KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s president on Thursday strongly defended agreeing to hold a local election in the country’s rebel-held east and vowed that the vote will be free and fair.
Ukraine, Russia and mediators Germany and France on Tuesday signed a tentative agreement with Russia-backed separatists on general guidelines for holding a local election in eastern Ukraine, where a five-year conflict between the separatists and Ukrainian troops has killed more than 13,000 people.
Some in Ukraine saw the agreement as a capitulation to Russia, and hundreds of people rallied outside Zelenskiy’s office in protest.
Zelenskiy said in a televised address Thursday that the local election in the eastern regions known as Donbass would not be held “under the barrel of machine guns.” He promised to ensure that the vote follows Ukrainian laws and includes candidates from Ukrainian political parties.
“Donbass is part of Ukraine and peace must come there,” Zelenskiy said.
He criticized his opponents for trying to make a “bugbear” of Tuesday’s agreement, saying it was just a necessary intermediate step to organize a summit with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany to discuss ways of ending the war.
Zelenskiy said a lasting cease-fire and an exchange of all prisoners was needed to create conditions for the election in the east, emphasizing that Ukraine should also regain control over its border with Russia in rebel regions.
Ukraine and the West say Russia has backed the rebels with troops and weapons and the border has served as a conduit for them.
A 2015 peace agreement, brokered by France and Germany and signed in Minsk, Belarus, envisaged Ukraine regaining full control of its border with Russia only after the rebel regions receive broad autonomy and elect local leaders and legislatures _ a provision resented by many in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at a conference in the Russian city of Sochi, said he believes that Zelenskiy sincerely wants to implement the Minsk agreement and achieve peace in the east.
“If he has enough political courage to bring it to the end, he will prove himself as an honest and brave politician,” Putin said.
Zelenskiy, a comedian with no political experience, was elected by landslide in April on promises to combat the country’s endemic corruption and end the grinding war in the east.
But the furor in the United States over an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump that focuses on his July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy has dented the Ukrainian president’s image and the nation’s prestige. In the call, Trump urged Zelenskiy to investigate his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow.