KIEV: Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday used his inaugural speech to announce his first priority was ending the five-year conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in the east of the country that has claimed over 13,000 lives.
A month after scoring a landslide victory against incumbent Petro Poroshenko amid widespread public discontent with the political establishment, the 41-year-old comedian has become Ukraine’s youngest post-Soviet president.
“Our first task is a ceasefire in the Donbass,” Zelensky said during the ceremony in parliament in Kiev, referring to the eastern region, prompting a round of applause.
“We didn’t start this war but it is up to us to end it,” he said.
He reiterated Ukraine does not recognise Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea nor the separatists’ self-proclaimed republics in the industrial east.
“Crimea and Donbass are Ukrainian land,” Zelensky said, adding that Ukraine had lost not just territory but the hearts and minds of people living there, who “are not strangers, they are ours, Ukrainians.”
Critics had questioned whether Zelensky would be able to govern without a parliamentary majority. Even setting a date for his inauguration took weeks of negotiations with lawmakers.
In a hard-hitting speech, Zelensky called for the sacking of the head of the state security service, prosecutor-general and defence minister – which has to be approved by parliament.
Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak and the head of the SBU security service Vasyl Grytsak swiftly tendered their resignations.
High fives outside parliament
Zelensky took a non-traditional route to his inauguration – walking on foot from his home nearby, 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 planting 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.”
The parliament’s speaker Andriy Parubiy closed the inauguration ceremony with words: “Thanks everyone, this has been fun.”
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”.
When the actor and comedian announced his candidacy on December 31, few took it seriously, but after an unprecedented campaign largely waged through social media, he won more than 73% in the second round on April 21, trouncing 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 his critics 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 spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday said Russian President Vladimir Putin has no plans to meet with Zelensky and would not be congratulating him on taking up the post.
The Russian president will instead “congratulate him on the first successes” in regulating the conflict, he said, calling it a “domestic problem” for Ukraine.
Moscow has been accused of militarily supporting the separatists, and Putin this month ordered an easing of procedures for Ukrainians living in the eastern separatist regions to gain Russian citizenship, a challenge to the new Ukrainian leader.
Ukraine’s allies have given Zelensky a warm welcome, but the new president will immediately have to deal with a number of sensitive international issues.
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 Zelensky is “surrounded by people who are enemies of the (US) president.”
The political situation prompted one pro-Western lawmaker, Serguiy Vysotsky, to warn Zelensky that the inauguration “isn’t the end of your adventures – it’s just the beginning”.