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Zelensky is losing popularity because of his mistakes, says mayor of Kyiv

Mayor of Kiev Vitali Klitschko speaks to journalists during the opening ceremony of the Podilsko-Voskresenskyi Bridge
Mayor of Kiev Vitali Klitschko speaks to journalists during the opening ceremony of the Podilsko-Voskresenskyi Bridge - Getty Images Europe

Volodymyr Zelensky’s popularity is falling and he will pay for his mistakes by eventually losing power, the mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko has said.

In a startling rebuke of Ukraine’s president, Mr Klitschko told two interviewers that he considered Mr Zelensky to be increasingly isolated and autocratic.

“People see who’s effective and who’s not. And there were and still are a lot of expectations. Zelensky is paying for mistakes he has made,” he said in an interview with the Swiss news website 20 Minutes.

The former heavyweight boxing world champion who has been mayor of Kyiv since 2014 is a political adversary of Mr Zelensky, but his comments reflect growing dissatisfaction with the president after 21 months of war and a failed Nato-backed counteroffensive.

Support has fallen

Opinion polls in Ukraine have shown that both support for fighting against Russia and for Mr Zelensky have fallen, although they are still above 60 per cent.

Mr Klitschko blamed Mr Zelensky for ignoring warnings about the Russian invasion in February 2022, failures which he said nearly allowed the Russian army to capture Kyiv.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint press conference following a meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint press conference following a meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine - Shutterstock

“People wonder why we weren’t better prepared for this war. Why Zelensky denied until the end that it would come to this,” he said.

Mr Zelensky’s opponents have turned up the volume in recent weeks, accusing him of mishandling the counteroffensive, failing to stamp out corruption, dodging a presidential election scheduled for March and losing international political goodwill.

Time to end war

Last month, Oleskiy Arestovych, Mr Zelensky’s former adviser, said that he wanted to challenge the Ukrainian Presidency and that it was now time to start talking to the Kremlin about ending the war.

Mr Zelensky has pledged never to negotiate with the Kremlin.

Mr Klitschko said he agreed with Ukraine’s military commander-in-chief, Valery Zaluzhny, that the war had become a stalemate. Maj Gen Zaluzhny’s comments, in an interview with the Economist, had angered Mr Zelensky, who advised his top brass to stick to fighting and stay out of politics.

“Sometimes people just don’t want to hear the truth,” Mr Klitschko said.

While Mr Klitschko said that Mr Zelensky would ultimately lose power, he clarified it was important not to switch presidents while Ukraine was still at war with Russia.

“The President has an important function today,” he said.

Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxer and now the Mayor of Kiev photographed in his office
Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxer and now the Mayor of Kiev photographed in his office - Heathcliff O'Malley

Mr Klitschko was a senior leader in the 2014 Maidan Revolution that overthrew a Kremlin-backed leadership and has been a strong supporter of Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president between 2014-19.  Mr Zelensky, a stand-up comedian before he entered politics, defeated Mr Poroshenko in the 2019 presidential election.

Mr Klitschko’s interview with 20 Minutes was published on Sunday within hours of a wide-ranging story in Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine on the war in Ukraine that also quoted him criticising Mr Zelensky.

Der Spiegel quoted Mr Klitschko as saying that Mr Zelensky has become isolated and that they never meet, even though their offices are only a few minutes walk apart.

‘Enormous pressure’

He said that only the stubbornness and independence of regional mayors and governors were stopping Ukraine from becoming an autocratic state centred around Mr Zelensky.

“There is currently only one independent institution, but enormous pressure is being exerted on it: local self-government,” he said.

Mr Klitschko also credited local officials and not the central government with holding off Russian attacks in the first few weeks of the war.

As well as being the most senior city mayor in Ukraine, Mr Klitschko is the head of the Ukrainian League of Cities, a political grouping for city leaders.

He said that Kyiv was having to defend itself once again against waves of attacks by Russian drones which target the city’s energy and power infrastructure in what Ukrainian officials have said is a systematic Kremlin campaign to undermine civilian morale.

Mr Klitschko said that the city’s air defence systems shoot down most of the drones but Kyiv was also far more crowded this year, straining its infrastructure and resources.

“Last year, Kyiv was almost empty, now it’s packed. Many have returned, and we have almost half a million refugees here from all over the country,” he said.

Last year, Mr Klitschko had encouraged people to leave Kyiv and Ukraine over winter to lighten the pressure on its power and electricity generating capacities.