Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the 41 year-old TV comedian who won Ukraine’s elections last month, was sworn in as president on Monday and immediately said he was dissolving the country’s parliament to hold early elections.
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At the inauguration ceremony held in the parliament’s building in Kiev, Zelenskiy pledged to seek an end to the war with Russia in Ukraine‘s east and told lawmakers he wanted them to pass legislation to root out corruption.
Zelenskiy won a landslide election in late April with 73% of the vote, defeating the incumbent President Petro Poroshenko as he rode a wave of popular dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s political class and weariness over five years of war. He ran on a platform promising to shake up Ukraine’s politics, which most Ukrainians consider deeply corrupt and self-serving.
His victory made international headlines, in part because the popular entertainer has no previous political and stars in a TV show in which he plays a man who unexpectedly becomes president.
Monday’s ceremony was markedly different from past inaugurations in Ukraine and the usual forbidding grandiosity that marks such occasions in former Soviet countries. Zelenskiy dropped the traditional motorcade that shuts down traffic, instead walking through a park past a large crowd. Beaming, he stopped and high-fived supporters, even at one point jumping up to kiss a man on the top of his head.
In his speech in front of MPs, officials and foreign dignitaries, Zelenskiy said his election showed people were tired of an exploitative political class and told lawmakers who weren’t ready to change things they should resign.
“I don’t understand our government, which only throws up its hands and tells me that we can’t do anything. That’s not true — you can, you can take some paper, take a pen and free up your places for those who will think about the next generation and not about the next elections,” he told lawmakers before announcing he was dissolving parliament.
In his speech, he told officials he did not want them to hang portraits of him in their offices. “Because a president isn’t an idol,” he said. Instead, he told them to hang photos of their children and look at them before taking decisions.
Zelenskiy called on MPs to pass new legislation on illegal enrichment and strip lawmakers of immunity from prosecution. He also asked them to support his motions to fire Ukraine’s defense minister, the head of the Ukrainian security service and the prosecutor general. He said he was giving MPs two months to do so.
Quoting Ronald Reagan, who he noted was an actor who became an “awesome president”, Zelenskiy said, “Government isn’t the solution to our problem, it is the problem.”
Ukraine is due to hold parliamentary elections in the fall, but Zelenskiy’s decision to dissolve parliament would move these up by several months. Zelenskiy and his supporters are eager to hold elections sooner hoping he will benefit from his current support and to allow him to begin passing his own legislative agenda.
Zelenskiy and his young team have presented themselves as a break with the Soviet-style strongman leaders and their accompanying cults of personality that are common in the region, from Belarus and Russia to the republics of Central Asia.
In his speech, Zelenskiy said his priority is ending the war with Russia in Ukraine’s east that has killed over 13,000 people since 2014, and he continued the conciliatory message for Russian-speaking Ukrainians that he had offered in his campaign.
He said he was ready to lose his popularity and his new position for the sake of peace. “We didn’t start it, but we will end this war,” he said, promising his first step would be to return Ukrainian prisoners of war taken by Russia.
Zelenskiy switched for part of the speech into Russian — his own first language — and said Ukrainian authorities had failed to make people living in areas under pro-Russian rebel control feel that they were still Ukrainians. He slapped down a nationalist MP, Oleh Lyashko, who interrupted to shout that people in the separatist areas didn’t understand Ukrainian.
“We are all Ukrainians, no matter where we live,” he said.
The difficulties Zelenskiy faces were underlined last week when Poroshenko, in one of his last acts as president, signed a law giving the Ukrainian language special status and making it obligatory for civil servants. Russia has condemned that law as a provocation and on Monday called an emergency session of United Nations Security Council to discuss it.
Zelenskiy’s attempt to dissolve the parliament already faces a challenge. A faction in the parliament last week announced it was leaving the ruling coalition, technically collapsing Poroshenko’s government.
Parliamentary rules prohibit it from being disbanded for 30 days after a coalition breaks up, a delay that would create another delay since it would mean the parliament would already be in the final six months of its a term, when it cannot be dissolved.
But Zelenskiy’s team has said it considers the claim that the faction’s exit makes it impossible to dissolve parliament is invalid, since the coalition in practice has not existed for years.
Closing his speech, Zelenskiy referred to his previous career as a comedian.
“Throughout all of my life, I tried to do everything to make Ukrainians laugh,” he said. “In the next five years I will do everything, Ukrainians, so that you don’t cry.”