Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 June 2019

Ukraine inaugurates comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy as president

Wielding his new powers, the 41-year-old immediately moved to disband parliament

Ukraine's new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy applauds after taking the oath of office during his inauguration ceremony in the parliament hall in Kiev, Ukraine May 20, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Ukraine's new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy applauds after taking the oath of office during his inauguration ceremony in the parliament hall in Kiev, Ukraine May 20, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy was sworn in as Ukrainian president on Monday, launching a new era for a country wracked by war and economic difficulties.

A month after scoring a landslide election victory against incumbent Petro Poroshenko, the 41-year-old became Ukraine's youngest post-Soviet president.

He used his inaugural speech to announce that he was dissolving parliament to call early parliamentary elections, as per his campaign promise. The vote had been scheduled for October.

"People must come to power who will serve the public," Mr Zelenskiy said.

Mr Zelenskiy eschewed a traditional motorcade to travel to his inauguration, instead walking to the parliament through a park packed with people. Flanked by four bodyguards, he gave high-fives to spectators and even stopped to take a selfie with one of them.

Before his speech, Mr Zelenskiy asked the parliament to adopt a bill against illegal enrichment and to support his motions to fire the country's defence minister, the head of the Ukrainian Security Service and the prosecutor general. All of them are allies of Mr Poroshenko.

The calling of early elections dispelled questions of whether Mr Zelenskiy could govern without a parliamentary majority. Even setting a date for his inauguration took weeks of negotiations with hostile lawmakers, whom Mr Zelenskiy called "petty crooks".

He vowed that his first task as president would be to implement a ceasefire with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has caused some 13,000 deaths.

"We didn't start this war, but it is up to us to end it," he said.

Separatist authorities have indicated that they could be ready to negotiate with Mr Zelenskiy.

Little is known about Mr Zelenskiy's policies. During his campaign he capitalised on public disillusionment with the political establishment by promising to "break the system".

Uniquely for a first-time president, Mr Zelenskiy had played the inauguration scene before — for laughs. He starred as a history teacher who was unexpectedly elected president in a television comedy series, "Servant of the People".

Just a few months ago, the idea that Mr Zelenskiy would be inaugurated for real seemed unlikely.

Few took him seriously when the actor and comedian announced his candidacy on December 31. But after a campaign largely waged through social media, he won more than 73 per cent in the second round on April 21, trouncing Mr Poroshenko.

Mr Poroshenko led Ukraine for five years, overseeing the fallout from Russia's annexation of Crimea and a conflict in the country's east.

While Mr Poroshenko did avert complete political collapse and launched a series of key reforms, he was criticised for failing to improve living standards or effectively fighting all-pervasive corruption.

Mr Zelenskiy has vowed to continue the country's pro-Western course but beyond that, his programme and team remain largely unknown. His critics question how he will deal with the enormous challenges of the separatist conflict and ongoing economic problems.

Ukraine's allies have given Mr Zelenskiy a warm welcome, but one Ukrainian website specialising in international affairs, Evropeyska Pravda, suggested this was a "hug strategy" to ensure he continued to pursue a rapprochement with the West.

The new president will immediately have to deal with a number of sensitive international issues, giving him a foretaste of challenges ahead.

Three days after Mr Zelenskiy's election, the Kremlin announced it was easing procedures for those living in the eastern separatist regions to gain Russian citizenship. Many observers in Kiev saw this as Moscow issuing a challenge to Mr Zelenskiy, and he strongly condemned the move.

In a sign of possible tensions between Kiev and Washington, Ukraine's key ally against Moscow, US President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani this month cancelled a visit to Kiev, saying Mr Zelenskiy is "surrounded by people who are enemies of the [US] president."

The febrile political situation prompted one pro-Western lawmaker, Serguiy Vysotsky, to warn Mr Zelenskiy that the inauguration "isn't the end of your adventures — it's just the beginning".

Updated: May 20, 2019 03:51 PM

SHARE

SHARE