Sunday, pointing to alleged widespread violations which they said undermined their legitimacy.

Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian with no previous political experience beyond his TV show where he plays an accidental president, emerged as the election’s front-runner with twice as many votes as incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, who secured second place.

It was the first time in the history of Ukraine that no pro-Russian candidate will participate in the run-off, scheduled for April 21. The fact that a Russophone – Zelensky – is the likeliest Ukrainian president pours cold water on Russian contentions that Russophones face discrimination.

Given events in recent years, there was almost no chance for a Kremlin-friendly candidate to win major support – Russia annexed Crimea and has backed pro-Russian rebellions in the country’s south-east, which have taken the lives of more than 10,000 Ukrainians.

Discrediting the election is Moscow’s latest tactic to stymie Ukraine’s ongoing maneuvers to wrench itself of the Russian sphere of influence and into the West orbit.

While the Kremlin restrained from commenting on preliminary results, Russian propagandists were eager to describe Zelensky’s success as a direct consequence of the pro-western government’s failure to deliver on the promises made after the 2014 “Maidan Revolution,” the people-power protest which overthrew a pro-Russian leadership: curbing corruption and dismantling the country’s oligarchic system.

The message conveyed by the Russian media was clear. Desperate to ditch Poroshenko, the Ukrainian people preferred to give their votes to a comedian.

Election rigging accusation

Despite the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and US international observers recognizing the elections as generally free and fair, Russian state media and public officials pointed at massive violations and irregularities which supposedly undermined their legitimacy.

According to Kremlin-friendly pundits, Poroshenko had been using his “administrative resources” to secure a place in the run-offs despite his low ratings.

Ahead of the vote, high-profile Russian nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky introduced a draft statement to the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, suggested the Duma refuse to recognize the results of Ukrainian elections “due to widespread falsifications.”

The statement referred to a Ukrainian bill that barred Russian observers from being accredited to the elections – a move Russia claimed violated international norms.

Other criticisms regarded restrictions in the registration procedures, which de-facto prevented millions of Ukrainians living in Russia and in separatist-held eastern Ukraine from casting their ballots.

If there weren’t such restrictions, Russian state channels said, Moscow-friendly opposition leader Yuriy Boyko would have made it to the run-offs.

Even so, Boyko, who met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the eve of the elections, was still able to secure fourth place in the race, after winning the majority of votes in the Russian-speaking Donbass region.

The pro-Russian candidate – the only one to talk to the Russian press after the election – defined his results as “impressive,” considering the “unprecedented pressure” exerted against his political faction by Poroshenko’s government.

According to Konstantin Skorkin, a Russian analyst who specializes in Ukrainian affairs, the Kremlin is counting on Boyko’s faction to gain enough support in next October’s parliamentary elections to weaken whoever Ukraine’s future pro-western president is.

No good options for Moscow

Neither Poroshenko nor Zelensky represent a particularly favorable option for Moscow.

Despite not being a pro-Russian candidate, Russophone Zelensky gained widespread support in the country’s south-east, successfully tapping the ethnic Russian electorate who would not support an openly Kremlin-friendly candidate like Boyko, but are also weary of Poroshenko’s ultranationalist rhetoric.

According to observers, a Zelensky presidency could reduce the country’s historical fission between nationalist west and Russian speaking east, undermining the Kremlin’s “divide-and-rule” strategy in Ukraine.

“Ukraine has changed since 2014 and today Ukrainians are more united as a nation,” said Skorkin. “And Putin is the man responsible for that – he united Ukraine against him.”

“We wouldn’t like to see a party of war steering Ukraine,” is what Kremlin spokesperson Vladimir Peskov said after the election.

However, the least palatable option for a Machiavellian Kremlin is probably a Poroshenko win. The incumbent president’s fierce pro-NATO and anti-Russia stance means that his re-election would lead to further diplomatic gridlock over the conflict in Donbass and, possibly, to escalating confrontation.

That would keep Ukraine weakened, and could keep Russians united behind Moscow’s hardline stance. The more moderate Zelensky would more likely be open to negotiations with Moscow. Given his lack of experience, he may be seen by the Kremlin as easier to manipulate.

Still, according to Skorkin, the comedian is likely to toughen his rhetoric on Russia as the April showdown approaches. “He needs to fend off accusations of being too soft towards the ‘aggressor country’ and win the support of a patriotic electorate,” Skorkin explained.

At the end of the day, no Ukrainian president can afford to adopt a soft approach towards Moscow – especially when it comes to negotiations over the occupied territory in Donbass. “Making any concession in this respect would be seen as recognizing capitulation,” added Skorkin.

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