Ukraine‘s presidential candidates have travelled to Paris and Berlin to seek international backing nine days before the April 21 runoff vote.
French President Emmanuel Macron first hosted comic Volodymyr Zelensky, a political novice who is tipped to become Ukraine’s sixth president, for talks in Paris before a planned meeting with the incumbent, President Petro Poroshenko.
Poroshenko, who is anxious to make up ground lost to Zelensky by showing off his experience, travelled earlier in the day to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
Polls show 41-year-old Zelensky, whose only political experience involves playing the president on TV, easily defeating Poroshenko for the leadership of a country jaded by the conflict with Russia.
“Very cool,” Zelensky said of his meeting with Macron.
“We spoke about life, we spoke about the main things,” he told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “We spoke about stopping the war in Donbass,” he said, referring to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In the first round of the presidential vote held on March 31, Poroshenko received fewer than 16 percent of the votes whereas Zelensky secured more than 30 percent.
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 under way,” she said.
France and Germany are part of the so-called Normandy Quartet with Ukraine and Russia set up to try to end the conflict between Kiev and Moscow-backed separatists.
The war has killed 13,000 people since 2014.
Poroshenko, a 53-year-old chocolate mogul, has positioned himself as the only candidate able to stand up to the Kremlin.
On Friday, he downplayed the significance of Zelensky’s rise from comedian, 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.”
On Thursday, he had described the Paris and Berlin visits as “especially important” in the face of 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.