Ukraine’s new Jewish leader: ‘We have to defend our land like Israel’

Zelensky, a Jewish comedian, was sworn in on Monday as Ukraine’s new president.

By World Israel News Staff and AP

Ukrainian comedian and TV star Volodymyr Zelensky took office on Monday as the country’s new leader, dissolving parliament minutes after he was sworn in as president.

Zelensky, who won 73 percent of the vote last month in his landslide victory, slammed parliament as a hot-bed of self-enrichment, and promised to stop the war in the east against Russian-backed separatists.

Ukraine must be “like the Israelis in defending our land,” he said, noting that the first order of business was a ceasefire with Russia.

Zelinsky delivered his address in Ukrainian but switched to Russian to deliver the message: “I am convinced that in order for the dialogue to begin, we must see the return of all the Ukrainian prisoners.”

Fighting corruption

Zelensky’s victory reflected Ukrainians’ exhaustion with widespread corruption and the country’s political elite. One of Zelensky’s main campaign planks was fighting corruption. Even before he disbanded parliament, also one of his campaign promises, the 41-year-old Zelensky upended other Ukrainian political traditions on inauguration day.

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He ditched the idea of a traditional motorcade to his inauguration, walking to the parliament Kiev through a park packed with people. Flanked by four bodyguards, the beaming president-elect gave high-fives to some spectators, even stopping to take a selfie with one of them.

After he was sworn in but before he moved to dissolve parliament, Zelensky asked the Supreme Rada to adopt a bill against illegal enrichment and support his motions to fire the country’s defense minister, the head of the Ukrainian Security Service and the Prosecutor General.

All of them are allies of former President Petro Poroshenko, who lost the election to the comedian with no previous political experience but who played the Ukrainian president on a popular TV show for years.

In a feisty speech after his inauguration, Zelensky told the Rada that his main goal for the presidency is to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been fighting Russia-backed separatists for five years in a conflict that has left at least 13,000 dead.

“I’m ready to do everything so that our heroes don’t die there,” he said. “It wasn’t us who started that war. But we need to be the one to finish it.”

As ministers and lawmakers listened with dismay, Zelensky urged everyone in the cabinet to resign, asking them to “free the spot for people who will think about the future generations, not about the future elections.”

Defense Ministry Stepan Poltorak promptly published his letter of resignation on Facebook.

Zelensky is hoping to ride the wave of his electoral success to get his supporters into parliament.

Many lawmakers viewed Zelensky’s inauguration with apprehension. Political factions allied with Poroshenko and his party have been maneuvering for weeks, even collapsing the ruling coalition.

Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kiev-based think-tank Penta, said Zelensky’s announcement shows “political will for radical change.”

“The legally dubious decision to disband parliament will certainly be contested in court but Zelensky has shown that it is going to be him who will lay down the agenda and that he will dominate the political landscape.”

The new president wrapped up his speech at parliament by referring to his career as a comedian.

“Throughout all of my life, I tried to do everything to make Ukrainians laugh,” he said with a smile. “In the next five years I will do everything, Ukrainians, so that you don’t cry.”