Putin and Zelenskiy trade jibes in Russia-Ukraine passport scrap

Kiev’s president-elect offers refuge to victims of ‘authoritarian and corrupt’ Kremlin

Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy grills kebabs on a holiday in Bodrum, Turkey: in barbed exchanges with Vladimir Putin,  he said Russians “suffer most of all”.  Photograph: Neyzar Ozbek/Reuters

Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy grills kebabs on a holiday in Bodrum, Turkey: in barbed exchanges with Vladimir Putin, he said Russians “suffer most of all”. Photograph: Neyzar Ozbek/Reuters

 

Russian president Vladimir Putin has continued to spar with Ukraine’s incoming leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy over their rival plans to offer passports to each other’s compatriots, as citizenship becomes a battleground in the conflict between the former allies.

Mr Putin signed a decree last week to offer fast-track Russian citizenship to people living in parts of eastern Ukraine controlled since 2014 by Moscow-led militants, in what he called a “humanitarian” gesture to make their lives easier. Kiev, the European Union and United States denounced the move as dangerous and provocative.

Mr Putin subsequently said he might extend the plan to all Ukrainians, angering many in the country with his assumption that they would welcome the offer and reviving memories of how the Kremlin handed out passports in separatist-held regions of Georgia before invading in 2008 on the pretext of “protecting Russian citizens”.

His comments drew a stinging response from Mr Zelenskiy, a comedian and impresario who crushed Ukraine’s current president Petro Poroshenko in an election run-off this month and will take office in the coming weeks.

Freedom of expression

“Ukraine is different [to Russia], because we Ukrainians have freedom of expression and the media and internet are free in our country,” he wrote on Facebook.

“Because we understand full well what a Russian passport offers: the right to be arrested at a peaceful protest; the right not to have free and competitive elections; the right to forget completely about the existence of inalienable human rights and freedoms,” the political newcomer continued.

“Ukraine will not give up its mission to offer an example of democracy to post-Soviet states. And part of that mission will be to give protection, refuge and Ukrainian citizenship to all those who fight for freedom,” he declared.

“We will give Ukrainian citizenship to people of all nations who suffer under authoritarian and corrupt regimes. And first and foremost to Russians, who today suffer most of all.”

Mr Zelenskiy’s statement showed he is keen to quash Mr Poroshenko’s claim that he will be easy meat for Russia’s leader of 20 years, and strengthened a sense that he could be a tricky adversary for Mr Putin.

Social media savvy

As a Jew who speaks better Russian than Ukrainian, Mr Zelenskiy (41) will make it hard for Moscow to maintain that Ukraine is run by Russophobic fascists, and his social media savvy and celebrity status could help him bypass Kremlin-controlled media and speak directly to frustrated young Russians; he is also very popular in government-held eastern Ukraine, long a stronghold of Kremlin-friendly politicians.

Mr Putin shot back on Monday, saying he welcomed Mr Zelenskiy’s passport suggestion because it meant Russians and Ukrainians could soon have “shared citizenship”.

“Many times I’ve said Ukrainians and Russians are brotherly nations,” Mr Putin continued, in comments likely to further anger a nation that has seen 13,000 people killed and its economy ravaged by five years of fighting fuelled by Moscow.

“I generally think [we are] one people, with our own cultural, linguistic and historical specificities, but in essence one people . . . If we have shared citizenship then Russians and Ukrainians will only gain from it,” he added.