Jun 28, 2019

Checking in on Ukraine's TV star turned president

Volodymyr Zelensky holds a press conference on Thursday. Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s TV star turned president, has now been in office for nearly 10 weeks.

Behind the scenes: Peter Wagner, head of the European Commission’s Support Group for Ukraine, has been in several meetings with Zelensky. He tells me Zelensky is “saying the right things” and connects easily with people, but has a “huge learning curve.”

  • Wagner says if Zelensky wins a large mandate in next month’s parliamentary elections, he may be able to avoid the factional disputes that plagued Petro Poroshenko's administration.
  • Wagner adds that Poroshenko lost to Zelensky in large part because voters were frustrated by his failure to tackle corruption. He says the early signs from Zelensky are “encouraging.”
  • As for whether Zelensky will have more independence from Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs, Wagner says it’s “too early, because it’s moving by the day.”
  • Wagner says it’s also too soon to characterize Zelensky’s stance toward Russia, which is still holding 24 Ukrainian sailors and has intensified its disinformation efforts in Ukraine.

In meetings, Wagner says, Zelensky comes across as well-briefed and makes an effort not to appear naive. “This is a smart person. You can see that this man, even if it was a while ago, studied law,” he says.

The bottom line: “Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s not forget, this is not Trump or Macron, who have been in the system, or around, or playing with it for decades,” Wagner says. Zelensky is just 41, and politics is entirely new to him.

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