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‘Listen to the people’ – POLITICO

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the former comedian whose party is called “Servant of the People” after the TV show he once starred in, has some advice for his strongman neighbors, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko: Listen to the people.

In an interview with POLITICO ahead of a visit to Brussels on Tuesday, Zelenskiy said he gets an eerily familiar feeling watching the protests in Belarus, and also in Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East — given that Ukraine has had not one but two street revolutions already this century.

“What is happening today in Khabarovsk is, I think, the very clear position of people who come out [on to the streets] — that they have an opinion,” Zelenskiy said in the interview. “And this is the most important thing — that they cannot be influenced by only the information policy of the Russian Federation. You can’t brainwash them. It is clear that at any moment there will be a social explosion. We see the same thing in Belarus today. People are tired of these politics.”

Zelenskiy, who used his fame playing a fictional president on the satirical “Servant of the People” sitcom to win the real job last year, said that those in power must listen to those they serve, or face revolt.

“Can what is happening now in Belarus be the same in Russia? I can’t tell you,” Zelenskiy said. “But what I see is that the people of Belarus [where protests have multiplied following the disputed reelection of President Lukashenko in August] will no longer stand for the policies that were before. Authorities need to listen to the people. And, most importantly, throwing people in police wagons for having a different opinion; or using batons; or certain means against people; you can’t build a dialogue. People need to be heard. If people want change, then it’s time for that change.”

Zelenskiy leads a country at war, and in the interview he said he will arrive to meet with EU leaders on Tuesday, bearing a request and an offer.

Zelenskiy noted that Ukraine has had two recent revolutions — the Orange Revolution of 2004-05, and its Revolution of Dignity a decade later.

“I see there, approximately the same situation,” he said. “People do not want to live as before … If there is no dialogue, if the authorities do not talk about it with the people, and pretend that it is happening ‘somewhere, in one area or another, this is not the whole country,’ then there will be a wave. You know what the sea is — and a wave always washes away all the past.”

Zelenskiy leads a country at war, and in the interview he said he will arrive to meet with EU leaders on Tuesday, bearing a request and an offer.

The request is that the EU continue, or even step up, its support for Ukraine in the ongoing conflict with Russia — by maintaining tough sanctions against Moscow, and further developing economic and political ties with Kyiv.

The offer is to help manufacture a coronavirus vaccine once an effective immunization is ready for mass production.

In the interview, Zelenskiy reiterated his commitment to the Minsk II peace process, but also his firm view that local elections cannot be held in the embattled areas of eastern Ukraine — as demanded by Russian President Putin — until Ukraine regains full control of its external borders.

Without control of the border, he said it would be impossible to hold a free and fair election and for international election observers to verify the process. “The Ukrainian border should be controlled by the Ukrainian authorities,” he said. “I say this openly and I believe that it cannot be otherwise … it’s just physically impossible.”

Zelenskiy also said that Ukraine’s destiny was now clearly in the West. “Ukrainians want to live in European Ukraine,” he said. “They understand that this is the way to be a member of the EU. I believe that we are mentally more European than, sorry, some EU countries.”

In briefings on Monday, senior EU officials said they would use the meeting with Zelenskiy and Council President Charles Michel to emphasize the bloc’s political and economic support for Kyiv. They will encourage Zelenskiy to continue pushing efforts to reduce corruption and carry out an array of judicial and economic reforms. EU officials said they would also reiterate their support for maintaining sanctions against Russia, which Zelenskiy in the interview said was his top priority request.

“The EU will continue to show our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a senior EU official said.

Despite that support, the Minsk II peace agreement, brokered and guaranteed by France and Germany, has barely inched forward since Zelenskiy and Putin met in December in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — largely because of the standoff over holding local elections and changes to the Ukrainian constitution that would grant “special status” to the embattled regions of Donetsk and Luhansk — both currently controlled by pro-Russian separatist administrations.

Zelenskiy readily conceded that he did not agree with some provisions of the Minsk II accord | Sergey Dolzhenko/AFP via Getty Images


After the December meeting, Zelenskiy worked with the Russians to negotiate an exchange of prisoners, bringing home some 140 captive Ukrainians, and a cease-fire implemented in June has led to a sharp reduction in hostilities. But his failure to end the war as promised during his election campaign has led to a sharp decline in support to roughly half of the 73 percent who voted for him, according to recent polls.

In the interview, Zelenskiy readily conceded that he did not agree with some provisions of the Minsk II accord, negotiated by his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, such as those that required Ukraine to make constitutional changes, but that it was the only path to a settlement.

“Minsk was signed,” Zelenskiy said. “Am I personally satisfied with the format of Minsk, the sequence of points in Minsk and the wording of some points that have been signed? Personally, I am not completely.” But he added, “That this is the only format in which we work today is true.”

As for further constitutional changes demanded by Putin, he said: “No one can effect a change to the constitution of Ukraine except the people of Ukraine.”

“It is very important for us that Ukraine does not interfere in the elections of any country” — Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Zelenskiy insisted that he had no choice but to engage with Putin, and in a sign of the sensitivity of his position, he mostly sidestepped a question about the Russian leader’s role in the poisoning of the opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

“The whole world is closely following the details and results of the investigation into the tragedy with Mr. Navalny, which are to be published by the German side,” he said. “We all want to see it.”

Zelenskiy similarly engaged in well-practiced evasive tactics when asked about the U.S. presidential election. Zelenskiy ended up at the center of President Donald Trump’s impeachment scandal, after the American leader withheld military aid to Ukraine in an effort to pressure Ukraine’s government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son, Hunter.

“It is very important for us that Ukraine does not interfere in the elections of any country,” he said. “With all due respect to the United States — with all due respect to their main political decision, the presidential election — for me personally, it is more important to resolve the issue of war than elections in another country.”

Nor would he comment on any ongoing investigations. “As for criminal cases, our law enforcement officers deal with it,” he said.”I don’t even want to have all the information. And, according to my authority, I can’t have all the information about how a criminal case in Ukraine is going.”


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