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President Volodymyr Zelenskiy: Ukraine As A State Of Mind

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's 2019 Inauguration
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At his May 20 inauguration, new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, named two challenging objectives: electing a new parliament ahead of schedule and restoring peace in Donbas. But the most challenging yet may be a proposed mental makeover -- encouraging Ukrainians to believe that “each of us put his or her hand on the constitution,” and bears a responsibility for Ukraine’s future similar to Zelenskiy’s own.

“From now on, each of us is responsible for the country that we leave to our children. Each of us, in his place, can do everything for the prosperity of Ukraine,” the former TV comedian told inauguration guests in the Ukrainian parliament.

“Each of us” is a soldier killed in the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, a refugee [displaced person], or a labor migrant, he continued.

“Each of us” is also European, he implied.

“We have chosen a path to Europe, but Europe is not somewhere out there. Europe is here,” he said, pointing to his head. “And after it appears here, it will be everywhere, all over Ukraine.”

But, apparently, “each of us” is not necessarily a member of parliament.

“I don’t understand our government, which only shrugs its shoulders and says that they cannot do anything. That’s not true. You can. You can take a sheet of paper, take a pen, and make space for someone who will think about future generations, and not the next elections,” Zelenskiy said.

In his inauguration speech, he announced plans to dismiss the Verkhovna Rada, currently dominated by the faction of his recent rival, outgoing President Petro Poroshenko. New elections have been scheduled for July 21.

The president’s deputy chief of staff, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, stressed to Current Time that Zelenskiy’s decistion is “absolutely right” because “[t]he parliament did not support those proposals, which could make the election system better.”

On May 22, the legislature rejected making all of its 450 seats subject to election by party lists. Currently, half are based on first-past-the-post races; a situation that the Zelenskiy administration says contributes to corruption.

Citing what he described as parliament’s inability to negotiate, the president has asserted that he will not submit further bills to parliament until the July elections are held.

Analysts believe that Zelenskiy’s high standing in opinion polls dictates his rush to replace parliament. The former TV comedian won Ukraine’s run-off vote with a record-breaking 75 percent of the vote. He became the youngest Ukrainian president in history and the first with no previous political background.

The proposed early election is not unusual for Ukraine. In 2014, Poroshenko started his presidency by dismissing the Verkhovna Rada as well.

Some critics see other similarities with the Poroshenko administration, too.

To date, Zelenskiy has awarded seven administration positions to friends and former colleagues, including four individuals from his Kvartal 95 studio (Kvartal 95 co-founder Serhiy Shefir as chief presidential advisor; lawyer Ivan Bakanov as deputy chair of the Security Service; executive producer Serhiy Trofimov as first deputy chief of staff; and screenwriter Yuriy Kostyuk as deputy chief of staff). Former Kvartal 95 copyright lawyer Andriy Yermak and Kyrylo Timoshenko, whose Good Media studio created the ads for Zelenskiy’s presidential campaign, have been named as presidential deputy chiefs of staff. Mykhaylo Fedorov, who ran the Zelenskiy campaign’s internet strategy, is another deputy chief of staff.

The most controversial appointment, however, is likely Andriy Bogdan, a lawyer for the recently returned oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy, as chief of staff. Kolomoiskiy’s 1+1 TV channel broadcast Zelenskiy’s popular “Servant Of The People” series. Zelenskiy has denied that Kolomoiskiy’s connection with him extends further than that.

Moving into the president’s office on May 22, the former TV comedian again emphasized that he remains a man of the people. “Uncomfortable,” he commented in a PR video, as he tried out the voluminous armchair once occupied by the heftier President Poroshenko. “What are you clapping for?” he asked, as his retinue applauded.

That style marks a sharp departure from the usual for regional leaders. While Russian President Vladimir Putin strictly followed traditional protocol at his 2018 inauguration, Zelenskiy arrived at his own inauguration by foot, without a motorcade, stopping to shake hands with or kiss well-wishers, and, in at least one case, to pose for a selfie.

He has advised officials to display at work photos of their children rather than of him.

But Zelenskiy’s folksy approach may have little effect on what could prove his most difficult self-assigned task – ending the conflict with Russia and Russia-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donbas.

“We did not start this war, but we are the ones who should end it,” he told inauguration guests. “We are ready for dialogue.” He has not elaborated.

In an interview with Current Time, Svetlana Zhurova, the first deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, stated that the time has come to end “the mess” that exists between Russia and Ukraine, but underlined that the scope for a breakthrough remains narrow.

“The situation with Crimea will not change. If it’s not possible to agree on that, I suppose that Ukraine will not repair its ties with us,” Zhurova said.

Political expert Petro Oleshchuk, a professor of politics at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko National University, also expressed skepticism that a broad agreement between the two countries is reachable right now.

While practical issues, like the exchange of prisoners, can be resolved in the near future, predictions beyond that, Oleshchuk indicated, would only be speculative.

-Edited by Elizabeth Owen