Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the media in Kiev, April 21 2019. Picture: GENYA SAVILOV / AFP
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the media in Kiev, April 21 2019. Picture: GENYA SAVILOV / AFP

Kiev — Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky used his inaugural speech on Monday to call snap parliamentary polls after shooting to power in a country wracked by a separatist conflict and severe economic problems.

The 41-year-old comedian was sworn in as Ukraine’s youngest post-Soviet president a month after scoring a landslide victory over Petro Poroshenko with a campaign capitalising on widespread public discontent with the political establishment.

Zelensky, whose only previous political experience is appearing as president in a popular TV show, announced that his first priority is ending the five-year conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in the industrial east that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

“Our first task is a ceasefire in the Donbass,” Zelensky said during the ceremony in parliament, referring to the eastern separatist-controlled region, prompting a round of applause.

“We didn’t start this war but it is up to us to end it,” he said. “We are ready for dialogue,” he added, urging the handover of Ukrainian prisoners.

He reiterated Ukraine does not recognise Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea nor the separatists’ self-proclaimed republics.

“Our next challenge is the return of the lost territories,” he said.

Switching to Russian in an emotive speech, he stressed that Ukraine must regain the hearts and minds of Russian-speaking people living there, who “are not strangers, they are ours, Ukrainians”.

Zelensky announced he would dissolve parliament in order to call early elections that had originally been scheduled for October.

“People must come to power who will serve the public,” Zelensky said, after wrangling with hostile MPs whom he has called “petty crooks”.

Zelensky’s move could be seen as breaching Ukraine’s complex legislation but is likely to go ahead, political analysts said.

“It will be easier for Zelensky to dissolve parliament than to keep his high rating,” analyst Mykola Davydchuk said. “There are no mechanisms or instruments to stop this decision.”

Zelensky also called for the sacking of the head of the state security service, prosecutor-general and defence minister loyal to his predecessor, though this has to be approved by parliament.

Defence minister Stepan Poltorak and the head of the SBU security service Vasyl Grytsak tendered their resignations on Monday.

Zelensky took a non-traditional route to his inauguration —walking from his nearby home, after saying he wanted a less pompous ceremony.

Dressed in a dark suit, he exchanged high-fives with supporters waiting outside, took selfies with them and even jumped up to plant a kiss on a supporter’s forehead.

In his speech, Zelensky referred to his background as a comedian. “In my life, I’ve tried to do all I could to make Ukrainians smile,” he said.

“In the next five years I’ll do all I can so that Ukrainians don’t cry.”

Uniquely for a first-time president, Zelensky has played the role before — for laughs. He starred as a history teacher who was unexpectedly elected president in a television comedy series, Servant of the People.

And his newly formed party is named Servant of the People.

When the actor and comedian announced his candidacy in December, few took it seriously, but after a campaign largely waged through social media, he won more than 73% in the second round on April 21 against Poroshenko.

Poroshenko led Ukraine for five years, overseeing the fallout over the Crimea annexation and the conflict in the east.

Though he launched some reforms, he was criticised for failing to improve living standards or effectively fight corruption.

Zelensky has vowed to continue the country’s pro-Western course but critics may question how he will deal with the enormous challenges of the separatist conflict and ongoing economic problems.

The separatist authorities have indicated that they could be ready to negotiate with Zelensky.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Monday said President Vladimir Putin has no plans to meet with Zelensky and would not be congratulating him on his inauguration.

The Russian president will only “congratulate him on the first successes” in resolving the separatist conflict, he said, calling it a “domestic problem” for Ukraine.

Kiev and its allies accuse Moscow of militarily supporting the separatists, which it denies.

But earlier in May, Putin ordered an easing of procedures for Ukrainians living in the separatist regions to gain Russian passports, a move that caused uproar in Kiev.

AFP