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Ukraine election: Funny business at the polls

Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Tymoshenko Image copyright Getty Images / Facebook

Two of the candidates in next month's Ukrainian presidential election have the same name - Tymoshenko. And the same initials. And even though the frontrunner to become the next president is a comedian, this is no joke - as the BBC's Jonah Fisher in Kiev explains.

Two-and-a-half million Ukrainian hryvna is a lot of money. It converts to $92,000 or £70,000. With that amount of money you could buy a decent apartment here in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. If you're willing to travel cross country, there are places where you could pretty much own a village.

Two-and-a-half million hryvna also gets you a spot on the ballot paper for Ukraine's presidential election next month.

That's if you meet the other requirements, of course: being over 35, holding Ukrainian citizenship, speaking Ukrainian and having lived here for the last 10 years.

Having cleared those hurdles, 44 candidates have stumped up the cash and put their names forward. Ukraine's incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, is among them, though he's facing an almighty struggle just to make it to the second round.

If you come out as one of the top two finalists, you get your money back. If not, well, there's your hryvnas gone.

Which is why one of the candidate's financial declarations rather caught my eye. A family income of just about $10,000 a year, with no additional bank accounts or cash savings.

When I visit his apartment, it certainly doesn't look like anything special. As I remove my shoes, I'm greeted with a big smile and a handshake by Yuriy Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko. "That woman with the tightly curled blond plait," you may be thinking to yourself. "I remember her. She used to be prime minister."

Image copyright Getty Images

But this Tymoshenko is a man called Yuriy. And if you live outside Ukraine you won't have heard of him yet. In fact, though he is an MP, very few people have heard of him inside Ukraine either.

Once we're seated round his dining room table, I cut to the chase.

"So, Yuriy Volodymyrovich Tymoshenko, on the ballot paper you will be right next to Yulia Volodymyrivna Tymoshenko - one of the frontrunners. Do you see why that's a problem?"

Image caption Yuriy Tymoshenko displays his presidential candidate's certificate

The widespread suspicion is that Yuriy is what's known as a clone candidate, planted maliciously to steal votes from confused people who really want to vote for the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Yes, the woman with the curled blonde plait.

Of course, Yuriy is ready for this line of attack. He tells me crossly that he's had the name since birth and that it's always been his ambition to run for president. "Anyway," he says, "I announced it on my Facebook page two years ago - a long time before Yulia did. And I'm going to win."

"But what about the money?" I press on. "Going by your declaration, it's going to take 10 years for you to earn the registration fee - let alone to pay it back."


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Yuriy's not for turning.

"It was borrowed," he says. "And anyway, it's worth the risk. I'm doing this to change the lives of every Ukrainian."

"But what does your wife thinking of you wasting all your money?" I ask.

"She asked me not to do it," he says, explaining that she was worried that if he became president it would disrupt their family life.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Yulia Tymoshenko has so far been campaigning without her braids

Now that 44 people have paid for their places on what will be a very long ballot paper, some of the other candidacies are just as perplexing.

It's hard to see who's going to be voting for Roman Nasirov, the former head of the state fiscal service, currently standing trial for corruption. Or for Volodymyr Petrov, who's under house arrest, accused of creating a sex scandal on Facebook… or indeed for Igor Shevchenko, whose main claim to fame is taking too many blue bobble hats from a stall at Davos. I'm not joking. These men are never getting their money back.

And then there's a comedian - a real one - Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He plays the President on a hit Ukrainian TV show called Servant of the People. Mr Zelenskiy's entire campaign pushes the idea that's he's very similar to the principled, ethical character people have watched in the series.

But so far Mr Zelenskiy has very few policy ideas of his own, so when I meet him at his production house, we chat about British comedy.

Monty Python is his favourite he tells me, before lamenting that Ukrainian audiences are "more into Benny-Hill-type humour". They tend to prefer familiar slapstick to surreal innovation.

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Media captionThe comedian who could be president

With a month to go, this election does have a rather farcical feel to it. It's strange, especially when Ukraine has serious economic problems and is still fighting a war against Russian-backed forces in the east.

Leading the polls at the moment is the Monty Python fan, Mr Zelenskiy, with Yulia Tymoshenko and current president Petro Poroshenko scrapping it out just behind.

And what about Yuriy? Well he's currently well down the field, in 18th place.

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