Fourteen hours. This was the duration of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s press marathon on 10 October. During it, the president answered the questions of around 300 journalists. They were divided into groups of seven-ten. The event took place in Kyiv Food Market, a new venue of an Odesa restaurateur.
This unusual press format was an answer to complaints of Ukrainian journalists about Zelenskyy and his team’s lack of proper communication about highly important processes concerning the country.
When the marathon was only halfway through, “someone, please, stop it,” was the only complaint from journalists. Everyone, including the President, was exhausted.
Already after eight hours, Ukrainian representatives from the Guinness world book of Records entered the scene announcing that Zelenskyy set a world record for the longest press conference. Zelenskyy spoke longer with journalists than Vladimir Putin, who set the record in 2008 at an 4 hours and 40 minutes-long press conference and longer than Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka who spoke to journalists for 7 hours and 21 minutes in 2017.
However, the way the three presidents talked with journalists can’t be compared.
Apart from some popular investigative journalists being denied accreditation to the press conference, the conversation was open and free, where any journalist could posit questions.
Many questions were asked several times. Among them on the so-called Steinmeier formula and the scandalous phone conversation of Zelenskyy with Trump.
The president seemed to sincerely believe what he was saying. He was unconfident addressing some questions, like for example the scandal in the US which followed his phone call with President Trump, joking and referring to his experience as a comic actor regarding the questions he was confident in. But also sometimes he answered with complete nonsense only he could understand.
Time will show whether Zelenskyy was sincere indeed and whether the answers were true. Euromaidan Press publishes his points on key issues as no one knows when the president will voice them again after the exhausting marathon.
Steinmeier formula, local elections, and the special status of Donbas
The so-called Steinmeier formula was a proposal to the Minsk negotiations called to end the Donbas by then-German Foreign Minister Steinmeier in 2015. On 1 October, Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine accepts it, sparking ongoing nationwide protests. It envisions that a law on a “special status” of regions of Donbas occupied by Russia will come into effect after elections are held there. In Ukraine, the step is seen by many as a capitulation to Russia in the Donbas conflict, with 10,000 protesting in Kyiv on 6 October under the slogan “Let’s stop capitulation.”
So the situation in eastern Ukraine was among the top questions during the marathon.
Zelenskyy stressed that ending the war in Donbas is his main mission in the position of the president. He also admitted that he is not afraid of protests and is ready to leave his post at any moment, however in such a case Ukrainians will lose their chance for ending the war.
“The implementation of the Steinmeier formula did not happen. It can take place only in the law on the ‘special status.’ The Steinmeier formula comes into force when the law on the ‘special status’ comes into force.”
The president added that on 31 December 2019, the effect of the current law on the special status of Donbas adopted by the previous parliament on the initiative of ex-President Poroshenko ends and it should be decided whether Ukraine adopts a new law. Zelenskyy rejected the idea of holding a referendum on the issue of a special status for Donbas but added that the question should be discussed with society, journalists, and MPs first.
“Regarding the law on the ‘special status,’ it can’t be about an autonomy. It’s most important to discuss what we can’t do, not what we can. I know there are humanitarian questions. I know there will be discussions regarding the language, for them to have a regional status for the Russian language. I think there will be a lot of humanitarian compromises about which we can talk.”
The president said that the question of whether the new law is needed will be decided after the Normandy format meeting as part of the Minsk process. He clarified that the date of this meeting of senior officials from Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany is going to be announced next week.
Possible local elections in Donbas also met the high interest of journalists.
“All the answers to these questions are enshrined in the Minsk Agreements. There are steps for a ceasefire, a troop withdrawal, and withdrawal of all foreign military units. All this is described before the elections. The only complicated question there is that first we hold the elections, and after the border goes under the control of Ukrainians. It’s a very controversial question. I see how the situation can be solved differently. In effect, we will continue our policy, that it should be solved differently. If we talk about the elections in Donbas, we understand that they should take place only in line with Ukrainian legislation. This means that all the parties should have an opportunity to be elected there, all the representatives. But who will go there if troops [of the forces of the self-proclaimed Donbas ‘republics’ – Ed] will be present? Who will provide security guarantees? If these security issues are solved, than elections will take place there. We want journalists, international observers to be there because that is how elections should be held. If there is all of this, if we recognize the elections [as those which were held] according to Ukrainian legislation, if the OSCE recognizes them [legal], if they are transparent and fair, than [it is considered] that the elections took place. If not, than nothing happens.”
Some of the journalists asked whether there is a plan B for Ukraine in case Russia insists on holding the elections before the disarmament and restoration of the state border.
“We have a Plan B. I don’t want to talk about it. According to Ukrainian legislation, there can’t be military rifles, they should be accessible to all the political parties. If there are no such things at the very beginning, the central elections committee, the journalists, nothing is going to take place there. Despite the things we sign. Now the Minsk Agreements are signed. So what? Is there shooting? Yes. Have the elections taken place? No. Did someone withdraw something? No. However, they are signed. This is about nothing. For it to be about something means to agree and make some steps. If there are steps, there will be elections.”
The occupied Donbas
Questions about Ukrainian citizens living on the territories controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (ORDLO) were among the first to be asked during the press conference. The president claimed that the previous government made mistakes both regarding the IDPs who fled ORDLO and Donbas residents who remained in the occupied territories. He emphasized that Ukrainians on the occupied territories are not left alone and will be returned together with the territories.
The president was asked about the recent poll of the Rating Sociological Group regarding what Ukrainians think about the future of Donbas. It says that 34% want to stop the hostilities and to recognize the territories as temporarily occupied. 23% stand for providing an autonomous status for them within Ukraine, and 23% want Ukraine to continue hostilities until total control of the territory is restored.
“For me, an autonomy means separation. I am not ready to give the status of an autonomy to this territory. This our territory. This is Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said.
Zelenskyy was also asked which institution should secure the territories after the withdrawal of Russian forces. The president answered that the territories should be controlled by Ukrainian police together with the OSCE mission and the UN peacekeepers should secure the border between Ukraine and Russia.
“It won’t work if there will only be police, or the Security Services. There should be joint efforts.”
Answering the question of the risk of the situation in Donbas freezing, Zelenskyy said that the Donbas occupied territories differ from Abkhazia and Transnistria only because of the ongoing shooting.
“Regarding [supposed Russian] offers of ‘let us return the occupied territory of Donbas in exchange for you giving up Crimea,’ a conversation on that has never taken place. Moreover, I haven’t even heard these hints in any format,” the president said.
As told by him, negotiations with Russia are taking place in several formats. By phone regarding the Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russia, and in the Minsk format regarding Donbas.
“There are no talks about Crimea.”
Zelenskyy voiced his intention to raise this question in the Normandy format meeting.
Also, he said that, despite widespread rumors, the Russian side did not raise any questions regarding Ukraine restoring the water supply to Crimea that it cut off in 2014, and claimed that was not going to happen.
“Water will not be supplied there.”
- Read also: Russia can’t solve Crimea’s water problem
So far the president does not know who and when will become a representative on questions regarding Crimea.
Negotiations with Russia
“Ukraine will never give up its territories or independence. Ukrainian society understands it. Russia, as well as the Donbas militants, understand it.”
Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that Ukraine is ready for the next prisoner swap and expects that the question will be solved at the next Normandy format meeting. If the latter is postponed, the president is going to look for another format for the question. In particular, Minsk negotiations or direct negotiations with Vladimir Putin.
“Regarding the return of our people and the exchange, I am ready for these negotiations,” Zelenskyy said.
However, the president refused to speak about the key points of the possible negotiations.
“How should I talk to Russia? You want it to be a poker game when they know my cards?”
Zelenskyy also elaborated on his possible meeting with Putin.
“No one talks about this direct meeting [with Putin] because everyone is against it. I can’t even mention it now. I know one thing: that this meeting should take place if we want to end the war”.
Withdrawal of forces
On 1 October, during the Trilateral Contact Group meeting in Minsk, it was agreed on the withdrawal of arms in Petrivske and Zolote in Donetsk oblast. Later, it was postponed due to Russia’s violation of the ceasefire at these locations
Zelenskyy stated that only a simultaneous withdrawal from both Zolote and Petrivske in Donbas is possible. Another necessary condition is maintaining a ceasefire regime over seven days.
As told by the president, there was a previous agreement on a withdrawal of troops from both sides in these three locations: Zolote, Petrivske, and Stanytsia Luhanska. But only in the latter did a withdrawal take place because the ceasefire regime was maintained there.
“It will not be so that Zolote goes first and then Petrivske. We said that we are ready [for the withdrawal] in both locations. That is why we don’t withdraw yet – because there were shots in Zolote.”
Being asked about the attitude of the soldiers towards the withdrawal, he said he thinks they understand everything. He also reminded that this withdrawal was part of the agreements reached in the Minsk consultations.
The conversation with Trump, Biden’s son’s company, and the relationships with the US
Details about the US-Ukraine relationship in terms of the recent scandal caused by the release of the conversation of Zelenskyy with US President Donald Trump were also of high interest for journalists.
The conversation was released to the public at the end of September 2019, but took place at the end of July of the same year. In it, Zelenskyy and Trump exchanged complaints regarding European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the ex-US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Jovanovich. Particularly, Zelenskyy said that the EU was not doing enough for Ukraine.
After the release, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump as he faced outrage over his reported effort to target his political rival, top Democrat Joe Biden, who is seeking to defeat Trump at the 2020 presidential run. The US President could have pressed on his Ukrainian vis-à-vis for a probe of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings, where Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, sat on the board during his father’s vice-presidency.
The Ukrainian president stated that he did not feel ashamed for any word of the scandalous phone conversation, where Trump appeared to be exerting pressure on Zelenskyy to investigate his main political opponent in the upcoming elections in exchange for American military aid for Ukraine. He also said that Angela Merkel “understands why I used that rhetoric.”
A journalist from France wanted to clarify what Zelenskyy meant when telling Trump that France does not provide enough help. The president answered that he wanted France to support Ukraine more and to think about Russian business less during the Normandy format meetings.
Ukraine’s president joked that he did not want this conversation being so discussed, although he dreamt about worldwide fame in the “previous life of an actor.”
Zelenskyy explained that by the words “he is 100% my prosecutor” [in the conversation, he told Trump that he knows that the next appointed Prosecutor General in Ukraine will be 100% his person – Ed] he meant young, honest, and open person from his team, but not from some old government. Meanwhile, currently, the oft-criticized Yuriy Lutsenko, the Prosecutor General from the previous government, has been one of the few to keep his position after the appointment of the new Cabinet.
He was asked if the case of the Burisma company was investigated in Ukraine because Trump asked for it.
“No, I said that I am ready to consider this case if… Please invite your Prosecutor General to connect with ours, but according to Ukrainian legislation, in line with international relations. Please, I am not against it, we don’t want to hide any cases.”
The president said that no one from the American side applied to him about any documents regarding the possible procedure of impeachment for Donald Trump.
He added that this question has no relation either to the story with Burisma or providing arms to Ukraine and that no blackmailing was involved.
However, the president did recognize that the US blocked providing arms to Ukraine before his phone conversation to Trump.
Another question for Zelenskyy concerned whether Ukraine interfered in US elections. Instead of answering yes or no as he was suggested, Ukraine’s leader said that probably there are grounds for it and Ukraine should investigate it. He was asked to clarify the answer and said that Ukraine would not interfere in any elections, but if the previous government did it, the US should provide the details for the investigation. So far, none have been provided.
Regarding Trump’s potential agreement with Russia which might be disadvantageous for Ukraine, Zelenskyy said that he wanted to believe that any such agreements, if they exist, do not concern Ukraine and that Trump is on Ukraine’s side.
The president also announced that he already chose an ambassador for the US and will appoint him soon. The previous ambassador, Valeriy Chalyi, was recalled as part of Zelenskyy’s dismissal of 12 ambassadors in July.
The president predictably said that he does not feel any influence from Ukrainian oligarchs Igor Kolomoiskyi and Viktor Pinchuk.
“I don’t know about any ‘competitions’ [of the two oligarchs],” Zelenskyy answered.
Zekenskyy stated that he is ready to speak to any Ukrainian oligarch and thinks that they have to work for Ukraine because they earned their assets here. The journalists clarified whether the oligarchs would agree to such conditions.
“They will agree. You know why? We have war and all their warehouses, all the factories, everything they have, assets, all their production will be worth zero if something happens.”
Dismissal of the head of the President’s Office?
Andriy Bohdan, the head of the President’s Office, has been criticized for promoting the interests of oligarch Kolomoiskyi on numerous occasions. Also, according to Ukrainian legislation, Bohdan should have been lustrated, but was not.
Journalists asked whether Zelenskyy will dismiss Bohdan if they prove he violated the law. The president answered that if Bohdan violates the law he’ll quit by himself.
The president admitted that Bohdan now faces pressure due to having being Kolomoiskyi’s lawyer.
“It was his past life. He works for the state now. He is a qualified and powerful person.”
Zelenskyy answered the question regarding the dismissal of the Security Service Chief Ivan Bakanov, the appointment of whom was claimed to be in violation of procedures and whose assets declaration was never made public contrary to the law, in a similar manner.
Among the other controversial topics for Ukraine was the issue of land reform. The president is sure that before 1 December, Ukraine’s moratorium on land sales should be lifted. He recognized that many farmers are opposed to the decision. As told by Zelenskyy, Ukrainian citizens should be the landowners and have preferential loans if they work on the land. He also admitted that the land law should foresee the prohibition of selling land to foreigners in the first stage.