Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelensky has used his first trip to Brussels to reassure Kiev’s western backers by distancing himself from a controversial oligarch and attacking Russia’s “imperial” ambitions.
Mr Zelensky, a former comedian with little political experience, rejected Igor Kolomoisky’s call for war-scarred Ukraine to back away from a multibillion-dollar IMF-backed reform programme by defaulting on external debt.
Mr Zelensky has also ruled out supporting Mr Kolomoisky’s legal attempts to reverse the nationalisation of a top commercial lender as part of an internationally supported banking sector clean-up.
As two days of meetings with senior EU and Nato officials drew to a close, Mr Zelensky reaffirmed his commitment to the EU by saying Ukrainian accession to the bloc would be a “powerful blow against Russian authoritarianism” and the “death of the Russian imperial project”.
The new president’s efforts to keep Mr Kolomoisky at arm’s length are part of a wider push to reassure European countries that he is neither compromised by past personal connections nor too sympathetic to the government in Moscow, which annexed Crimea in 2014.
One EU diplomat said Mr Zelensky’s comments on the Kolomoisky case showed he was saying “all the right things” so far. “That’s exactly what one wants to hear from him,” the diplomat said. “So far, of all the worries about him, none have panned out.”
Mr Zelensky told senior EU officials that “rumours” of a Ukrainian debt default have “nothing in common” with his position as president, according to overnight Twitter posts by his office.
Ukraine in the EU is the death of the Russian imperial project . . . it is a powerful blow against Russian authoritarianism
Ukraine is seeking billions of dollars this year from a $3.9bn IMF standby programme, plus more from western backers and bond markets to deal with foreign debt payments due this year and next.
In an interview with the Financial Times after Mr Zelensky was sworn in on May 20, Mr Kolomoisky had suggested Ukraine should back off the IMF programme and “treat . . . creditors the way Greece does”. The oligarch’s television stations had previously offered strong election campaign backing to Mr Zelensky, who has also hired Mr Kolomoisky’s former lawyer as his chief of staff.
Mr Zelensky pledged he would “defend only the interests of the state” in a high-profile legal case involving PrivatBank, which was formerly part-owned by Mr Kolomoisky. The oligarch is challenging the decision by Ukrainian authorities in 2016 to seize control of the institution from him and his partners after discovering a $5.5bn balance sheet hole.
“I am not interested in these games in the courts by the former owners . . . I do not plan on being on their side,” Mr Zelensky said, according to his office’s social media posts.
Mr Zelensky used his trip to the EU and Nato headquarters in the Belgian capital to stress that Kiev would speed up reforms and hold firm to aspirations to join both blocs. He urged the institutions in turn to provide more support and further press Russia to end a five-year smouldering war in breakaway eastern regions of Ukraine that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.
The president accused Moscow of triggering a flare-up in fighting this week in Ukraine’s east, which led to the death of three government troops. “I appeal to the leadership of the Russian Federation: escalation of the conflict is not the best background for the resumption of [peace] negotiations,” he said in a tweet.
Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, held a “warm first meeting” with Mr Zelensky, a commission spokesperson said, adding that Brussels would maintain strong backing for Kiev’s “economic, state and society” reforms.
“Ukraine in the EU is the death of the Russian imperial project . . . it is a powerful blow against Russian authoritarianism, it is the path to democratic change in Russia and the whole post-Soviet space,” Mr Zelensky told Donald Tusk, European Council president, on Wednesday as he wrapped up the visit.
A spokesperson for Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko accused the country’s new leader of “banal plagiarism”, saying this and other statements by Mr Zelensky this week in Brussels were lifted word for word from speeches given by Mr Poroshenko, including at a party congress days ago.
While in Brussels, Mr Zelensky also met Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to US president Donald Trump, as well as Rick Perry, US energy secretary.
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