Kyiv Mayor: Zelensky ‘Paying for the Mistakes He Made’ with Decline in Popularity

ukraine zelensky
Berk Ozkan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko expressed concern for the future of democracy in Ukraine under President Volodymyr Zelensky and pronounced himself unsurprised that support for the president is falling in the country in a series of interviews published this weekend.

Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion whose name has been floated as presidential candidate material for nearly a decade, lamented to the German newspaper Der Spiegel on Friday that he had not had a single phone call with Zelensky, despite being the mayor of the nation’s capital during wartime. He told the newspaper he was concerned that Ukraine would soon “no longer be any different from Russia.”

In a subsequent interview with the Swiss outlet 20 Minuten this weekend, Klitschko refused to talk about any future plans to run for president, calling it “stupid” to do so, and complained that other politicians in the country were engaged in “trench warfare” with each other rather than Russia. He nonetheless appeared to criticize Zelensky for among other issues, denying in early 2022 that he had any indication a full-scale Russian invasion would occur and for civilians complaining that many of the capital’s bomb shelters were not accessible, insisting, “this is the president’s full responsibility.”

Klitschko’s small media tour this weekend is notable in light of Zelensky’s refusal to hold a presidential election, Ukraine held its last election in 2019 – in which Zelensky, as the “pro-Russian” candidate, defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko – and is scheduled to hold elections in March. The Ukrainian constitution forbids presidential elections during wartime, however, and Zelensky has enthusiastically rejected the possibility of holding them because it would take too much money away from the military effort and finding a way to enfranchise the 6 million refugees created by the war would be nearly impossible.

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President of Ukraine via Storyful

Critics have noted, however, Zelensky’s dwindling approval ratings compared to when the war began – and his poor ratings before the war, when Ukrainians expressed frustration over his poor handling of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic and other peacetime issues.

Klitschko laid the blame for the diminishing popularity squarely on Zelensky in his comments to 20 Minuten.

“People see who is effective and who is not. And there were and are many expectations. Zelenskiy is paying for the mistakes he made,” the mayor asserted.

“People wonder why we weren’t better prepared for this war. Why Zelensky denied until the end that it would happen,” Klitschko continuted. “Or why it was possible that the Russians were able to reach Kyiv so quickly. There was too much information that didn’t match reality.”

“But still,” he added, “The President has an important function today and we must support him until the end of the war. But at the end of this war, every politician will pay for his successes or failures.”

Klitschko refused to talk about his potential candidacy for president. He did not deny that he may one day run, but described talking about it during the war was “stupid.”

“Today the only question is whether Ukraine continues to exist at all. Putin does not accept Ukraine as an independent country, that is no secret. He says Ukraine is part of the Russian Empire. We fight for our freedom and independence,” Klitschko asserted. “At the same time, there is already trench warfare among our politicians – in a country that is shaky in its existence. This is simply stupid. So talking about my political ambitions now wouldn’t be wise.”

With Der Spiegel, the Kyiv mayor made the revelation that he had not held a call with Zelensky since the full-scale Russian invasion began in February 2022.

The lack of communication is particularly notable given how available Zelensky has made himself to international celebrities, making time to update international personalities such as Jimmy Fallon and Greta Thunberg about the war, but not the mayor.

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Volodymyr Zelensky via Storyful

Klitschko complained that the war made it impossible to invest in improving Kyiv because any money diverted to repaving roads or other infrastructure led to complaints that it should have gone to the military. He also claimed that Zelensky played no leadership role in the early days of the war, leaving mayors to fend for themselves.

“There is currently only one independent institution, but there is enormous pressure on [it]: local self-government,” he said. “In the first months of the war, the country was without leadership, frankly, there was chaos. And the mayors took on a key role as opinion leaders in defending cities, helping the military.”

Klitschko took the streets of his city in February 2024 vowing that, if necessary, he would personally go to the front lines of the war and fight Russia.

“I don’t have another choice. I have to do that. I would be fighting,” he said in an interview at the time.

This weekend, Klitschko answered affirmatively that democracy in Ukraine was under threat and warned, “at some point we will no longer be any different from Russia, where everything depends on the whim of one man.”

Zelensky has, on multiple occasions, opposed staging elections in the near future, despite the next presidential election date being set for March 2024. In August, he suggested he would be open to the idea “if the United States and Europe give us financial support,” refusing “to take money from weapons and give it to the elections.”

By November, Zelensky denounced that anyone suggesting holding elections on time was “absolutely irresponsible.”

“I believe that now is not the right time for elections,” Zelensky said in an address to the public in November. “And if we need to put an end to a political dispute and continue to work in unity, there are structures in the state that are capable of putting an end to it and giving society all the necessary answers.”

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