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After 14-Hour Media Marathon, Questions Remain For Ukraine's President

Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks to someone below during his "press marathon" at a food market in Kyiv on October 10.

In a 14-hour media marathon that left even the lengthy press conferences held by the leaders of neighboring Russia and Belarus seeming on the short side, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy fielded more than 500 questions.

He didn't answer them all.

On hot-button issues like the war with Moscow-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, his July 25 telephone talk with U.S. President Donald Trump, and his ties to an influential tycoon, Zelenskiy left some in his audience -- at the trendy Kyiv food hall where he hosted a rotating cast of reporters and outside its white-brick walls -- wishing for more clarity.

A comic actor, television star, and political novice, Zelenskiy has remained highly popular since he beat incumbent Petro Poroshenko handily in an April presidential runoff. But he has faced criticism over matters including his acceptance of a controversial plan for autonomy and elections in separatist-held areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, his July 25 telephone call with Trump, and his relationship with billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskiy.

Presidential Press-athon: Zelenskiy Answers Questions For 14 Hours Straight
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All those issues came up, again and again, as journalists were ushered in in groups of 10 and seated around a rustic yet modern wooden table to grill the Ukrainian leader.

The Trump Call

Many reporters, especially those from the West, lasered in on Zelenskiy's July 25 phone conversation with Trump, which is now at the center of an impeachment inquiry in Washington.

During the call, Trump suggested that Zelenskiy investigate former Vice President Joe Biden – who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination to face Trump in the 2020 U.S. election -- and his son Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

Opponents of Trump say they suspect he used a multimillion-dollar military aid package and the prospect of a White House meeting to get what he wanted from Zelenskiy, and accuse him of seeking foreign support against a political rival. Trump has denied he did anything wrong, and there is no evidence that Biden was involved in wrongdoing related to Ukraine.

Zelenskiy said little that he had not said before about the conversation, stating that "there was no blackmail" during the call and that he learned only afterward that the United States had blocked nearly $400 million of military aid to Ukraine. He said his administration would not publish the Ukrainian transcript of the call.

He said he had had "several calls" with Trump, but bristled at repeated questions about their relationship. "We are an independent country, we have relations with many countries," Zelenskiy said, adding later that dragging Ukraine into U.S. domestic politics would be a "bad mistake."

Asked whether he would characterize Trump's request as "corrupt," he said he would not take sides and instead stressed that he himself had acted in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and broken no laws.

'I Don't Remember'

Zelenskiy was also asked about a conversation he had with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and now another figure at the center of the impeachment inquiry, a day after the Trump call.

"Honestly, I don't remember" what was discussed, Zelenskiy said.

Asked about a reported meeting in New York in September that included Semyon Kislin, a Ukrainian-born emigre with ties to Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, Zelenskiy said, "I don't know who he is."

Kislin, who goes by the name Sam, has been subpoenaed as part of the impeachment inquiry in Washington to submit documents to three Congressional committees from the period of January 20, 2017, through the present related to a probe into whether Trump had abused his office for personal gain.

'I Don't Care'

While denying any wrongdoing, Zelenskiy said that Ukraine would "happily" investigate whether Ukrainians had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Zelenskiy said that "we can't say yes or no" as to whether there was any interference without an investigation, but added that Washington had not provided any details about any such action. Pressed on whether he thinks Ukraine did in fact meddle in the election, he said Kyiv had no simple answer.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy took questions from rotating groups of journalists.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy took questions from rotating groups of journalists.

On whether Ukraine should investigate the case involving Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that hired Hunter Biden in 2014, he also had no simple answer, saying that he did not know the details.

Did the Bidens break any laws? "Can't speak to that," Zelenskiy said. Apparently exasperated with the line of questioning, he said he "couldn't care less what happens to Burisma."

Ending The War

During the media marathon, Zelenskiy said he had been elected in part on vows to end the war in eastern Ukraine, which erupted in April 2014, a month after Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

"We have plans on how we can do it. But my main goal is that I want to end the war. This is my mission within these five years of slightly more than 4 1/2 years," Zelenskiy said.

Beyond a statement that he was eager to use all formats that could lead to peace in the Donbas, as the region is known, and that he was willing to hold one-on-one talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to that purpose, he did not go into much detail.

But he also said he would be ready to jettison the so-called Normandy format, talks involving Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine, and suggested that Crimea be added to the agenda.

Kolomoyskiy And PrivatBank

Zelenskiy also faced questions over the fate of PrivatBank, which is seen by many investors as a bellwether for Ukraine's business climate and could also have a bearing on whether the country gets more international aid.

Kolomoyskiy, one of Ukraine's richest men, used to own the bank until 2016, when it was nationalized after the authorities said the lender had a $5.6 billion hole in its balance sheet caused by shady lending practices.

Kolomoyskiy, who had business ties to Zelenskiy, has upped efforts to get the bank back recently, returning to Ukraine after a period of self-imposed exile during Poroshenko's term in office.

Zelenskiy told reporters that public scrutiny over his ties to Kolomoyskiy was preventing him from holding talks that could actually help resolve the dispute and prevent the state budget from incurring losses.

"The state should not suffer losses. We need to sit down with him and say: 'Look, it's not going to happen, there is no money, nobody would return anything, let's settle this. You want to live in this country -- go ahead.' But they don't give me an option to do this. I'm ready to sit down with any oligarch."

Some observers accused Zelenskiy of waffling on the issue.

"The longer Zelenskiy goes without making it clear what his position on [Kolomoyskiy] is, the more people are going to be worried that the oligarchs are running the show," Max Seddon, Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, wrote on Twitter.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.