Zelensky: Two months as Ukraine’s most unusual president

Jewish TV star and political neophyte has changed style of presidency by canceling parades, berating officials, driving a Tesla

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky takes a selfie at the first congress of his party called Servant of the People in the city Botanical Garden, Kiev, Ukraine, June 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Zoya Shu)
Volodymyr Zelensky surrounded by cameramen and photographers plays table tennis with a journalist ahead of the provisional results at the headquarter in Kiev, on March 31, 2019. (Genya SAVILOV/AFP)

During his first months as Ukraine’s leader, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky has not yet done anything that would affect ordinary lives, but has completely changed the style of the country’s presidency.

The 41-year-old has played a twofold game, underlining that he is a man of the people while attacking the traditional political class that he has denounced as corrupt.

Here is a recap of his most unusual moves as president.

Kisses and selfies

During his inauguration on May 20, Zelensky arrived at Ukraine’s parliament from his nearby home by foot.

He gave high-fives to people who lined the streets of Kiev, and jumped up to kiss a friend on his forehead.

During his inaugural speech, he announced the dissolution of parliament and early elections.

He also called on officials not to hang his photographs in their offices.

“The president is not an icon, he is not an idol,” he said. “Hang photographs of your children and look them in the eye when you make your decisions.”

Informal dress code

Unlike former Ukrainian presidents who wore formal suits, Zelensky often appears at meetings without a tie and sometimes without a jacket — even when it comes to high-ranking foreign guests.

During a meeting with German and French foreign ministers in May he appeared in a dark shirt with rolled up sleeves.

Zelensky wore a blue shirt under a bulletproof vest during his first visit to the frontline in eastern Ukraine, where Kiev is fighting pro-Russia rebels, in contrast to his predecessor Petro Poroshenko who always wore a military uniform when visiting the area.

Running through a fountain

During a visit to Mariupol on June 15, Zelensky surprised crowds by running through a park fountain with children in the summer heat.

He did so in front of surprised local residents, then jumped into a car and drove away.

Relocating presidential offices

In June Zelensky announced a controversial plan to move the presidential administration from a hulking Soviet-era building in central Kiev to a multifunctional complex that holds exhibitions, conferences and forums.

The president previously told AFP that he was “very uncomfortable” in the building where all Ukrainian presidents have worked and once said that a terminal inside Kiev’s Boryspil airport would be a good place for his office.

He also opened the road that houses the presidential administration to ordinary citizens.

Canceling military parades

This month Zelensky made a surprise decision to cancel the Independence Day military parade this August — one of the country’s key events since the beginning of a conflict with Russia-backed rebels in the east that has claimed around 13,000 lives.

Instead he promised to allocate 300 million hryvnia (more than 10 million euros) as awards to Ukrainian soldiers.

Shouting at officials

The new president is already known for slamming officials publicly.

During one meeting in mid-July he shouted at an official in a crowded room after finding out about his “criminal past” on the internet.

“Get out of here, you bandit,” Zelensky shouted.

More recently he asked an official: “Why do you treat people like cattle?” and made him publicly promise to resign.

Analyst Volodymyr Fesenko believes that the president’s behavior is popular among voters and has contributed to his approval rising ratings.

Tesla instead of a bike

As a comedian Zelensky played a fictional president in the TV series “Servant of the people” in which he rides a bike to work.

As a candidate, he constantly criticized government officials for their expensive cars and motorcades.

But soon after his inauguration Zelensky acknowledged that he cannot ride a bike to work for security reasons.

“What do you mean? I will be shot dead,” he told a group of journalists, including AFP.

On July 17 Zelensky posted a video in which he addresses Ukrainians while driving a Tesla.

He continues to use the presidential plane, though he promised to take regular flights.

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