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Savchenko Open To Presidential Bid, 'If You Want Me'

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Nadia Savchenko gives her first news in Kyiv conference since being released from Russian captivity.

Nadia Savchenko gives her first news in Kyiv conference since being released from Russian captivity.

Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian airwoman who spent nearly two years in Russian captivity before her return in a prisoner swap this week, says she's ready to run for president if that's what Ukrainians want.

Speculation has swirled following the exchange of prisoners between Moscow and Kyiv about whether the 35-year-old former soldier will seek to leverage her hero's status and election in absentia to the Ukrainian legislature into a bid for higher political office.

"Ukrainians, if you want me to be president, then, fine, I will be president," Savchenko told a press conference in Kyiv on May 27, the first since her release for the return of two Russians convicted of fighting alongside Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

But she added that she "cannot say that I want to," and she made a reference to the corruption and political decay that have plagued the country and embittered many average Ukrainians even as they seek unity to combat the eastern threat.

"But I really don't believe that people have learned to vote other than for buckwheat," she said, employing Ukrainian slang for corrupt election practices.

WATCH: Nadia Savchenko said at a press conference in Kyiv on May 27 she would consider running for president if her fellow Ukrainians want her to.

In March, a Russian court sentenced Savchenko to 22 years in prison for alleged involvement in the deaths of two Russian journalists covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

She has denied any role in the incident and said she was abducted by separatists in eastern Ukraine and smuggled over the border into Russia.

Savchenko's custody and trial were condemned by Kyiv and Western governments critical of Moscow's role in Ukraine since Russia's military seizure of Crimea before its annexation in March 2014.

While in Russian captivity in October 2014, the Kyiv-born Savchenko won a seat in the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, on the party list of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party. In January 2015, Savchenko also became a delegate in absentia to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

TIMELINE: Key Developments In Savchenko's Case (click to expand)

At her May 27 press conference, Savchenko said she would rather return to her beloved flying but reiterated that she was prepared to do whatever Ukraine required. She admitted she had little experience in politics.

"I was in the military for 10 years," Savchenko said, including as part of a peacekeeping mission in Iraq, studies at an air-force university, and time spent with a volunteer brigade after the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. "I have spent two years behind bars. I am not very good in politics yet."

Savchenko said she would stick with Tymoshenko's party despite its reputation for cozying up to Ukraine's oligarchs. She added that she was looking forward to going to work in parliament next week.

A rights activist in Ukraine, the Center for Civil Liberties' Oleksandra Matviychuk, suggested that Savchenko should tread carefully in Ukraine's rough-and-tumble world of politics.

"I hope that [Savchenko] will not allow [herself] to be used in political games to increase the ranking of political forces," Matviychuk told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "We, the people who fought for her freedom, will now see what type of politician she is."

A Gallup poll in December showed mounting mistrust among Ukrainians in the country's political leadership, with Poroshenko's popularity (17 percent) slipping below that of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych before the latter fled to Russia in early 2014 amid unrest over his sharp tack toward Moscow at the expense of closer ties to the European Union.

VIDEO VOX POP: Ukrainians Ponder Savchenko's Future

A government shake-up in April landed Poroshenko ally Volodymyr Hroysman in the prime minister's seat with urgent calls in Ukraine and the West for speedy progress on financial and political reforms, including in the fight against rampant corruption.

Savchenko's handover had been demanded by the West and was cast as a humanitarian gesture by Russian President Vladimir Putin a few weeks before the European Union decides whether to extend sanctions against Russia imposed over its support of the separatists.

Her signal moments during her Russian trial included standing on a bench in the dock during her trial and giving the judge the finger and singing a patriotic Ukrainian folk song shortly before her sentence was announced in March, as well as consistently insisting on speaking Ukrainian.

Upon arriving at Kyiv's international airport aboard Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's airplane, Savchenko said she was ready to fight again for Ukraine against Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country in a conflict that has left more than 9,300 dead since April 2014.

Two days later, on May 27, Savchenko said talks with the separatists were necessary to reach a settlement, but she emphasized that did not mean Ukraine should grant them broad autonomy.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Interfax, and AP