• Jamie Richardson, Mikhail Zakharov

Lost for words: a tough first week for Ukraine's president-elect


Zelensky at the results of the first exit-polls. Source: Reuters, Valentyn Ogirenko

On Sunday 21 April, Volodymyr Zelensky sailed to victory in the second round of the Ukrainian presidential election, receiving nearly three-quarters of the votes. At the age of 41 Zelensky is Ukraine’s youngest ever president. Yet his lack of political experience has left many commentators concerned about the sitcom actor’s commitment to, or perhaps ability to maintain strong and decisive diplomatic autonomy for Ukraine.

Three days after his landslide win, Zelensky was presented his first challenge by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the form of new so-called ‘passportisation’ legislation which makes it much easier for Ukrainian citizens in the Donbass region to acquire Russian citizenship. The next day on April 25th Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed a law that requires the Ukrainian language to be used in most aspects of public life. We are going to analyse how Volodymyr Zelensky has dealt with these two quite different challenges: is he able to maintain a strict anti-Kremlin line and what is to be learnt from the first week of this new chapter in Ukrainian politics.

Since 2014, the relations between Moscow and Kyiv have been in a state of disarray. The politics of sanctions and mutual threats moved both countries into uncharted waters, in which both sides could negotiate only from a position of strength. And after the recent election, Kyiv was given a new challenge by the Kremlin that increased tensions between the neighbouring countries even further.

On April 24th, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that enabled residents of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine to request Russian citizenship via an expedited procedure.[1] These war-stricken territories have declared independence from Kyiv, but have not received official recognition from Moscow. Russia stresses it had no intention of provoking Ukrainian authorities. “We, including myself, are very far from provoking anybody,” Vladimir Putin said