(Vinnytsia) Ukraine elected Volodymyr Zelensky president this April in a landslide with over 73 percent of the vote. He is now trying to use that political capital to end the conflict in Ukraine’s east and tighten ties with Europe and the West. Zelensky, who is famous for playing a president on television, is now one in real life. He recently offered to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin for talks in Minsk in talks mediated by Western leaders including US President Donald Trump. Moscow responded Monday, saying the new format will have to be carefully considered before they decide whether or not to participate.
The peace talks would address the ongoing fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. Conflict in the eastern separatist regions of Ukraine has claimed over 13,000 lives and the current ceasefire has reportedly been violated frequently by pro-Russian fighters up to the presentincluding in Donbas, Donetsk and Lugansk. Zelensky also wants to talk about Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Putin does not appear to hold Zelensky in high regard, having said last month at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that Zelensky is engaging in unnecessarily heated rhetoric and sending mixed signals about whether he truly wants to deescalate with Russia.
“It’s one thing to play a role and quite another thing to be that in real life,” Putin quipped.
For his part, Zelensky’s administration reinstated the citizenship of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili just after he was elected in May. Saakashvili, who led Georgian in their 2008 war with Russia is one of the strongest critics of Putin, having called him a “troll” and “thug” and promised to “put an end” to him. Saakashvili was appointed Odessa governor in 2015, but later had a dramatic falling out with the administration of former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, was arrested on the roof of a house in Kiev and went on to re-enter the country by force to rally opposition forces. Saakashvili was later stripped of citizenship and deported, and Putin previously mocked Zelensky’s criticism of Russia’s plan to give more Ukrainians Russian passports by daring Zelensky to give back Saakashvili’s citizenship, a bluff which Zelensky called.
Zelensky and his party Servant of the People (Sluha Narodu) is set to help bring a roster of new candidates to Ukrainian parliament, including many in their late 20s, 30s and 40s without previous political experience. Servant of the People is currently heading polls and likely to have a strong showing in the election coming up July 21. Concerns remain about some of those on the list of potential candidates, however, with many linked directly to Zelensky’s entertainment company Kvartal 95 and some to questionably ethical oligarchs and supporters of removed pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych, who looted an estimated $100 billion from Ukraine before being ousted in the Euromaidan protests – including money that has helped fund separatists in the east – according to Ukraine’s chief prosecutor. However there are also numerous positive signs in Zelensky’s party roster such as anti-corruption expert Halyna Yanchenko, energy regulation guru Andriy Gerus and many others; not to mention that some entertainment and creative life in politics is not always the worst thing in the world.
Zelensky has a major investment forum planned this September in Mariupol in eastern Ukraine where he hopes to secure funds for the rebuilding of Donbas that can coincide with an end to hostilities. Earlier this month in Canada, Zelensky said that Donbas will need around 10 billion Euros to be rebuilt.
“We want to do everything and are sending constant signals for a ceasefire,” Zelensky said recently while announcing a new governor in Ukraine’s Dontesk region.
Speaking Monday, 25-year-old taxi driver Olech told Inside Over he supports Zelensky and believes the comedian is not as corrupt as his presidential predecessors. On a train bound for central Ukraine, 30-year-old Artem said politics doesn’t interest him and he has no opinion, while older Ukrainians appear to hold cautious optimism for Zelensky but a general desire to get on with their life and leave the messiness of politics behind rather than hold hope for political change to offer a solution to the country’s woes.
From the Western side, the rhetoric is all about reassurance.
“Ukraine can count on the EU,” said European Council President Donald Tusk at a summit Monday in Kiev focused on discussing the ongoing conflict, corruption and the annexation of Crimea, however the future of Ukraine going forward is certainly not entirely stable and they will need to balance economic ties with Russia which are vital to Ukraine’s industry and keep in mind Moscow’s strategy to integrate more Eeastern Europe states.