Ukraine’s new president sworn in: ‘We must defend our land like Israelis’

Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jewish comedian who won a landslide victory in elections, dissolves parliament, urges ministers to resign and vows to solve Donbas crisis

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky holds Bulava, the Ukrainian symbol of power, during his inauguration ceremony at the parliament in Kiev on May 20, 2019. (Genya Savilov/AFP)
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky holds Bulava, the Ukrainian symbol of power, during his inauguration ceremony at the parliament in Kiev on May 20, 2019. (Genya Savilov/AFP)

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky stepped into his new role as Ukrainian president with his inauguration on Monday, launching a new era for the country wracked by war and economic difficulties.

A month after scoring a landslide election victory against incumbent Petro Poroshenko, the 41-year-old became Ukraine’s youngest post-Soviet president.

In a ceremony in parliament, he placed his hand on a copy of the constitution and a 16th century manuscript of the New Testament and pledged to “protect the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”

“We must become Icelanders in soccer, Israelis in defending our land, Japanese in technology,” he said, according to a report from the BBC.

He used his inaugural speech to announce that he is dissolving parliament, after wrangling with lawmakers in the lower house, in order to call early parliamentary elections, which had originally been scheduled for October.

“People must come to power who will serve the public,” Zelensky said.

Critics had questioned whether Zelensky would be able to govern without a parliamentary majority. Even setting a date for his inauguration took weeks of negotiations with hostile lawmakers, whom Zelensky exasperatedly called “petty crooks.”

He also vowed that his first task was to bring a ceasefire in the conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has so far caused some 13,000 deaths.

“We didn’t start this war but it is up to us to end it,” he said.

The separatist authorities have indicated that they could be ready to negotiate with Zelensky.

Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, center, greets his supporters before his inauguration ceremony in Kiev, Ukraine, May 20, 2019. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Dressed in a dark suit and tie, the president took a non-traditional route to his inauguration — walking on foot from his home nearby, after saying he wanted a less pompous ceremony.

In a sign of his more informal style, he exchanged high fives with supporters waiting outside and took selfies with them.

And he told politicians not to hang portraits of him in their offices, but rather of  their children.

So far little is known about his precise policies after a campaign that capitalized on public disillusionment with the political establishment and promised to “break the system.”

Uniquely for a first-time president, Zelensky had played the inauguration scene before — for laughs. He starred as a history teacher who was unexpectedly elected president in a television comedy series, “Servant of the People.”

Just a few months ago, the idea that Zelensky would be inaugurated for real seemed equally unlikely.

When the actor and comedian announced his candidacy on December 31, few took it seriously, but after an unprecedented campaign largely waged through social media, he won more than 73 percent in the second round on April 21, trouncing Poroshenko.

Poroshenko led Ukraine for five years, overseeing the fallout over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in the country’s east.

While Poroshenko averted complete collapse and launched a series of key reforms he was widely criticized for failing to improve Ukrainians’ living standards or effectively fight all-pervasive corruption.

‘Country needs changes’

Zelensky has vowed to continue the country’s pro-Western course but beyond that his program is still sketchy and his team largely unknown. His critics question how he will deal with the enormous challenges of the separatist conflict and ongoing economic problems.

The leader of one of the self-proclaimed separatist republics in Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region, Denis Pushilin, on Friday told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that he was “ready for dialogue” with the new authorities in Kiev, “naturally taking into account the interests of Donbass.”

Nevertheless he condemned what he called “destructive” statements by Zelensky’s team and accused Kiev of “blocking the peace process” which has long stalled.

Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky holds his hand on the Bible and the constitution as he takes the oath of office during his inauguration ceremony at the parliament in Kiev on May 20, 2019. (Genya SAVILOV/AFP)

Ukraine’s allies have given Zelensky a warm welcome, but one Ukrainian site specializing in international affairs, Evropeyska Pravda, suggested this was a “hug strategy” to ensure he continued to pursue a rapprochement with the West.

The new president will immediately have to deal with a number of sensitive international issues, giving him a foretaste of the challenges lying ahead.

Three days after Zelensky’s election, the Kremlin announced it was easing procedures for those living in the eastern separatist regions to gain Russian citizenship. Many observers in Kiev saw this as Moscow issuing a challenge to Zelensky and he strongly condemned the move.

In a sign of possible tensions between Kiev and Washington, Ukraine’s key ally against Moscow, US President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani this month cancelled a visit to Kiev, saying Zelensky is “surrounded by people who are enemies of the (US) president.”

The febrile political situation prompted one pro-Western lawmaker, Serguiy Vysotsky, to warn Zelensky that the inauguration “isn’t the end of your adventures — it’s just the beginning.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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