Ukraine's Zelensky says first days of presidency 'a shock'

Kiev (AFP) –


Ukraine's new President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian with no previous political experience, on Thursday said his first days in office have been "a bit of a shock".

"There's a lot of work," the 41-year-old told AFP on the sidelines of an international book fair in the capital Kiev.

Zelensky, who won a landslide victory last month, reiterated his pledge to move out of the presidential offices in a hulking Soviet-era building in centre city.

"I do not like the atmosphere, the building," said Ukraine's sixth president since independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"So we'll think what to do about it," he added, noting that such a move would present difficulties.

The father-of-two spoke to AFP as he was buying books for his children.

Zelensky beat incumbent Petro Poroshenko in last month's polls on promises of rebooting the political system and purging the influence of powerful oligarchs.

The political neophyte -- who has described himself as "an ordinary guy come to break the system" -- was sworn in as president on Monday. The next day he called snap parliamentary elections for July 21.

In his inaugural address, which won wide praise, Ukraine's youngest post-Soviet president vowed to halt a war with Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country that claimed around 13,000 lives.

But some of Zelensky's first staffing decisions have raised eyebrows, sparking fear that he might be beholden to tycoon Igor Kolomoisky despite repeated denials.

The controversial oligarch owns the television channel that broadcasts Zelensky's comedy shows.

Zelensky appointed Kolomoisky's personal lawyer, Andriy Bogdan, as his chief of staff.

Kolomoisky, 56, and the Ukrainian government have been locked in a high-profile legal battle over ownership of the country's largest lender, PrivatBank.

The tycoon reportedly returned to Ukraine last week after almost two years of self-imposed exile in Israel and Switzerland.

- 'Investors call every day' -

Many observers -- including Tomas Fiala, CEO of the Kiev-based investment company Dragon Capital -- expressed doubt that Bogdan would work for the benefit of Ukraine and not Kolomoisky.

Zelensky angrily batted off those claims on Thursday.

"I don't know who Fiala is, he's not holding any state office so it's unclear on what grounds he's commenting," the new leader told AFP.

He added that foreign investors were keen to commit to Ukraine.

"They are calling us every day, they want to invest money as long as the president and the government can guarantee their rights are protected -- that's our weak link."

"This is the main reason why investors will invest or not," he said. "It really has nothing to do with Bogdan."

Bogdan's recent suggestions that Ukraine may conduct a referendum over any peace plan with Russia have caused an uproar.

Zelensky walked back those comments, saying it would be an "electronic poll" and not a full-fledged plebiscite.

An online petition calling for Zelensky's resignation has gathered more than 35,000 signatures since Wednesday.

The petition said the leader's first steps as president were disappointing.