Comedian who portrays Ukraine’s president on TV series leads real race for country's leader

A comedian who plays the Ukrainian president in a popular TV series is the leading candidate in Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, told The Associated Press that he is taking the idea of being president seriously.

"Corruption is everywhere. We need to reduce its impact on the government, on people's lives," Zelenskiy said.

The comedian plays Vasyl Holoborodko, a high school teacher turned president, on the series “Servant of the People.” Holoborodko, despite being politically inexperienced, does his best to serve the people. The show is available for streaming on Netflix in some countries.

Zelenskiy told The Associated Press he was confident he had the ability to beat incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and rival candidate, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

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"People have grown tired of the old guard, so to say," he said.

Recent opinion polls have shown Zelenskiy surging ahead of both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko in the run-up to the March 31 vote. Zelenskiy said being a native Russian speaker has helped with his popularity in eastern regions where many citizens speak Russian.

One of his campaign focuses is the economy.

"We need competitive salaries for Ukrainians to feel self-respect," Zelenskiy said.

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Ukraine's economic troubles have led to a sharp decline in living standards since Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and a separatist insurgency in the east following the ouster of the country's Moscow-friendly president. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and the fighting has devastated the country's industrial heartland.

"We are waiting for peace to come to Ukraine," he said. "It's the most horrible thing that people die."

At the same time, Zelenskiy insisted that "we want and will return our territories, Crimea and Donbass."

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He said if elected he would pursue the country’s aspiration to join the European Union but did not say if he would press for Ukraine’s membership in NATO.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.