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As challenges grow, Ukraine grieves over comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy

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“I want Ukraine to be independent,” Mykola Mykytenko wrote on Instagram, hours before she set herself on fire in Kyiv’s central Maidan Square.

The 49-year-old died on October 14, three days after his extreme protest in the heart of the country’s capital, where months of massive anti-government demonstrations took place in late 2013 and early 2014.

His daughter Yulia told reporters at a memorial event shortly after his death that he was protesting against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Mykytenko, a veteran of the military conflict against Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, has claimed more than 13,000 lives since it started nearly six years ago, he has been irritated with his leaders’ policy towards Moscow, she said.

He did it that night because he did not want others to be hurt, she said. Also, he did not want anyone to stop him.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who tested positive for coronavirus, heads an online video conference with government officials earlier this month.Office of the Presidential Press of Ukraine through the AP

Running on an anti-corruption ticket and promising to curb the oligarchs’ power, Zelenskiy, a political novice who played a president on a television series, vowed to end the conflict east with Russia and improve relations with Moscow before defeated current President Petro Poroshenko in April 2019.

But the former comedians’ popularity has waned since he took over the country, which stands on the front line of the West’s blockade with Russia as he struggles to manage the coronavirus pandemic and revive its hit economy.

His approval rating dropped to 46 per cent in a national poll conducted by the Rated Assessment Group researcher earlier this month, while 51 per cent said they did not trust him. However, this was higher than that of many of his rivals.

Opponents in the country of 42 million, in which a significant minority of the population uses Russian as its first language especially in cities and in the industrialized east, have accused it of leaning too far west.

Others have accused Zelenskiy, who was hospitalized with Covid-19 earlier this month, of favoring Moscow.

Winners always lose electoral support during their first year in power in Ukraine, said Volodymyr Paniotto, director general of the International Institute of Sociology in Kiev. He added that people had turned to traditional parties, which have mobilized their resources against Zelenskiy.

This was demonstrated when the pro-Kremlin Platform for Life party co-chaired by Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, made a strong showing in local elections last month.

They feel his lack of experience and use it against him, said Oleksandr Danylyuk, Ukraine’s former national security chief.

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Anger over an October 28 ruling by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court has also damaged Zelenskiys’s popularity at home and abroad.

Eleven of the 15 judges abolished a mandatory asset register for civil servants and removed some of the most essential powers of the main National Anti-Corruption Agency, or NAZK, which lost the right to check the accuracy of information in officials’ statements, such as and to conduct inspections at state agencies. Free access to official statements became illegal.

The ruling also declared it illegal to hold officials criminally liable for false information in their asset declarations.

Activists claimed the ruling was part of a systematic attempt by the court to dismantle anti-corruption institutions and highlighted the fact that the lawsuit was filed by 47 pro-Russian lawmakers including Medvedchuk.

Questioning the decision a day after the ruling, Zelenskiy said Ukraine would lose World Bank support, leaving a huge hole in the budget.

The same day, the European Union echoed his claim. In a statement, she said the courts’ decision called into question a number of international commitments that Ukraine has made in relation to its international partners, including the EU.

Zelenskiy responded by presenting a bill to overturn the decision, dismiss the judges of the Constitutional Court and appoint new ones. But this was rejected by his fellow lawmakers, including some members of his ruling People’s Servant party. Some accused him of seizing power.

Instead, another bill has been introduced that would restore the rules set by the court. It has not been debated yet.

Zelenskiy has also been criticized for lack of progress with Russia, although he was able to reach an agreement on troops withdrawing from key frontline areas in eastern Ukraine in October 2019, and he secured prisoner exchanges in September and December 2019.

Hailing this as a success, he told NBC News last month that some of his rivals had claimed the withdrawal would encourage attacks by Russian-backed forces. Instead, there is an ongoing ceasefire, he said.

However, sporadic exchanges of fire continue along the 250-mile front line, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reports that there were almost 14,000 ceasefire violations between July and September 2020. Three civilians were killed, she said.

For some like Dmytro Filimonenko, 25, an information technology specialist from Kyiv, Zelenskiy is making progress, albeit slowly.

I voted for Zelenskiy because I expected quick changes, he said. He wants to do it. However, within a year, I realize that one person can not change everything.

But for the veterans, some of whom tried to physically prevent Ukrainian troops from leaving the front line, the withdrawal was seen as an act of capitulation.

Mykytenko gave his life for this issue.

He wanted to be heard, said his daughter Yuliya.

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