KIEV/SOCHI (Reuters) - Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday that Ukrainian candidates should take part in an election that is expected to be held in the east of the country, currently controlled by pro-Russian rebels.
Zelenskiy made his comments two days after a breakthrough at talks between Moscow and Kiev opened the way to the first international summit in three years being convened on ending fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The details of the peace plan have not yet been hashed out. Russian officials have welcomed the plan, but have not commented on specifics.
“The election should not be held at gunpoint but in accordance with Ukrainian law, with access for candidates from Ukrainian political forces, Ukrainian media and international observers,” Zelenskiy said in televised comments on Thursday.
He also said that all the people internally displaced by the fighting should have an opportunity to vote.
Ukraine’s decision to agree to a peace plan, which suggests that the separatist region will be granted a special status and a local election will be held there, sparked protests in Kiev on Wednesday.
Thousands of protesters gathered in Kiev’s main square, chanting “no capitulation!” and “shame!”
The protest illustrates the domestic political challenges that Ukraine’s Zelenskiy, who was elected by a landslide in April, would face in brokering an end to the more than five-year conflict with Moscow-backed forces.
“I respect a constitutional right of every Ukrainian citizen to protest. I am hearing you, and believe me, I will never betray Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said on Thursday.
He said that he would discuss ending the war at the coming four-way talks in so-called “Normandy format”, in which leaders of Russia, Germany and France would also take part. The Kremlin said on Thursday that no date had been set yet for the summit.
More than 13,000 people have been killed in the more than five-year-old conflict in east Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces. Last month, Russia and Ukraine swapped dozens of prisoners, paving a way for further talks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, addressing a forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, said on Thursday that Zelenskiy, in order to prove he is a “fair and strong” politician, should complete the peace process in eastern Ukraine.
Reporting by Natalia Zinets in KIEV and Gleb Stolyarov in SOCHI; Additional reporting by Sergiy Karazy in KIEV; Writing by Maria Tsvetkova, Tom Balmforth and Katya Golubkova; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Mark Potter