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Ukrainians React To Being Center Of Attention


President Trump's phone call with the president of Ukraine is central to the impeachment inquiry. What do people in that country think of the political upheaval that conversation with their president has caused? NPR's Lucian Kim has been reporting from Ukraine for the past week, and we have him on the line.

Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how is this uproar over President Trump's call playing out? Do people care there?

KIM: Well, most of the people I've spoken to are definitely following the events going on in the U.S. This was the first visit to the U.S. by Ukraine's new president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. But nobody, of course, expected it to go this way. I asked Ivan Yakovina - he's a political commentator in Kyiv - what he thinks.

IVAN YAKOVINA: It's very flattering that, yes, Ukraine is a - is in the center of everybody's attention. But on the other point of view, nobody wants to be associated with a scandal. And that's exactly what we have now.

KIM: Well, what's more, even though the political scandal is taking place in the U.S., how it plays out is crucially important to Ukrainians, who are fighting a Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine and really depend on the U.S. as their key ally.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about Ukraine's president. They elected someone with no political experience this year - a TV personality, in fact. And in the partial transcript of his call with Trump, he comes across as going out of his way to please Trump. What do Ukrainians think of that?

KIM: Well, last night, I went to a central square here in Kyiv. It's next to one of the ancient city gates here called the Golden Gate. And I spoke to quite a few people about what they thought about this phone call. One of those people I spoke to - her name is Taisa Sukhan, and she's a retired chemist.

TAISA SUKHAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: So what she's saying is that the worst thing about this phone call was that it seemed that both Trump and Zelenskiy didn't seem very concerned with the interests of their own people and more concerned about some private dealings. As for Zelenskiy, Sukhan called her president's performance shameful and said the old wolf Trump was leading him on.

But hers was really just one opinion. I also heard people who said that Zelenskiy had made the best of a tough situation. And you've got to remember that Zelenskiy won a landslide in the spring. He has approval ratings of more than 70%. And one thing that's really helped him was that he secured the release of more than 30 Ukrainians held in Russian prisons. So what people here are really interested in is not Trump's impeachment inquiry, per se, but whether their new president can end the fighting and turn the economy around.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I guess the question, then, is, do Ukrainians think this scandal can or will really change their relations with the United States, which are very important to the country?

KIM: Well, Ukrainians are really in a tough spot. President Zelenskiy never asked to be put in this position. The Trump administration's request to investigate Joe Biden and his son really put him on the spot. Ukraine has depended on bilateral support in the Congress since the fighting began five years ago. And now, really, there's this question whether a domestic American dispute will disrupt that support.

To go back to that earlier comment we heard about Ukrainians being flattered to be at the center of attention, the people I spoke to hope that exactly that attention will remind Americans that Ukrainians still count on U.S. support.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Lucian Kim in Kyiv. Lucian, thank you so much.

KIM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.