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No Craft Beer This Time: Ukrainian President Reflects On First Year In Office -- From A Safe Distance

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy gestures during an open-air news conference in Kyiv on May 20.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy gestures during an open-air news conference in Kyiv on May 20.

The scene has changed a lot as Volodymyr Zelenskiy wraps up his first year as Ukraine's president, but the backdrop largely remains the same.

When Zelenskiy sat down in front of reporters on May 20 for a rare question-and-answer session capping his inaugural year in office, the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic loomed over everything.

He no longer played up his part as a comedian-turned-president like he did when he won in April 2019, when he accepted his landslide victory at his campaign headquarters like a rock star as supporters applauded, music boomed, and glitter rained down.

And unlike his last major appearance before the press -- a marathon event held at an artisanal food hall in October -- there were no speed meetings with groups of reporters over craft beers, pizza, and avocado toast.

Instead, the 42-year-old Zelenskiy faced a scaled-down pool of reporters from a safe social distance, sitting alone outside at a small table in the garden of the official presidential residence, with only water close at hand. He began by noting that the October event had lasted 14 hours, and said he hoped that this time it would be faster.

By the time Zelenskiy sat down for what ended up being less than three hours, Ukraine had recorded 19,230 coronavirus infections and 564 related deaths, according to health authorities, and coronavirus questions were dominant.

Zelenskiy still faces many of the same problems a year later.
Zelenskiy still faces many of the same problems a year later.

Many related to how the outbreak was affecting some of the main issues Zelenskiy had vowed to tackle in his first year in office: ending the war against Russia-backed separatists who still hold parts of two provinces in the east, improving living standards, and fighting corruption.

Perhaps the clearest measure of his progress or lack thereof: Zelenskiy, who campaigned on the promise to serve only one term and took 73 percent of the runoff vote to win, said it was not enough time to accomplish all that he wanted and that he would consider running again in 2024.

"To speak seriously, one term is not enough. I have said that I was going for one term. I see now that the work is hard and nobody says thank you," Zelenskiy said. "But if there is big support from the Ukrainian people, I may think about it."

'We Must Talk'

When it came to ending the war with the Russia-backed separatists in the eastern region known as the Donbas, Zelenskiy said that he was still seeking a diplomatic solution under the blueprints for peace laid out in the Minsk accords and would give that more time.

He also said that while he has not met or spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently -- they met for the first and only time at a Paris summit with the French and German leaders in December, and a planned follow-up gathering in April never got off the ground as the coronavirus crisis grew -- direct talks are necessary.

"I'm sure that we should do this," he said.

As to whether such talks should be under the Normandy Four format -- Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine -- Zelenskiy said it did not matter.

"We must talk with [Russia] and we must reach an agreement," he said.

The president also touched on the impact the coronavirus was having on the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are controlled by the separatists, where global health and aid agencies have warned about the possibility of a serious outbreak in a vacuum.

"I have real information," he said of the situation there. "We offered humanitarian aid to people -- ordinary people. They do not accept it."

He said that those in control of the territories only agreed to help through the Red Cross, and he lamented that OSCE vehicles were no longer being allowed into the areas not under Kyiv’s control.

Zelenskiy said that "we must talk" with Russia, no matter the format.
Zelenskiy said that "we must talk" with Russia, no matter the format.

However, he lauded a prisoner exchange in mid-April that brought back 19 Ukrainian citizens, the third major swap with Russia and the separatists it supports since September 2019.

"Despite the coronavirus, although it was really difficult -- because of the coronavirus we did not have a meeting in the Normandy Format -- but we were able to return home [nearly] 20 more people and that's a big win."

Next up is pursuing the return of prisoners in occupied Crimea, which was seized by Russia in March 2014.

"Now we are talking with the Russian Federation about a possible [prisoner] exchange after COVID," Zelenskiy said. "Honestly, I want us, despite COVID-19, to talk about it, about the return of our political prisoners who are [imprisoned] in Russia or are in prisons in Crimea."

'Money Doesn't Fall From The Sky'

Turning to Ukraine's economic situation, which has been shattered by unemployment and the loss of remittances from Ukrainians abroad due to the pandemic, Zelenskiy downplayed dire employment forecasts but acknowledged that the country was in a tough situation.

"We owe a lot of money to international lenders. We are a poor country. We must pay billions of U.S. dollars annually. We did not collect them," he said.

Zelenskiy said he expected to reach agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a $5.5 billion loan this month.

"The end of the era of poverty in Ukraine has not completely come," he said. "It cannot come when there is a crisis in the world. When you have a poor country, you must take steps, you must change the situation. And we fight for it. Money just doesn't fall from the sky."

The president was also asked about a number of crime and corruption-related issues, including the investigation into the high-profile 2016 killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet. The president expressed confidence in Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, saying, "He started this case, and he must finish it."

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