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Zelenskiy Defends Cabinet Shake-Up, Gives Peace Ultimatum To Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has defended a major shake-up of his cabinet, which has rattled investors worried that his government is backing away from major economic and structural reforms.

In an interview with Bloomberg published on March 7, Zelenskiy tried to reassure outside observers, who have voiced concern that he was returning to the murky governing practices of his predecessors.

"We needed to react to the cabinet's effectiveness," Zelenskiy was quoted as saying.

He said this week's shake-up, which resulted in Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk losing his job and being replaced by his deputy, Denys Shmyhal, was needed, since, he said, the existing cabinet wasn't working well.

"When you’re making such deep changes in the country, you can't fail. It's not about your personal ratings, it's not that you can be kicked from power, it's that Ukraine may not ever have a chance again to do this," he said.

Some experts have worried that Zelenskiy is giving in to pressure from oligarchs: the powerful, wealthy businessmen who control a large part of the economy and have exerted outside influence.

One of the country’s most powerful oligarchs is Ihor Kolomoyskiy, who backed Zelenskiy in his previous career as a comic TV actor, but is now embroiled in a fight with the government for control of a bank called PrivatBank.

Zelenskiy insisted that oligarchs had no influence over his government.

"They own 70-80 percent of assets in this country," he said. "Every manager in Ukraine worked for one of them or is somehow linked to one of them. And they hire the best -- we should understand that."

In another interview also published March 7, Zelenskiy said he was giving Russia a one-year ultimatum to find peace in the war in eastern Ukraine.

"The government can spend one year on the entire agreement. Then it should be implemented. Any longer is prohibited," he was quoted as telling The Guardian newspaper.

Zelenskiy was elected last April in a landslide election, largely on a mandate to enact major reforms but also to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 13,000 people since it erupted in March 2014.

His popularity has waned in recent months, as Ukrainians grow impatient with the pace of reforms.

The fighting in the east pits Ukrainian government troops against separatists supported by Russia.

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