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April 22, 2019

Ukraine leaps into unknown after comic elected president


Mon, Apr 22, 2019

KIEV: Ukraine leapt into the unknown Monday after comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president on promises of change but with just a vague blueprint of what he might do as leader.

Zelensky, whose previous experience in the world of politics was playing the president on TV, trounced incumbent Petro Poroshenko in a stinging rebuke to the establishment fuelled by anger over war and social injustice.

Ukrainians looked to the future with hope and anxiety after the performer took 73 percent of the vote on Sunday, according to nearly complete official results.

The star of "Servant of the People", a sitcom now in its third season, has vowed to pursue the pro-European course set out by his predecessor.

But Zelensky has also said he wants to improve ties with arch-enemy Russia.

On election night he appeared to taunt the Kremlin however, when he told people in fellow post-Soviet countries that "everything is possible."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday it was "too early to talk about President Putin congratulating Mr Zelensky, or about the possibility of working together."

Ties between Ukraine and Russia were shredded after a bloody uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime in 2014, prompting Moscow to annex Crimea and support insurgents in a conflict that has claimed around 13,000 lives.

On the streets of Kiev, many praised the elections as a fair and peaceful transfer of power after popular uprisings of 2004 and 2014.

Zelensky -- who at 41 is to be Ukraine´s youngest ever president -- has a vague progamme and it remained unclear who would fill top positions, including the role of prime minister.

He shunned traditional campaign rallies, instead performing comedy gigs, and implied he would use the same unorthodox style to run the country of 45 million that depends on international aid.

US President Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron called the political novice to congratulate him, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged support.

In a joint letter to Zelensky on Monday, EU Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker expressed admiration for Ukrainians´ "strong attachment to democracy and the rule of law."

"You will now truly be the Servant of the People," British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt told Zelensky on Twitter.

European observers praised Ukraine´s election as "competitive and held with respect for fundamental freedoms" while regretting that the campaigns were thin on substance.

"The runoff was well-organised, despite operational challenges and a limited timeframe," the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted.

The Kremlin said it respected the choice of the people but questioned the legitimacy of the polls, noting that "three million" Ukrainian citizens living in Russia could not vote there.

Kiev refused to open polling stations at its diplomatic missions in Russia.

Zelensky has said that among his top priorities are securing the release of Ukrainians being held prisoner by Russia and rebooting moribund Western-brokered peace talks.

But many doubt the political neophyte will be able to turn around the country and take on hugely influential oligarchs.