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Where President Zelensky's popularity stands with people in Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As we have been out and about here in the Ukrainian capital, we have met a lot of people who have a lot of not particularly nice things to say about the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. We wanted to hear what the other side of things is. So that has led to our showing up at this ice skating rink. I'm about to lace up skates, and we'll tell you why.

We walk into a small, heated tent, and they hand us skates. I buckle up and prepare to skate, something I have not done in quite a while. Now, if you are wondering why I am lacing up ice skates today, the answer is look up at that building right in front of me. Towering over us is the office of President Zelenskyy. The front door is - I don't know - 20, 25 feet from this ice skating rink, which is now filling up with kids. They've still got a Christmas market up. Snow is pelting down. We've been told that because of the location, this is a place where Zelenskyy supporters like to come skate. So we're going to see if we can find some.

I clomp over to the rink - kids, parents spinning, circling, wiping out. A young couple is holding hands. It is beautiful even if my skating is not.

I'm now getting lapped by 5-year-olds (laughter).

My interpreter and I skate up to a mom with a small boy in tow. She is 41-year-old Ina Kulig (ph). I point to the building next to us and ask her, what does she think of the president?

INA KULIG: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: He's good, she tells me, but she doesn't sound thrilled.

KULIG: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: We don't have another one, she says.

KULIG: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: He's the one you have. I understand.

KULIG: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: She tells me that when he became president in 2019, that is when the skating rink was built. It reappears every winter. In the summer, it's a playground. Now, Zelenskyy's critics claim there's a reason he did that - to prevent people from protesting in front of his office, though that did not stop demonstrators from marching through the playground earlier this year. The skating rink admittedly is a little harder to storm. We keep circling the rink until we come across Max Vasylchuk (ph). He's 42.

MAX VASYLCHUK: I mean, in my childhood, I was a hockey player.

KELLY: Oh, OK. Where were you a child?

VASYLCHUK: In my childhood in St. Petersburg.

KELLY: In St. Petersburg.

VASYLCHUK: Yeah.

KELLY: So you're Russian.

VASYLCHUK: No, no, I'm Ukrainian.

KELLY: OK.

VASYLCHUK: I'm Ukrainian, but (unintelligible) the entire country USSR - former USSR now. So...

KELLY: I ask his thoughts about Zelenskyy, and Max says he likes him.

VASYLCHUK: Because of he's young, new minds, new thinking, new - everything new.

KELLY: Max does not think there will be a war with Russia. But if it did come to that, does he trust Zelenskyy to defend Ukraine?

VASYLCHUK: Yes, I do.

KELLY: A sampling of voices there from the skating rink next to Zelenskyy's office. Now, on this question of Zelenskyy and how he's leading the country, I want to bring in one of my colleagues who is also here in Kyiv reporting, Daniel Estrin. Hey there.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: So we keep talking about Zelenskyy. We know he was on the phone today with President Biden. We know he was on that other phone call, the famous one from 2019 with another American president, the former President Trump - the one where Trump asked, I would like you to do us a favor, though. Who actually is Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

ESTRIN: He's a comedian, and he's a TV star. He's young - 44 years old - Ukraine's first Jewish president. And he had this very successful show on Ukrainian TV, a political sitcom called "Servant Of The People."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

DMYTRO SHUROV: (Singing in Russian).

ESTRIN: And in the TV show, he plays an ordinary guy, a schoolteacher who has an outburst against corruption in Ukraine. His outburst is full of expletives. And in the show, this video goes viral.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (As Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, speaking Russian).

ESTRIN: And he rises to stardom in this show, and he's elected to president because, you know, everyone sees this video. And so that's the TV show, and then it happens in real life. In 2019, a TV star rails against corruption, runs for president, and he wins. He gets more than 70% of the vote. He beats the incumbent. And his party - get this - is called Servant of the People. That's the name of his TV show - so fictional president becomes real president.

KELLY: Wow. And 70% of the vote - those are not numbers to sniff at. Why did people vote for him so overwhelmingly?

ESTRIN: He made a lot of promises that people really wanted to hear. So first he promised to fight corruption, which is really rampant in Ukraine. He also said he wanted to reach a compromise with President Putin of Russia, and he wanted to bring peace to the Donbas region of Ukraine, which Russian-backed separatists took control of in 2014. Today, though, as of last week, a poll shows that 30% only support this president. And it's low, but, you know, just like that skater you met today, people don't really see an alternative.

KELLY: Yeah, but that's a really steep drop. I mean, it's like his popularity ratings went off the cliff. Why?

ESTRIN: Yeah. Well, I met someone in the street the other day who seemed to sum up why people are critical of him. Her name is Natalia Slastina, and she called the president zero.

NATALIA SLASTINA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Zero, zero, zero.

SLASTINA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: If the person was born to be a politician, yeah, it's OK. But from showbiz, it's hard.

SLASTINA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: When he was becoming president, he said, I will stop the war. He has been the president for two - more than two years right now. The war is still going.

ESTRIN: When he was running for president, he said he would fight nepotism. He even had this campaign video where he asked people for ideas. Who should I appoint for roles like the head of the Ukrainian FBI?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ESTRIN: He says in this video, who likes it when the president appoints his best man or his friend from the army? That's been happening in Ukraine for years. But then he did just that. He appointed the head of his own television production studio to be the head of the Ukrainian version of the FBI. And there are reports that dozens of others in government have connections to his TV company or his family. So that was one promise he didn't keep, and the other promise Zelenskyy made was that he was going to talk with Putin and find a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian territories that Russia exerts control over. That didn't happen.

KELLY: So that brings us to this moment. What does all this mean for his ability to handle this crisis now in full swing with Russia?

ESTRIN: Well, if you look at this poll from last week, over half of Ukrainians polled think Zelenskyy would not be able to protect Ukraine in case of a full-scale Russian invasion. However, I spoke with Oleksiy Haran, who runs a think tank here. He had a very long day today talking with foreign embassies about this whole situation, and he says, listen. Ukraine is a democracy. It's an imperfect democracy, but it is a democracy. This is not Russia. He says you can hear people criticizing the president in the streets, you know, even sometimes in the skating rink.

There are vocal opposition parties here. And yet, he says, everyone realizes that Russia wants to take advantage of Zelenskyy's lower approval ratings right now to weaken him with this threat of an invasion. Russia's goal, he says, is to weaken Ukraine's leadership. So he says right now, a lot of critics of Zelenskyy are saying with Russian troops at the borders, it's not the right time to call for Zelenskyy to resign.

KELLY: NPR's Daniel Estrin, so glad you were here helping to tell this story.

ESTRIN: Thanks, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELTA VENUS SONG, "VUELO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.