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Craft Beer And Avocado Toast: Ukrainian President Bucks Convention At Rare News Conference

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy holds a marathon press event at a food market in Kyiv on October 10.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy holds a marathon press event at a food market in Kyiv on October 10.

KYIV -- Craft beer. Tacos. Avocado toast. Shucked oysters.

In keeping with his unconventional image, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took a different approach during a rare press event, inviting journalists to a hip new artisanal food hall in Kyiv to answer questions all day -- and into the evening.

The unusual setting for the October 10 event fits neatly into the unconventional image and style that helped propel Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the presidency earlier this year.

"It's definitely new, not standard. It fits with his persona," said Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv political analyst. "His team thought the old way of doing news conferences was old and archaic."

It also comes as he faces growing political pressure at home, as well as impeachment inquiries in Washington that have scrambled Ukraine-U.S. relations. All this at a time when Zelenskiy needs strong backing from the United States for his efforts to work with Moscow to end the war Kyiv is fighting against Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's east.

"I'm the commander in chief, not a TV presenter," the former comic and television star, who has been criticized for his distance from the press, said in reminding people of the stature of his new position.

Seated at a rectangular wooden table on an open, second-floor balcony, Zelenskiy fielded questions from small groups of Ukrainian and foreign reporters, a format that more resembled a dinner-table conversation than a standard news conference. At one point, the table was set with a spread of Cokes, hamburgers, and French fries.

The elaborate event generated buzz for the novice president, but whether it will generate support is an open question.

On the open floor of the Kyiv Food Market, servers and chefs watched mostly with bored looks as reporters milled about and a few patrons wandered the hall, alternately peeking up at the table where Zelenskiy sat and scanning the options for Vietnamese pho, Kyiv-brewed India Pale Ale, and sushi rolls.

Popularity Takes A Hit

Vadym, a second-year student at the Kyiv University of Tourism, Economics, and Law, said he and his friend Masha did not know the Ukrainian president was holding a news conference when they decided to go to the newly opened venue to eat.

"We had no idea what was going on," he said as he ate a massive hamburger. "We walked up and saw the security guards, and the metal detectors, and thought it was closed. But then we asked and they said, 'It's open, go ahead.'"

"We're not really paying attention," he said -- to the news conference or politics in general.

Zelenskiy won a resounding election victory in April, defeating incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Six months on, Zelenskiy retains widespread popularity among Ukrainians who have tired of the war of more than five years in eastern Ukraine that has left more than 13,000 people dead. He is seen by many Ukrainians as someone who can shake things up -- a potential answer to the country's endemic corruption and the dominance of the politically powerful elite.

Just a month ago, he was winning accolades for agreeing to a major swap of prisoners with Russia. But Zelenskiy's popularity has since taken a hit -- mainly from his continued association with one of the country's most powerful oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoyskiy.

Earlier this month, Zelenskiy announced that his administration was embracing an agreement known as the Steinmeier Formula. That lays the groundwork for renewing the larger peace talks known loosely as the Minsk Accords, and the first major international summit in three years, aimed at ending the war in Ukraine.

However, that decision has drawn strident opposition from right-wing groups, some veteran groups, and activists who equate the decision to "capitulation" -- essentially giving in to Russia, which denies supplying and equipping fighters in eastern Ukraine despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Outside the food hall, members of the nationalist political party Svoboda held placards and flags criticizing Zelenskiy's policies, including another controversial move -- a push to lift a decades-old ban on buying and selling farmland.

Another smaller group held signs to protest what they called the illegal transfer of an agriculture complex in the Kyiv region to a private company, a move that left dozens of people out of work, according to protester Tetyana Prorochako.

"We support" Zelenskiy, she said. "He's doing a great job, but they're not letting him do everything he needs to do, like preventing 'reiderstvo'" -- a term that loosely refers to corporate raiding and asset stripping, a business practice that is commonplace in Russia and Ukraine.

She said Zelenskiy still enjoyed broad support among Ukrainians tired of the war in the east.

"How can we still be fighting a war? People are sick of it," she said.

'All Just A Show'

Inside the hall, Zelenskiy's questioning was interrupted at least twice by people yelling up at the balcony where he was seated. On one occasion he got up from the table and leaned over the balcony railing as a woman yelled that her husband had been killed in fighting in the eastern Donbas region, and that she had been "robbed by corrupt judges."

"I hear you, I hear you," he said, before promising to meet with her personally. The woman was escorted from the hall calmly.

Zelenskiy's presidency has also come under scrutiny abroad owing to a July 25 phone call with Donald Trump in which the U.S. president repeatedly asked Zelenskiy to open an investigation into former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who could be Trump's Democratic challenger in 2020.

Biden's son Hunter served on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings. Trump's allies have asserted that Biden pressured Zelenskiy's predecessor to fire the country's then prosecutor-general in order to end criminal investigations into Burisma.

The question of whether Trump was using the prospect of withholding U.S. aid money to Ukraine to boost his own political prospects has led to impeachment inquiries in the U.S. Congress.

"There was no blackmail. This was not the subject of our conversation," Zelenskiy told reporters.

Zelenskiy: 'No Blackmail' In Trump Call
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Viktor Zamyatin, an analyst with the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv think tank, called the food-court news conference a "creative show" -- not unlike the TV series in which Zelenskiy played a fictional president.

Zamyatin was critical, however, both of the news conference and more broadly of Zelenskiy's policies.

"He ran a nontraditional election campaign; this is in keeping with that effort: that the new president is not like the old president," Zamyatin said.

"But this is all just a show for him," he said.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.