Drug test dispute strikes Ukraine's unorthodox election scrap
Poroshenko and Zelenskiy yet to confirm plans for run-off debate in Kiev stadium
Ukraine presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy: comedian gives blood sample at a medical centre ahead of a policy debate. Photograph: Zoya Shu
Ukraine’s presidential election rivals have taken drug tests before their run-off and a possible debate in Kiev’s biggest sports arena, but the latest round of an unorthodox political battle only fuelled fresh rancour and suspicion.
After trading video messages in which they sparred over a plans for a televised debate at the 70,000-capacity Olimpiyskiy Stadium, President Petro Poroshenko gave blood, hair and urine samples to medics at the arena and comedian and challenger Volodymyr Zelenskiy had blood taken at a private clinic.
They said the unusual step would reassure Ukrainians that their future president was not dependent on drugs or alcohol, but Friday’s tests became another cause for dispute between the camps.
Shortly after taking the tests, a combative Mr Poroshenko (53) told assembled journalists that his preliminary results showed no trace of psychotropic drugs, and he expressed hopes that his rival would “pluck up the courage” to face him in a debate.
Mr Zelenskiy (41) had queried the impartiality of the stadium facility and refused to be tested there, but his own choice of venue quickly came into question.
Reporters revealed that the clinic was owned by a supporter of Mr Zelenskiy’s campaign, and that the test was conducted by a doctor and occasional actor who had appeared on a show made by the comedian’s production company.
“Giving a little blood as a souvenir to your supporters is not the same as doing serious tests for alcohol and drug dependency,” said Oleh Medvedev, a spokesman for the president.
“Mr Poroshenko’s team again advises Volodymyr Zelenskiy to understand that an election campaign is not a show or a film shoot, but a serious moment of choice of the country.”
The clinic later released a copy of Mr Zelenskiy’s results that said he had given a sample not on Friday but Tuesday. The facility apologised for its “mistake”, but it only fed suspicion and confusion around the drug tests.
The impresario dominated last Sunday’s first round of voting, taking 30 per cent of ballots against 16 per cent for Mr Poroshenko, who has led Ukraine since winning elections in the wake of the 2014 Maidan revolution.
Mr Zelenskiy’s promise to introduce a new style of politics and end corruption and cronyism appeals to many Ukrainians, and younger voters in particular have been wooed by a campaign dominated by slick use of social media.
After avoiding debates with rivals, Mr Zelenskiy took the initiative on Wednesday with a video that showed him striding out on to the pitch at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium and challenging Mr Poroshenko to meet him there.
Yet his mis-steps since then – including an ill-judged call for ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to moderate the debate – may have boosted Mr Poroshenko’s hopes that he could trip up before the April 21st decider.