Ukraine’s new president announces snap parliamentary election
Volodymyr Zelenskiy urges discredited politicians to make way for new generation
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy holds a mace, the Ukrainian symbol of power, during his inauguration ceremony in Kiev on Monday. Photograph: PA
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has used his inaugural speech to announce snap parliamentary elections and urge discredited and unpopular deputies to make way for a new generation of reform-minded politicians.
Mr Zelenskiy said his top priority was to end five years of fighting between government troops and Russian-led militants in the eastern Donbas region, and he also vowed to improve the economy and public services while rooting out graft.
The comedian – who played a fictional president in a popular television show – arrived on foot with only a couple of bodyguards at the parliament in Kiev, where he high-fived and took selfies with cheering supporters before following the red carpet inside to take his oath.
The open and no-nonsense approach that he has promised to bring to Ukrainian politics continued in his address, as he dispensed with pleasantries and told assembled ministers and deputies that their time was up.
“I don’t understand our government, which just spreads its hands and says there’s nothing we can do. It’s not true – you can take a paper and pen and free up your places for those who think about the next generation rather than the next election,” he said, to cheers from those watching on a big screen outside parliament.
“Our primary task is to reach a ceasefire in Donbas... We didn’t start this war, but it is up to us to end it. We’re ready for dialogue. And I’m sure the first step towards the start of dialogue would be the return of all Ukrainian prisoners [from Russia]” he said of a conflict that has killed 13,000 people and displaced 1.6 million.
“I am not afraid of making hard decisions or of losing my popularity ... and if necessary I’m ready to give up my post without hesitation to achieve peace. Without giving away our territories, ever,” he added to applause from the chamber.
Mr Zelenskiy (41) switched from Ukrainian to Russian when saying that Russian speakers in Kremlin-controlled Crimea and militant-held parts of Donbas were still cherished Ukrainian citizens -– prompting the populist Radical party leader Oleh Lyashko to heckle him from the floor.
“Thank you for continuing to divide the nation, Mr Lyashko,” the new head of state shot back.
Even before taking office, Mr Zelenskiy chided deputies for scheduling the inauguration on a weekday regardless of the traffic chaos it would cause in Kiev, and for formally scrapping the ruling coalition last week in an apparent bid to prevent him bringing forward parliamentary elections scheduled for October.
“You chose Monday as the inauguration day ... so let’s work,” Mr Zelenskiy said.
He urged deputies to scrap their immunity from prosecution, criminalise illegal enrichment and introduce a new electoral code, as well as to dismiss the head of the state security service, the prosecutor general and the defence minister.
“That’s far from everything you could do, but it’s a decent start. You’ve got two months. Do it and pin medals on your chests. It will score you some points in early parliamentary elections. I’m dissolving parliament,” he said.
The new presidential administration seems confident that it can skirt legal time constraints created by last Thursday’s demise of the governing coalition by arguing that it actually fell apart in 2016 when other parties left and it lost its majority – allowing Mr Zelenskiy to call a snap vote that his Servant of the People party is tipped to dominate.
He told deputies that his landslide election victory last month showed that Ukrainians were tired of the political old guard, and urged them to drop the tradition of hanging the president’s portrait in their offices.
“Put up photos of your children and, before every decision you make, look them in the eye,” he advised.