Ukraine’s Election Wildcard Assembles a Team to Match His Ambition

(Bloomberg) -- The surprise leader in polls before March’s presidential election in Ukraine is surrounding himself with a team that could help him achieve what only a matter of weeks ago had been seen as an unlikely triumph.

Comedian and political novice Volodymyr Zelenskiy is vying to dislodge incumbent Petro Poroshenko and fend off a third stab at the presidency by ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Both have lost ground of late as Ukrainians fed up with endemic corruption turn to fresh candidates unsullied by previous stints in government.

Ukraine’s Election Wildcard Assembles a Team to Match His Ambition

But while his inexperience counts in his favor, victory would leave 41-year-old Zelenskiy -- who plays a fictional president on the hit show Servant of the People and also runs a TV-production company -- facing some tough issues. There’s the long-standing war with Russian-backed fighters in the country’s east, for one. Not to mention ensuring the continued flow of international aid that’s keeping the economy afloat.

To that end, he’s getting help from a stable of advisers with experience in government and credentials as technocrats.

Ukraine’s Election Wildcard Assembles a Team to Match His Ambition

There’s Serhiy Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist-turned-lawmaker, who accompanied Zelenskiy recently as he met the U.S.’s envoy to the conflict with Russia. There’s also reformist former economy and finance ministers Aivaras Abromavicius and Oleksandr Danylyuk, and anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin, who’s been pressured under the current administration.

Other names include Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who’s previously worked at Transparency International, and political consultant Dmytro Razumkov.

‘Best Reputation’

The two ex-ministers arguably have “the best reputation both with regard to competence and integrity,” according to Anders Aslund, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. While they left their posts after clashing with old-guard politicians who resisted change, he said they’d stand a better chance of success “if those people are no longer part of the government.”

While drawing comparisons to Beppe Grillo in Italy, Zelenskiy wants to emulate French leader Emmanuel Macron by taking Ukraine’s highest office and then resting control of parliament at elections in the autumn with a newly created party.

Should he become president, there’s no guarantee that the experts he’s assembled will remain. In fact, he’s launched an online campaign called ‘Your Dream Team’ seeking public opinion on who should take the top jobs.

“I want to surround myself with professionals,” he told reporters this week.

While much of Zelenskiy’s agenda remains unclear, he’s signaled his commitment to maintaining billions of dollars in financing from the International Monetary Fund. The fate of his election bid may rest on whether he can convince voters he’s not in some way backed by billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV channel where the comedian’s shows air and is at odds with Poroshenko.

While both men say there are no grounds for such suspicions, the growing list of reputable advisers assisting Zelenskiy’s campaign could prove a more effective way to counter doubts over his candidacy.

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