KIEV (Reuters) – Television comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy took the oath of office as Ukraine’s new president on Monday, promising that as hard as he had worked in the past to make Ukrainians laugh, he would now work to keep them from crying.
As his first act, he dismissed the parliament still dominated by loyalists of his defeated predecessor, setting up an election in two months in which his new party has a chance to win its first seats.
The inauguration day was marked by informal moments that conveyed the outsider persona that helped carry the political novice to a landslide victory last month.
He high-fived cheering supporters who held their arms outstretched outside the Soviet-era parliament building, and stopped for a selfie with the crowd. At one point he jumped up to kiss a man on the forehead. He later eschewed a motorcade to make his way to his new office on foot.
“Dear people, during my life I tried to do everything to make Ukrainians smile,” he said in his speech to parliament. “In the next five years, I will do everything, Ukrainians, so that you do not cry.”
Zelenskiy grew to national fame playing the role of a schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes president after a pupil films him making a foul-mouthed tirade against corrupt politicians and posts the video online. His campaign exploited the parallels with that fictional narrative, portraying him as an everyman who would stand up to a crooked political class.
In his inauguration speech, he called on officials to take down the customary portraits of the president that hang in their offices, and put up pictures of their children instead.
Ukraine’s most pressing issue is conflict with its neighbor Russia, which annexed its Crimea region in 2014 and backed separatists in a war in the east that has killed 13,000 people.
Zelenskiy said his first task was to achieve a ceasefire, adding that dialogue could only happen after the return of Ukrainian territory and prisoners of war.
“THANKS FOR CONTINUING TO DIVIDE PEOPLE!”
Born in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east, Zelenskiy briefly switched from the Ukrainian language to Russian during his speech, to talk about the need to win over the hearts and minds of people in separatist areas.
That prompted the head of a populist party, Oleh Lyashko, to interrupt the speech to interject that Ukrainians living in Crimea and the east also understood Ukrainian.
Zelenskiy replied: “They understand the Ukrainian language, yes. Thank you very much! Thanks for continuing to divide people, Mr. Lyashko!”
Parliament is still dominated by the bloc named for Zelenskiy’s defeated opponent, confectionary tycoon Petro Poroshenko, and by a range of smaller parties mostly founded as the personal vehicles for other political insiders.
Zelenskiy called on lawmakers to use the two months until the snap election to pass a law that would strip them of immunity from prosecution and another law that bans officials from illegally enriching themselves.
“You will have two months for this. Do it and you will deserve medals,” Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy had defeated Poroshenko by promising to fight entrenched corruption, deliver a ceasefire in the east and raise living standards in one of Europe’s poorest countries.
His campaign relied on his broad social media presence and comedy gigs, and also traded on the image of his fictional president, who is scrupulously honest and outwits corrupt lawmakers and oligarchs.
Last week he accused lawmakers of trying to sabotage his ability to call a snap election. However, lawmakers of various parties told Reuters they would accept the call for a new vote.
“I see no reason to challenge Zelenskiy’s decision,” said Ivan Vinnyk, a lawmaker in Poroshenko’s faction.
Despite his everyman image, critics accuse Zelenskiy of having too close a relationship with a powerful businessman, Ihor Kolomoisky, whose TV channel broadcasts his comedy shows. Zelenskiy has rejected those accusations.
Zelenskiy also said he wanted to replace the head of the state security service, the general prosecutor and the defense minister. He has so far not spelled out his nominations for key appointments that fall within his purview.
“I’m waiting for a change for the better, but I do not think that change will come very quickly,” said Oleksandr, a 45-year-old Zelenskiy supporter from the eastern Luhansk region.
“For him the main problem is the economy and here he needs to eliminate the influence of the oligarchs.”
Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Peter Graff