Ukraine’s President Volodimir Zelenskiy has recently ‘crossed the equator’ of his five-year presidential term. In April 2019, in the second run-off, a complete political novice Zelenskiy defeated a seasoned politician, an incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, with an overwhelming 73 per cent of votes in his favour. The results reflected a profound dissatisfaction of Ukraine’s society with its deeply corrupt ruling elite.
This ruling elite emerged during the turmoil of the 1990s after the collapse of the communist political-economic system. During that period, in Ukraine, as in any other post-Soviet country, informal political-economic networks, also known as oligarchic clans, formed. These powerful clans, preying upon the institutional weakness of societies in transition densely interlaced with state institutions in every branch and at all levels of government. This ‘state capture’ allowed the predatory clans to shamelessly exploit the country, resulting in outrageous inequality in Ukraine, with the extremely wealthy ruling elite and paycheck to paycheck majority. Even after the two popular uprisings, the Orange and the Euromaidan revolutions, Ukrainians could not get rid of the corrupt and predatory system.
However, by 2019 the society had seemingly realized that the reason was that every time new presidents and the majority of legislators still belonged to the same corrupt political elites. Thus, the traditional politicians had no genuine interest in eliminating an existing system despite all their anti-corruption rhetoric. In such an environment in the presidential election in 2019, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a famous actor, TV producer and entrepreneur. He was an outsider not associated with the ruling elites. Although his presidential program was quite vague, candidate Zelenskiy declared that his main aims were to resolve conflict with Russia, economic modernization through radical structural political-economic reforms, and implement corruption-free efficient public services. Zelenskiy stated that to achieve these goals, he was determined to remove the corrupt ruling political and business elites from power and replace them with the new ones. These honest and decent professionals would be committed to serving the nation rather than their selfish interests. Zelenskiy also promised to make the policy-making processes more open and transparent and introduce the mechanisms of direct democracy.
That was a very ambitious task not just for a political newcomer like Zelenskiy but even for an experienced politician. In particular, it was challenging because Ukraine has a parliamentary-presidential system in which the presidential executive powers are quite limited. Therefore Zelenskiy, to achieve his stated goals, needed full support from Verkhovna Rada (Parliament). For that, building on his tremendous electoral support, Zelenskiy intermediately dissolved the Parliament. In snap elections in July 2019, his Servant of the People Party, whichZelenskiy’s supporters formed two years earlier, gained the 254 majority out of 450 seats. That allowed Zelenskiy to form the government and virtually control the legislature. It was an unprecedented situation as no president in Ukraine since independence had such a concentration of power. This presented both opportunities and dangers, opportunities for radical and rapid reforms, but the risks associated with a slide towards authoritarianism.
Since then, the results of Zelenskiy’s government has been mixed. The positive outcomes include the restoration of criminal liability for illicit enrichment and the settlement of issues related to the legal status of whistle-blowers. There have been positive changes in how people deal with the state. The broad implementation of the digitization of public services removed unnecessary pain for citizens in dealing with a bureaucracy. In his program, Zelensky also promised to introduce a transparent land market in Ukraine, and he fulfilled the promise. In March 2021, the Verkhovna Rada passed a bill that opened the land market from July 2021. Zelenskiy has also initiated a nationwide ‘velyke budivnitstvo’ (big construction) which includes a grand scale construction and renovation of the country’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, schools, etc. Visible progress has already been made in this area, and the work continues. Overall, however, according to Slovo e Dilo (Word and Deed)analytical portal, Volodymyr Zelenskiy fully fulfilled only less than the third of his electoral promises in half of his presidential term. Zelenskiy naively promised to end the war with Russia, but this is impossible for objective reasons since Russia’s demands far exceed the possibility of any compromise.
Nevertheless, those are not the major problems of his presidency. For some time, the absence of high-profile corruption or any serious allegations and scandals involving the presidential entourage was also seen as a positive change in the corridors of power. However, later on, signs of corruption began to appear in these circles as well. For example, a deputy and adviser to president Geo Leros made publicly available video recordings suggesting that a brother of Andriy Yermak, then newly appointed head of the President’s office, was literally selling ministerial and other top positions in the state. The President’s reaction was, to put it mildly, strange. Instead of launching an investigation regarding the allegations, he fired Leros, calling him a liar, and criminal proceedings were immediately instituted against him on highly dubious grounds.
Several other scandals in which the Office of President was involved have emerged. For example, the so-called ‘Wagnergate’, an ongoing scandal that has revealed a severe breach in national security on the part of the number of top officials closely associated with the President. It occurred after Zelenskiy had appointed people allegedly associated with Kremlin to the high positions in the national security sector. Moreover, he made those dubious appointments despite the warnings from civil society. Worse still, Zelenskiy and his office have reluctantly denied any mistakes or wrongdoings on the matter, including an open deception of the public on a number of occasions.
Zelenskiy’s administration steadfastly and even stubbornly rejects any independent investigation regarding the infamous ‘Wagnergate’ and a series of recent unexplained operational failures by the national security services.
To the massive disappointment of Zelenskiy’s voters, he has failed to introduce the promised radical reforms and make any profound structural changes. The radical changes in replacing the corrupt political-economic system with a set of properly functioning democratic state institutions, transparent and free of influences from the informal political-economic groups, free from nepotism, clientelism and other forms of so-called ‘grand corruption’. Instead, he pushed through parliament a dubious and widely criticized ‘anti-oligarchic law’, which is more like a publicity stunt than an effective mechanism for solving the problem. Within the first half of his term, president Zelenskiy has not even started most of the radical policies he promised to the electorate, while others were started much later. For example, the work on the law ‘On the People Power’, which Zelenskiy promised to put before the Parliament as his first legislative initiative, was late almost by a year. Not surprisingly, his support rate dropped from a staggering 73 percent in the spring of 2019 to only 19 percent in late autumn 2021.The approval rate of his party dropped from a solid 56 per cent to a mere 15 per cent within the same period. The sharp decline in popularity has also resulted from various negative tendencies in how Zelenskiy used the unprecedented powers given to him by the people.
Many observers noted that Zelensky’s government tried at all costs to prove its ‘difference’ from the previous government, which often seems like an unnecessary and irrational obsession.
The government also aimed to gain additional leverage in various areas. That has led to the attempts to revise several reforms, which complicated the situation in those areas and provoked an adverse reaction from Ukraine’s international partners, with whose support these reforms were carried out under the previous government. For example, the attempts to increase the presidential office’s influence on local self-government go against the decentralization policies, which had proven to be quite effective and popular. There have also been attempts to establish control over anti-corruption bodies, which were formed with Western partners’ help and close involvement. This happened despite the fact that these anti-corruption bodies proved to be quite independent and effective.
In various spheres, Zelenskiy’s government initiated legal and constitutional experimentation that was not preceded by a discussion in the expert community and was not backed by meaningful professional expertise. For instance, many observers were surprised by the decision to deprive non-parliamentary parties of state funding, contrary to the rhetoric about the need to free political parties from the influence of the oligarchs.The implemented revision of the legislation on the civil service was supposed to facilitate institutional renewal. Still, it failed as the civil service became even more dependent on situational political expediency, and the role of the professional expertise was reduced. Both domestic and international expert communities argue that some popular initiatives, such as the changes in the newly adopted Electoral Code or the abolition of parliamentary immunity, could have significant negative consequences for the representative function of Parliament. Also, some new legislation is just ineffective in achieving the stated goal, for example, the elimination of presidential immunity through too complex and therefore unrealistic impeachment procedure. Many experts claim that such legislation is purely populist rather than aiming to really increase ‘the people’s power’.
Meanwhile, some tendencies towards authoritarianism have emerged. The newest reform of the general prosecutor’s office has led to increased influence on it by the presidential administration and the gradual restoration of the practices of the politically motivated judicial persecution of the opposition. Zelenskiy’s administration allowed itself to neglect both the rule of law principles and the opinion of civil society and the media. In some cases, public disagreement with the government position was perceived as a manifestation of hostility or even a threat, and it used the mechanism of persecution by the law enforcement system. The Zelenskiy’s government also failed to address the corona crises adequately and demonstrate leadership in dealing with the pandemics. It was late in ordering the vaccine supply for the country and did not properly promote the national vaccination programme. As a result, Ukraine is amongst the worst in Europe in terms of the level of vaccination and with the situation of the pandemic in general.
So what are the reasons that Zelenskiy, who initially seemed to be a genuine, kind of ‘the next door guy’ person, very popular media personality and loved by many so quickly, has become so unpopular, with the highest negative personal rating among the leading country’s politicians according to the recent opinion polls? The answers, possibly, lay in two different spheres. The first, most obvious explanation can be found in the absence of any serious knowledge and understanding of how politics really work. His outsider status in the world of politics, combined with his nationwide recognizability and popularity, allowed Zelenskiy to be elected with tremendous support from the people of Ukraine. At the same time, the logical consequence of the outsider status was his lack of understanding of how politics work and the lack of a clear vision for the country. When Zelenskiy was elected, some experts believed this problem could be resolved by involving leading domestic and international professionals in relevant areas to swiftly reform and efficiently run the country.
The expert community offered the new government their help. Still, Zelenskiy did not accept an offer, and unfortunately, those hopes did not realize. Apparently, the main reason for his government’s failures is Zelensky’s personality, his inability to trust people combined with his inflated self-confidence. Thus he surrounded himself mainly with those he personally knew for years. For example, his childhood friend Ivan Bakanov, a person without any previous experience in the field, was appointed ahead of the SBU (Security Services of Ukraine). Another close friend Serhiy Shefir became his first adviser. Work colleagues from the entertainment industry and many othercronies got important government positions. In other words, Zelenskiy’s appointment policy is based on personal loyalty rather than professionalism and skills, but that is just a part of the story.
Clearly, Zelenkskiy had underestimated the challenges he was going to face becoming President. As a successful business leader, he seemed to believe that his management skills were applicable in politics as well. Perhaps, Zelenskiy also assumed that he understood politics just from being involved for many years in producing political satirical TV shows. Then the illusions crashed against the wall of harsh reality. The stress and frustration resulting from the complexities of the challenges and unexpected problems were in full contrast with all his life and professional experience. From the guy who was adored by the masses, who was cheered and applauded for years, he suddenly turned into the one who got the mounting wave of unexpected complaints and harsh criticism. Moreover, the conflicting manner in dealing with the politicians and the journalistic community of then the head of the presidential office, Andriy Bohdan, did not help the matter. A few months into Zelenkiy’s presidency, Bohdan was replaced by Andriy Yermak, a new head of the presidential office.
Yermak, the skilled administrator with a reserved personality type, had quickly become a ‘grey cardinal’ of the government. The insiders claim that Andriy Yermak quickly took control of the Presidential Administration into his skilful hands and created a comfortable personal environment for President Zelensky, which observers dubbed a ‘warm bath’ or ‘bubble’. All team members who had views different from the President, who disagreed with him or with Yermak or dared to criticize, were quickly removed. Reportedly, Yermak also controls access to Zelenskiy, thus keeping him away from getting a full picture of reality, often unpleasant or even painful, rather than the one mastered by the ‘grey cardinal’. Sensitive and touchy, the President feels comfortable living in his own reality where under his leadership the people’s life is getting better and better while he is fighting the ‘enemies’ such as critical journalists, civil society and the opposition. Hence it is so hazardous for the country at war, particularly because President has concentrated so much power. The power he can use for the common good to satisfy the high yet quickly fading away expectations of the people of Ukraine.
Theoretically, Zelenskiy still can use his power to radically reform the country, removing the obstacles from becoming a prosperous modern democracy with transparent politics and the rule of law. Instead, the President has gradually found himself in a situation where he gets not much feedback from the country and seemingly has no adequate sense of reality. Hense, the cronyism, incompetence and authoritarian tendencies make Zelenskiy’s regime no much different from the one he fiercely criticized and opposed before becoming President. That is the sad irony of today’s situation in the country. For Ukraine’s democracy, quite young in historical terms, it is a bitter lesson to be learned. The lesson is that the good person with good intentions is not enough to be the President, even in a seemingly desperate situation of the politics of grand corruption. Eventually, through trial and error, Ukrainians should learn how to choose the leaders, strong yet modest, honest and committed to a common good yet skilled professionals. The danger is that Ukraine has no time for experiments as its very existence as an independent state has been contested by powerful and assertive Russia, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.
*Oleg Chupryna PhD Candidate, Centre for European and Eurasian Studies, Department of Sociology, Maynooth University, Ireland.