By Natalia Zinets
MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) – President Volodymyr Zelenskiy promised to create a level playing field for businesses on Tuesday as he made an investment pitch for Ukraine in the unlikely venue of Mariupol, a port city 20 km (12 miles) from a rumbling separatist conflict.
A popular comedian who won a landslide election in April with no prior political experience, Zelenskiy came to office promising to end Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed forces that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
In a battle for the hearts and minds of those living in the eastern Donbass region, he sited his government’s first major investment conference in Mariupol, more than 700 km (435 miles) southeast of the capital Kiev.
A hub for exporting steel and grain and importing coal, the Black Sea port was briefly under rebel control in 2014 and suffered what Ukraine called a de facto economic blockade by Russia last year.
The conference took place on the same day as Ukrainian soldiers and rebel forces began a troop withdrawal in a town on the frontline, a confidence-building measure ahead of peace talks Ukraine hopes will take place next month.
Touting his administration’s reforms to help businesses and tackle corruption, Zelenskiy urged investors not to write off Ukraine as backward and hopeless.
“Ukraine is a country of opportunities. And today they are knocking on your door. But as they say, opportunity never knocks twice. So do not miss the opportunity, please. Do not ‘sleep through’ Ukraine,” he said in a speech.
His administration was reforming the judicial system and law enforcement bodies because “corrupt courts deter investors just as explosions and shots,” he said, promising to ensure “equal and uniform rules of the game for all.”
Zelenskiy promised to do everything necessary to secure another loan programme from the International Monetary Fund.
Early in his presidency, Zelenskiy has been sucked into a political battle in Washington over an impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump.
Democrats are investigating whether there are grounds to impeach Trump over his request to Zelenskiy to investigate a domestic political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Trump has called the inquiry a “witch hunt”.
Speaking on the sidelines of the same conference, Zelenskiy’s Finance Minister Oksana Markarova said the fallout from the impeachment row would not colour investors’ view of Ukraine. She told reporters that most investors believe that “the risks are getting lower and the expectations are improving” for the country.
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Sandra Maler)