EVER SINCE Ukrainian television comedian Volodymyr Zelensky routed the country’s established politicians in a presidential election last month, Western observers have puzzled over what to make of him. Is he truly the anti-corruption crusader he played on his television program, or is he a captive of the allegedly corrupt oligarch whose television network broadcast the show? Would he continue Ukraine’s pro-Western foreign policy and stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, or would he allow himself to be manipulated by Moscow? Not all the answers are in, but Mr. Zelensky’s inaugural speech on Monday offered some encouraging signs.
Mr. Zelensky called on the parliament to quickly remove its members’ immunity from prosecution and pass a law allowing the prosecution of officials for illegal enrichment. He announced he was dissolving parliament early to allow for new elections, something that could allow him to leverage his popularity — he won 73 percent of the vote in a presidential runoff — into a pro-reform legislative majority. And he said that while his top priority would be ending Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed forces in two eastern provinces, he would not give up Ukraine’s territory — including Crimea, which Mr. Putin has declared part of Russia.
Mr. Zelensky could quickly become mired in legal disputes with his parliamentary opponents, who are contesting his authority to force an early election. Mr. Putin, for his part, is playing tough — he greeted Mr. Zelensky’s victory by offering Russian passports to residents of eastern Ukraine, and his spokesman said Monday he would neither congratulate nor soon meet with the new president.
It nevertheless appears that Ukraine’s new leader is trying to deliver desperately needed change in a country that, despite abundant resources, has been dragged down by endemic corruption as well as the conflict with Russia. Mr. Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, was himself an oligarch who staunchly resisted Mr. Putin’s attempts to dismember the country but blocked critical reforms to the judiciary and other institutions.
A crucial test for the new president will be his handling of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who partnered with Mr. Zelensky on his television show and left the country after he was accused by Mr. Poroshenko’s government of looting a bank. Western observers were alarmed when Mr. Kolomoisky suddenly returned to the country last week; if Mr. Zelensky installs the magnate’s allies in his administration or reverses actions taken against him, the new administration could be instantly discredited.
In the meantime, Mr. Zelensky took a sensible step by calling on the parliament to approve the dismissal of the chief state prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, who has appeared open to an attempt by President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to enlist his interference in the 2020 U.S. election. Mr. Giuliani reportedly pressed Mr. Lutsenko to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, though there is no evidence of wrongdoing by either of them.
Mr. Zelensky may not have much political experience, but he appears to have enough common sense to resist allowing his new administration to be dragged into U.S. domestic politics. Mr. Giuliani and his boss ought to stop trying to make ill use of Ukraine’s government and instead help its new president succeed.