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Oh Yes He Did! Ukrainian Women Unite Online Against Presidential Branding

During a visit to Paris on June 17, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) called beautiful women a Ukrainian "brand," prompting a swift online backlash.
During a visit to Paris on June 17, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) called beautiful women a Ukrainian "brand," prompting a swift online backlash.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy inserted foot firmly in mouth during his presidential tour of Europe this week when he said his nation's women were "beautiful" and served as a good tourism "brand" for the country.

He returned to a Twitter firestorm, after Ukrainian women made their disappointment with the comedian-turned-president clear with a raft of posts under the social-media hashtags #янетуристичнийбренд (#Iamnotyourtourismbrand) and #янебренд (#Iamnotyourbrand).

"I am disgusted that the president of Ukraine would allow himself to talk about the women of my country as a 'tourist brand,' wrote Natalya Koval, a local deputy and mother of four from Khmelnytskiy Oblast in western Ukraine.

"Women in Ukraine are fighting in the east, working in responsible and difficult positions, and are skilled specialists and strong personalities. The lack of culture and respect in the words of the president, to me, is a trait of deviant behavior or infantilism. When the head of state allows such 'jokes', it is necessary to sound the alarm."

Marina Usmanova, a journalist from the southern city of Kherson, informed the president that "a travel brand is what a country or city sells to tourists. Exports...what they take as a souvenir... Kherson watermelons, Georgian wine, Riga balsam."

"If you are the president of a country where the tourist brand is beautiful women, it means you have a beggar state, whose female citizens are forced to sell themselves and are sometimes ready to please foreigners, if only to get at least a small chance of getting out!

If Zelenskiy is the president of such a country, Usmanova continued, "you should be unbearably ashamed, and you should throw all your strength into changing it! And do not be proud of this regrettable fact."

Zelenskiy made the comments on June 17 while speaking to entrepreneurs and representatives of the IT sector at Station F, Europe's largest startup complex, during an official visit to Paris.

He had been trying to emphasize his interest in developing Ukraine's IT sector and attracting foreign companies, but it was his off-the-cuff remark that stole the headlines.

"Tourists have always said that Ukraine is very beautiful, the food there is very tasty, and the people are very beautiful, especially the women," he said. "Yes, that's correct, and it remains our brand."

Some high-ranking visitors have said as much.

In 2009, former U.S. Vice President and current presidential candidate Joe Biden flatly told then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko that "you have so many beautiful women" here.

And as the head of the NGO Human Rights Center, Tetiana Pechonchyk, pointed out, it is not the first time a Ukrainian president had publicly made such statements either.

She singled out an example from Viktor Yanukovych, who earned the moniker of "Sexist in Chief" for comments made during his presidential campaign and for this plug for Ukrainian women during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2011:

Yanukovych: "When it starts to get hot in the cities of Ukraine and the women begin to undress -- to see such beauty is great."

She also shared a nugget from Zelenskiy's predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, who came under fire for the way he addressed female reporter Maryna Baranivska while inviting her to spend a day with him during a press conference in 2018:

Poroshenko: "A key point, my darling, is that we have to change the country."

That comment, too, spurred a hashtag flash mob -- #яТобіНеДорогенька (#I'm not your darling.)

"Presidents change, #sexism remains -- that is our real brand," Pechonchyk concluded.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, addressing the question of whether sexism existed in the country , cited a survey conducted by the Kyiv-based nongovernmental think tank Razumkov Center in 2016.

It found that 48 percent of women and 52 percent of men did not believe there was gender discrimination in Ukraine. Fifty-eight percent of female respondents said they believed there was gender equality in Ukraine.

Written by Michael Scollon, with reporting by Ukrainian Service correspondents Anastasia Sakovska, Marichka Navoka, and Dmytro Dzhulay

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