Ukraine: Zelenskyy’s Approval Ratings Soar Amid War – OpEd
By Yuri Panchenko
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has seen his popularity soar since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. But analysts warn that a series of corruption scandals unveiled in his own ranks could deeply affect the standing of a president himself elected on an anti-graft platform.
On January 24, 2023 several senior Ukrainian officials, including frontline governors and regional prosecutors, were dismissed on corruption grounds. The shake-up also touched Zelensky’s office, with his deputy chief of staff Kyrylo Tymoshenko leaving his post. Property belonging to former Zelensky ally, businessman Igor Kolomoisky, was also searched in connection with suspected tax evasion.
Corruption has long plagued public life in Ukraine, and Zelensky vowed to take fresh steps to tackle the issue, of particular relevance ahead of an EU meeting on Ukraine’s potential accession.
“I want it to be clear: there will be no return to the way things used to be,” the president said in his nightly address to the nation.
The 44-year-old former comedian has surprised many by his transformation into a wartime leader.
In a survey conducted in December 2022, the Kyiv Institute of Sociology (KIIS) found that 84 per cent of Ukrainians trust Zelensky, a three-fold jump from the survey it fielded in December 2021. Only Ukraine’s armed forces have a larger support base, with 96 per cent of Ukrainians trusting them.
“The war has entirely changed the attitude of Ukrainians towards Zelensky,” KIIS director Volodymyr Paniotto told IWPR.
“It was significant for Ukrainians that Zelensky behaved as a true leader at the decisive moment: he did not leave the country despite offers and performed his duties with dignity,” Evgeniya Bliznyuk, founding CEO of the Kyiv-based Gradus Research, told IWPR. “This became part of his image, ensuring popularity both abroad and inside the country.”
In a televised address on February 24, the first day of the full-scale invasion, he told the Russian forces, “When you attack us you will see our faces, not our backs, but our faces.”
It was the starting point for a series of video speeches that have become his trademark.
As the Russians advanced towards the capital Kyiv, the US reportedly offered to evacuate Zelensky from the capital, an offer to which he is said to have replied, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Sociologists maintain that Ukrainians’ support of the president is partly due to a rallying around the flag effect. As such, levels of trust in other state institutions, including the security services, the government and the parliament, also increased in 2022, although on a smaller scale.
Paniotto explained that media had also played a role in boosting his popularity, specificaly “the monopolisation of television”.
Three Russian-language channels were banned in early 2021 as well as two TV outlets formerly owned by former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, which moved their broadcasting online.
This meant, Paniotto continued, that “TV channels which criticised the current government from pro-Russian positions had already been closed, and those that disapproved of it from [pro-Ukrainian] patriotic positions have been ousted to the internet. As a result, now there is a… decline in the ratings of all other politicians”.
All Ukraine’s TV news channels broadcast the same content 24 hours a day, a joint output that has been nicknamed the United News telemarathon.
Some maintain there are critical strategic justifications for this, as the telemarathon creates a firewall against Russian disinformation; others argue that the government monopoly of the information space could be exploited for political purposes.
Sociologists note that the full-scale invasion had also changed the outlook of Ukrainians themselves, primarily the residents of the east and south of the country.
Despite the annexation of Crimea and eight years of war in the Donbas – and the 13,000 lives this claimed – up until February 24 residents of Ukraine’s east and south were considered more sympathetic to Russia, unlike citizens in the central and western regions.
“That is why they most actively supported Zelensky’s pre-election thesis of ending the war with a compromise,” Halyna Zelenko, head of the political department at the Ivan Kuras Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies, said, referring to his electoral promise to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“As hostilities are mainly in the south and east, residents have significantly changed their attitude to the possibility of compromises with the Russian Federation. That is why Zelenskyy’s transition to warring rhetoric did not alienate these voters, as [might have been] expected until 24 February.”
Zelensky, a native Russian speaker hailing from Ukraine’s central-southern city of Kryvyi Rih, won 73.2 per cent of the votes in the second round of the presidential election in 2019.
The fact he was well-known, new to the political scene and did not detail specific policies allowed him to rack up supporters from across the political spectrum, including from among moderately pro-Russian voters.
The promise of ending the war in Donbas was also significant, although it gave rise to fears that he would make concessions to the Russian Federation and return Ukraine to the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
After unsuccessful attempts to reach a compromise with Russian President Vladimir Putin diplomatically, Zelensky noticeably cooled to the idea of ending the conflict in the east. Citizens began to turn away from him and by December 2021 his approval rating was down to 27 per cent.
Whether the current rating is an anomaly and will change once the war ends and opposition TV channels resume their operation is unclear.
“The only thing that can be said for sure is that there are political prospects for the servicemen and the volunteer community – these are the groups that have the highest levels of trust along with the president now,” Paniotto noted.
Zelensky will have to answer many questions regarding the course of the war, some of which could be painful, analysts note. Among them, his reassurances before February 24 that Moscow would not launch a full-scale war and defence failures in the first days of the war that led Russians to take large swathes of the southern regions.
Zelenko maintained that the president’s popularity largely depended on a convincing military victory for Ukraine with the complete liberation of the occupied territories.
“Even in the situation of reaching the demarcation line of February 23, the victory will not look sufficient to a significant part of Ukrainians, including for Zelensky’s electorate,” he continued.
If the outcome was that territories seized after February 24 remained under Russian control, that would be “simply catastrophic” for Zelensky, Zelenko concluded.
Bliznyuk said that the president’s ratings could also be affected by information about Ukraine’s losses, which are currently classified, as well as the issue of corruption. Zelensky pledged to eradicate it, and the so-called anti-oligarch law passed in late 2021 was part of his plan.
The recent corruption allegations could be damaging, especially given the nature of some of the accusations. For instance, deputy defence minister Viacheslav Shapovalov resigned in connection with a scandal involving the purchase of food for Ukraine’s armed forces.
“Despite the war, Ukrainians still lack justice, they react extremely sharply to corruption scandals, particularly if these scandals concern the provision of the army, which many citizens regularly donate their savings to support,” Bliznyuk noted, recalling that a 2019 graft case related to army supplies destroyed then-president Petro Poroshenko’sapproval ratings.
“Such a scenario is quite possible with President Zelensky, but he perfectly understands this danger and reacted to it with high-profile resignations,” he continued. “However, if such scandals are repeated, resignations will no longer be able to calm Ukrainians, and responsibility in their eyes will fall directly on the president.”
This publication was published by IWPR and prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project” implemented with the financial support of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).