On 20 May, another rainy quarantine day in Kyiv, journalists gathered for an open-air press conference devoted to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s first year as president of Ukraine. Unlike his 14-hour press conference in October, this one was at under four hours – a comparatively short affair. The president’s office warned that only a limited number of journalists would be able to attend it due to the restrictions introduced to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The question of who would be allowed in and who not had been the subject of fierce online debate in the media community prior to the press conference. For example, the so-called media of famous pro-Russian propagandist Anatoliy Shariy received accreditation, while some opposition journalists did not.
Yuliya Mendel, Zelenskky’s press secretary, explained that among the main criteria there were ratings and dynamics of the development. Also, she added that the press conference will be attended by media representatives “holding different views” so as not to allow for “one-sided ideology.”
The event started with an outline of Ukraine’s steps in the fight against coronavirus as well as the upcoming relaxation of quarantine restrictions which is planned for 22 May.
The president pointed out on occasions that COVID-19 had revealed that healthcare reform had in fact not taken place in Ukraine and that the system had found itself naked before the challenge.
Staff shortage and other staff-related issues
A shortage of qualified experts is one of the key questions on Ukraine’s agenda today. At the press conference journalists also raised the issue. However, the answer offered demonstrated that society and the president see it differently. During the last year, Zelenskyy appointed more than 30 former co-workers from his comedy club Kvartal-95 and their friends to public office despite promising never to appoint any crony or army friend to key state positions.
Zelenskyy defended himself by saying that no cronies or army friends were appointed, and that all those occupying the positions in question have a proper education.
But regarding Ivan Bakanov, Head of the Security Service who previously headed Kvartal-95, Zelenskyy confirmed their good relationship.
“Maybe from the point of view of professionalism and experience something is wrong, however, we never had such an honest head of the Security Service before,” Zelenskyy said.
Commenting on the position of Andriy Yermak, the head of the President’s Office and ex-film producer, Zelenskyy stated that Yermak is an experienced lawyer and has an IMB in international law.
Andriy Yermak has recently been embroiled in a corruption scandal caused by his brother Denys. As videos published on 29 March 2020 show, in the autumn of 2019 Denys Yermak conducted interviews with many candidates for public office. Making constant references to his brother Andriy, Denys discussed huge sums of money demanded by government insiders, who in turn can secure coveted positions. He is also seen lobbying for the benefits of various private companies.
At the press-conference, Zelenskyy said he knows who “is trying to blackmail me” with the case.
Also, the journalists asked about the recent contradictory appointment of Iryna Venediktova as a Prosecutor General. During less than two months in the job, Venediktova was repeatedly criticized by civil society representatives because of the political nature of her appointment and sabotage of high-profile cases regarding attacks on activists, in particular the murder of Kherson activist and politician Katerina Handziuk and attacks on Odesa corruption fighter Serhiy Sternenko.
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Zelenskyy stressed that his team suggested people who had no experience working in the Prosecutor General’s Office before for the position. However, he added that Venediktova has experience working on the ground.
Commenting on this statement, Vitaliy Shabunin, the head of the Anti-Corruption Centre NGO, stressed that prior to the appointment, Venediktova had not conducted a single investigation.
Regarding the case of Handziuk, Zelenskyy threw in a couple of general phrases. The activists from the initiative Who Ordered Katerina Handziuk commented that this answer showed that Zelenskyy is surrounded by an information vacuum and receives information from particular circles of the law enforcement of the Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov and Venediktova.
Avakov, who has managed to stay in his position since 2014, is another controversial figure in Ukraine’s government. Despite numerous protests demanding his resignation and accusations of covering up police crimes, Avakov continues to work in Zelenskyy’s government.
At the press-conference, Zelenskyy called Avakov a powerful minister and added that completing the investigation into the case of assassinated Belarusian-Ukrainian journalist Pavlo Sheremet falls in his area of responsibility.
Zelenskyy also recognized the staff shortage and noted that the positions of ministers of education, culture, and energy in Ukraine remain vacant after the dismissal of Prime Minister Honcharuk and the cabinet reshuffle.
“No matter which person we consider, the next day it will be written – this is the person of [oligarchs] Akhmetov or Kolomoiskyi.”
On prosecuting his predecessor Petro Poroshenko
Another question raised concerned the case against former president Petro Poroshenko. Zelenskyy did not lose any opportunity to blame his predecessor for his policies and to promise that Poroshenko will be punished.
Just a day before the conference, independent MP Andriy Derkach released tapes which allegedly prove the influence of the US ex-vice president Joe Biden on Poroshenko. Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party stated that the fragments of the recordings are “fabricated to discredit Ukraine and get it artificially involved in the American election campaign.”
Zelenskyy confirmed that the Prosecutor General office opened a criminal proceeding regarding the case, but added that he has no power to discuss it.
“I am sure that [the verdict for Poroshenko] is still ahead… different adventures and verdicts are coming,” for Poroshenko and his team, Zelenskyy commented.
On the situation in Donbas
A part of the press conference was related to the situation in Donbas and the Minsk protocols.
Zelenskyy stated that he is giving himself a few more months for the Minsk diplomatic format to work, as not only Russia but international sanctions are connected to it.
“I give myself a few more months so we can find a diplomatic way out of this situation. There is a plan B and a plan C, but I would not like to apply them. Society has different assessments of the direct talks between Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin, but I am convinced that we should do so, not cancelling out Minsk, but in parallel.”
Also, the president stated that he had not had any meetings with Putin in any format, including phone calls, and added that after the COVID-19 restrictive measures end, there would have to be a meeting in the Normandy format. Zelenskyy also added that negotiations with Russia on the return of Ukrainian political prisoners from Crimea and Russia after the pandemic were ongoing.
On returning Crimea
Zelenskyy affirmed that he is negotiating the question of Crimea with Western partners and that mostly they confirm publicly that the sanctions against Russia will not be lifted before Crimea is returned.
The president also noted that a new format is needed for negotiating Crimea-related issues as they have not been raised in the Normandy format.
During the press conference, Zelenskyy also stated that the language question in Ukraine is artificial.
“Justice must be done for all: both Ukrainian-speaking and minorities. We must protect the rights of minorities, but everyone must know their mother tongue, and that is normal.”
Attention was also drawn to the topic of investments. Zelenskyy announced that by the end of September 2020 a single investment office will start work in Ukraine and that soon the bill on the “investment nannies” will be registered in Parliament.