By Sébastien Gobert
“Not great, not terrible”. This quote from the HBO “Chernobyl” series quite sums up the various pieces of analysis on the first year since Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s election on 21st April 2019. I personally refer to the title of one of Shakespeare’s plays: “Much Ado about Nothing”. It explains that some changes were indeed implemented over the past year (relaunching of the peace negotiations, prisoners’ exchanges, passing of historic land reform, lifting of MPs immunity, voting of a law on president’s impeachment and more) yet none of that changes the bigger picture. Given Zelenskyy’s landslide victory, his strong support in opinion polls throughout the year and his absolute majority in Parliament, he was supposed not only “to stop the wheel” of the former system but also to “break the wheel”, as a reference to another one of HBO’s series “Game of Thrones”. Zelenskyy did not break the wheel. And to look beyond the analysis of his first years, there are now many reasons to worry about the rest of his presidency.
A lot of his shortcomings were explained by his naivety and unpreparedness. Zelenskyy first visited the Donbass frontline dressed in a civilian suit. That was a strong symbol of change after Petro Poroshenko’s instrumentalisation of the army and his martial speeches. Yet during next visits to the war zone, Zelenskyy took on the military uniform. It shows he first did not understand his responsibility as commander in chief and he changed his mind later on. The evolution of his strategy in peace negotiations is also quite telling: he just did not understand it would be so hard. Another example: after his election he wasted time studying the possibility to transfer the presidential administration from the Bankova street in Kyiv to another building. The project was expensive and logistically challenging. It was eventually abandoned. More: he and his Prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk promised to pass the law on land reform by late 2019 only to push back their own deadline. One may have hoped Zelenskyy prepared for such a fundamental project ahead of his election instead of learning on the spot about the complexity of the situation.
Land reform was eventually passed in April along with an infamous bill dubbed “anti-Kolomoiskiy”. Both votes were passed only because of the dramatic economic prospects Ukraine faces in the context of the coronavirus pandemics. Kyiv needs to pass these laws to secure some USD 10 billion in international financial assistance.
So the first year was chaotic. It may be amateurism. It may be a sign that Zelenskyy has been learning on the job. But hey, why not? He did not sell Ukraine to Russia and he got some things done. He did not impose a monopoly over the political scene and oligarchic competition is still much more lively and surprising in Ukraine than in Russia. This messy democratic life may have looked cute from afar. But it is not anylonger. Today it increasingly looks like controversial and corrupt forces try to restore the opacity and unaccountability that used to be unquestionably accepted before the 2013-14 revolution of dignity. Dedicated reformers and decent and competent statesmen/women disappear one after another since the start of the conflict between Andriy Bohdan and Andriy Yermak. The instability of the government tells a lot about the swinging moods of Zelenskyy, about the compromises he has to strike behind closed doors to fill in position and about the difficulties he faces to recruit efficient state-minded professionals.
It also tells about a redefinition of alliances. Because of his amateurism and because of the unspoken partnership with oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy that initially allowed him to win the presidency, Zelenskyy has not managed to effectively control and weep his “Sluga Narodu” parliamentary majority. In the course of urgently passing the land reform and the “anti-Kolomoiskiy” law in order to secure financial help, he has lost control of some of his previous allies. The integrity of his absolute majority is nothing but a memory and the president had to rely on the support of other groups to pass a series of bills and appointments. This means he is no longer the master of his own policy.
Instead of the “new faces” Zelenskyy had promised to push forwards to help him transform the country, one sees more and more controversial and dull faces from the past. Some of his new ministers and partners are linked to Yanukovych times, to oligarchic groups and to all kinds of scandals. I recommend to follow Ukrainian journalist Kristina Berdynskykh who keeps track of all dirty details of Ukrainian political life, past and present. The definition of good and bad is very relative in post-Soviet Ukrainian politics so I will not venture in giving good points in terms of policy-making. But what is for sure is that these people bring with them the culture of secrecy, shady deals and lack of accountability that has plagued the country’s political life for the past 30 years.
Is it to answer these questions and doubts about his reformist path that Zelenskyy is about to give Mikheil Saakashvili the possibility to use one more of his 9 lives of a political cat? The former Georgian president is undoubtedly credited with reforming his home country. But it was a long time ago, in different circumstances, in a different environment and with a different team. I have a lot of admiration for the man and for the political adventures he went through in Ukraine from 2016 till 2018. But nothing he has done since he left the Georgian presidency in 2013 indicates he still has the capacity to act as a reformer. He is first of all a revolutionary. As a politician in nowadays Ukraine is isolated. Him taking up a position as “vice-prime minister to oversee reforms” will never compensate for the dismissal of dozens of reformers in the past few months. It will lead to criticism and to scandals. It will stir up his frustrations “not to act fast enough” and it will prove undoubtedly disruptive to Zelenskyy’s now fragile presidency.
In the promotional video Zelenskyy’s team aired upon the first anniversary of his election, the president insists he will keep making personnel changes in the cabinet until Ukraine gets “a perfect government.” What does that even mean? In the meantime, Arsen Avakov is still in his role as one of Ukraine’s most influential and authoritative figures. He has been minister of Interior with no interruption since 22nd February 2014 and his influence goes far beyond his ministry. Not once did he have to personally ask voters for their approval to continue his work. He is the prototype of the untouchable and unaccountable politician Ukrainian life is plagued with since the independence in 1991. And yet he is one of the pillars of a government Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants to make “perfect”. That is worrying. By the way last time I checked, Arsen Avakov and Mikheil Saakashvili do not get along, not the slightest.
This trend towards entertaining an opaque and unaccountable political culture goes against everything Zelenskyy’s election stood for a year ago. It also has frightening implications. Andriy Yermak never bothered to explain why his brother allegedly “sells” official positions to the highest bidder on his behalf. In her first weeks in office, General Prosecutor Iryna Venediktova has pursued charges against former President Petro Poroshenko and Tetyana Chornovil, a prominent activist and former lawmaker. Critics claim most of these charges are politically motivated. Investigative journalists recently raised questions to the leadership of the ministry of health in the conduct of public tenders (protective medical suits were supposed to be supplied by a Ukrainian manufacturer. Instead the ministry chose a Chinese supplier for a delivery twice more expensive). The ministry did not reply to inquiries. Corruption in healthcare tenders had disappeared in 2015 with the development of a transparent system of tenders led by international organisations. It would be dramatic to resume corrupt practices at a time of global pandemics.
It took Poroshenko two years to prevail over against Arseniy Yatseniuk with his resignation in April 2016. The then president started to build an authoritarian vertical of power after that and to allow more and more of his friends to gain undue benefits from the state. It took only 6 months for Zelenskyy to fire his first prime minister and to proceed with a series of controversial appointments. Were this trend to continue, it would be extremely worrying for perspectives of change.
Obviously, the people who are now in charge deny there is any issue. They have an excuse ready in all circumstances and they reject all criticism as a “provocation”. Under Poroshenko, all critics were part of a “Russian plot”. The current rhetoric dives a bit less into conspiracy theories but the underlying logic is the same: never to answer difficult questions, never to question oneself, never to apologise. And maybe they are right. Maybe Zelenskyy and the people around him are indeed honest persons who do their best to run a country and to face difficult challenges. Yet I come back to my initial point: given Zelenskyy’s historic victory and unprecedented parliamentary majority, the state of the political scene today does not live up to the 2019 expectations. It is possible to correct amateurism and inexperience as long as there is goodwill, accountability and a clear vision for reforms. But what we see now is much more nasty. Nepotism, misuse of state resources, political persecution may emerge as the driving force of the Zelenskyy presidency – whether the president is directly involved or not.
And now it gets really worrying. If this Zelenskyy – with his extensive powers, with the support he enjoys, with international assistance, with the high hopes he generated – if this Zelenskyy does not “break the wheel”, then I do not know who or what will do it. Were the current trend to continue, it will lead to a point in a few years time when the 10 year-cycle of revolutionary mood in Ukrainian politics will go around the clock. Previous revolutions were started by Ukrainians aged 18-35 years who despaired not to see perspectives for themselves in their own country. They took to the streets, they fought, they thought they won. They trusted different politicians and they devoted time and efforts to implement reforms. Then they became disappointed and they either left politics and state administration or they were kicked out. Most of the 2004 and 2013 revolutionaries turned back to the private sphere to actually do something for themselves, since it proved so hard to do something for the country. But it does not stop here. A new generation is coming up who also wants to see perspectives for itself. Many Ukrainians voted for Zelenskyy with the hope he would successfully finish the revolution. Were he to bring instead frustrations and disappointments, Ukrainians may not look into the polling stations for the possibility to transform the country.