Ukraine’s President: ‘I Wanted to Be World Famous,’ but Not This Way


KIEV, Ukraine — When two elderly women started shouting at President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday, interrupting questions from journalists about his summer call to President Trump with complaints about a local mayor, the young Ukrainian leader made clear where his priorities lie.

Mr. Zelensky, whose political party is called Servant of the People, abandoned the journalists and his exasperated press secretary and went over to hear the women out, ordering his aides to take down their information and determine how to address their concerns.

The scene unfolded in the course of a daylong news conference that Mr. Zelensky hosted at a food court in central Kiev, part of an effort to take back control of his narrative and refocus attention on domestic priorities amid the firestorm surrounding his interactions with President Trump.

This is not where Mr. Zelensky expected to be when he took office last May. A popular comedian and actor, who played a president on TV before he entered the race for Ukraine’s actual presidency last year, Mr. Zelenksy had anticipated becoming embroiled in ferocious battles with Ukraine’s oligarchs over endemic corruption and going head-to-head with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin.

In the past, America’s support as he faced down these challenges and attempted to break Ukraine’s cycle of instability and dysfunction would have been a given. No more.

“Right now, I am in the center of world media,” he said at the news conference. “I really wanted to be world famous, but not because of such a situation.”

With locals milling about on their lunch hours, Mr. Zelensky spent the day on Thursday holding court in front of a barbecue restaurant, hosting a rotating series of small panels with local and foreign journalists. He tried to focus the conversation on the bread and butter issues that both he and most Ukrainians say they elected him to address: rampant corruption, crumbling infrastructure and a war against Russian-backed separatists that continues to bleed the country of lives and treasure.

The war has cost 13,000 lives, led to the loss of the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed in 2014. Large swathes of eastern Ukraine are under control of separatists backed by Russia.

“What kind of president did society elect?” Mr. Zelensky said to journalists on Thursday. “A president that will end the war. This is my mission for the next five years.”

He fielded questions about organized crime in the city of Odessa and the continued presence in his government of high-ranking officials who have long been stained by corruption. And he was asked repeatedly about Ihor Kolomoisky, a billionaire and former business partner of Mr. Zelensky, whose looming influence over his administration is at odds with his promises to finally expel the oligarchs from power.

All the while, members of the public meandered around just a few yards away, buying muffins and occasionally yelling out questions or complaints of their own. The event had the appearance of Mr. Zelenky’s favorite medium: theater.

”Zelensky won the election on the message that, ‘I am not a typical politician — I am the anti-politician, I am the man of the people,’” Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor in chief of Ukraine World, said in an interview. “Therefore, he should communicate with media without symbols of power. That was the idea behind the whole theater.”

But time and again, journalists steered him back to Mr. Trump and Ukraine’s role in an impeachment inquiry that has threatened to engulf not one but two presidencies. As Mr. Trump fights for his political life and legacy in the United States, Mr. Zelenksy has had to contend with the fallout in Ukraine and his place at the center of an enormous political scandal raging thousands of miles away.

So far, he has handled the challenge with poise, observers say, and a little bit of the wry sass that made him famous in his home country.

After a partial transcript of his call with Mr. Trump was released, showcasing his somewhat awkward efforts to make nice to President Trump, he joked that he didn’t know the White House would publish his part of the conversation. And with American TV networks clamoring for an on-camera exclusive with the man at the center of the drama, Mr. Zelensky chose instead to sit for an interview with Kyodo, a Japanese news service.

It is difficult to gauge fully how the impeachment inquiry in the United States has affected Mr. Zelenksy’s standing with Ukrainians, though a poll published this week by the National Democratic Institute found that 67 percent of respondents trust or fully trust the president. For many, the drama in faraway Washington can feel remote next to more pressing local questions.

“This isn’t something that we really talk about in Ukraine,” said Valeria A. Gontareva, the former head of Ukraine’s Central Bank.

“We had 20 banks involved in money laundering that we closed,” she said. “Let them investigate that.”

Mr. Zelensky has received far more scrutiny over his handling of the conflict with Russia than anything involving Mr. Trump. Last weekend, thousands of Ukrainians gathered in central Kiev to protest after Mr. Zelensky signed onto a proposal to grant a degree of autonomy to separatist regions as long as they hold elections deemed free and fair by international observers. Critics have derided the move as capitulation to Russia because the deal includes no timeline for a pullback of Russia’s forces.

Mr. Zelensky is also pursuing a policy of disengagement along the front with Russia by moving Ukrainian front-line trenches back several thousand yards, intended to decrease casualties from snipers and skirmishes and reduce danger to civilians in these areas. Critics accuse the president of giving up territory hard-won by Ukrainian.

Konstiantyn Marchenko, 46, a veteran who turned up at the protest against Mr. Zelensky’s peace plan last Saturday, called the him a “traitor and a puppet” — not for obsequiousness to Mr. Trump, but to Mr. Putin.

Of course, fallout from the impeachment proceeding in the United States will continue to cast a shadow over Mr. Zelensky’s presidency.

Pressed on the issue on Thursday, Mr. Zelensky again denied he had felt any pressure from Mr. Trump to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, and said he “didn’t care what happens” in the case of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that once employed Mr. Biden’s son. In the phone call, President Trump had asked Mr. Zelensky to do him a “favor” and investigate the debunked theory that Mr. Biden had directed Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who had set his sights on the company.

Mr. Zelensky also insisted that Mr. Trump did not seek to blackmail him over military aid, saying he was not aware at the time of the call that Mr. Trump had put a hold on nearly $400 million meant to bolster Ukraine’s fighting ability, and that the topic had not come up.

Mr. Trump’s decision to delay the release of the military aid is one of the central questions in the impeachment inquiry being pursued by Democrats in the House of Representatives. At issue is whether Mr. Trump sought to use the assistance as leverage to pressure Mr. Zelensky’s new government to open investigations into Mr. Biden, one of the president’s leading opponents in the 2020 elections.

If that was the intended message, Mr. Zelensky does not seem to have received it. The Ukrainian president said that after he became aware of the issue, he raised it, first with Vice President Mike Pence at a meeting in Poland, and then with Mr. Trump directly during a meeting at the United Nations in September.

Pressed on the now debunked conspiracy theory promoted by some of Mr. Trump’s supporters that it was Ukraine — and not Russia — that was guilty of interfering in the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Zelenksy said that he had no intention of meddling in any country. He warned other countries to stay out of Ukraine’s internal affairs as well.

“You chose your president yourself,” he said, in response to a question from an American journalist. “And, if I may say so, you will not now, or in the future, influence the elections of an independent Ukraine.”

Source : Nytimes