Daunting challenges facing new Ukraine leader

Candidate Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of an exit poll in Ukraine’s presidential election in Kiev. (Reuters pic)

KIEV: Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old standup comedian with no political experience, will be sworn in as Ukrainian president on Monday.

As leader of a country dependent on international aid and battling separatists, Zelensky will have to deal with rebellious elites and deep-seated economic problems and stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Here is a look at the main challenges facing Ukraine’s sixth president:

Hostile establishment

Zelensky will have to demonstrate his ability to negotiate with various political forces to push through much-needed reforms.

Zelensky’s party – named Servant of the People after the television show he stars in – can hardly be called a proper political party.

But it is already leading in opinion polls as parliamentary elections are due to be held later this year.

The new leader has so far struggled to impose his will on parliament, however, and he repeatedly accused MPs of deliberately delaying his inauguration.

Zelensky has considered dissolving the legislature and holding snap parliamentary elections before the expected date in October.

But on Friday, the country’s ruling coalition collapsed after the People’s Front party pulled out. This makes it harder for the new leader to call early elections.

Zelensky’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was knocked out of the presidential race, may be looking for revenge during the legislative polls.

Analysts say that assembling the right team will be crucial for the neophyte president.

Ukrainians expect radical change quickly so Zelensky will have to move fast before he faces a possible legitimacy crisis.

Economy and oligarchs

The young president will have to rein in oligarchs who wield huge influence and in particular prove to supporters he is not under the thumb of controversial tycoon Igor Kolomoysky, whose channel broadcast his shows.

Hours before parliament set Zelensky’s inauguration date on Thursday, Kolomoysky reportedly flew to Ukraine for the first time in nearly two years.

The tycoon has been living in Israel.

Kolomoysky and the Ukrainian government have been locked in a multi-billion-dollar dispute over ownership of the country’s largest lender, PrivatBank.

Kolomoysky’s return will be seen as the first major test of the new president’s political course and leadership.

After a popular uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime in 2014, the new Ukrainian government secured a US$17.5 billion (RM73 billion) deal led by the International Monetary Fund to buttress the struggling economy.

But the disbursement of the funds has often been delayed as Poroshenko’s government has struggled to push through reforms required by the IMF, including anti-corruption measures and raising household gas prices.

Zelensky said he will continue cooperating with the IMF and promised to do whatever is necessary to service the country’s debt.

Analysts warn that this will be a huge challenge as Ukraine’s debt obligations peak in the next few years.

In the next three years Ukraine will have to pay off more than US$20 billion in state debt. Economic growth is also slowing down.

Separatist war, Kremlin

Many voters also expect Zelensky to quickly end a now five-year war with Moscow-backed separatists in the industrial east.

The conflict has claimed some 13,000 lives since 2014 and is a huge burden on the economy and society.

Despite numerous attempts to staunch the bloodletting, the war regularly claims the lives of soldiers and civilians, and a solution is nowhere in sight.

The Kremlin has not congratulated Zelensky on his landslide win and said it was too early to say whether it can work with him.

Soon after Zelensky’s win Putin signed a decree fast-tracking Russian citizenship for millions of Ukrainians.

The West has called the passport scheme a fresh assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Zelensky said he will not resort to force to take back Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.