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One year of President Zelenskiy: Did “Ze” bite off more than he could chew?

Amanda Paul

Date: 19/05/2020
Although falling short of his promise to “break the system”, Zelenskiy’s first year in office has not been a complete failure. However, tough-love support from the EU and other international partners will remain crucial.

One year ago Volodymyr Zelenskiy became President of Ukraine, following a landslide victory. Fed up with corrupt political elites, Ukrainians were hungry for new faces. Zelenskiy fitted the bill. He promised to “break the system” of corruption and oligarchy, bring peace to Ukraine’s east and improve the population’s economic well-being – a tall order for any seasoned politician, let alone a comedian with no political experience.

Zelenskiy has had a mixed first year. There have been some noteworthy political and economic developments, including electoral, banking, digital and land reform, as well as a gas agreement with Russia. Important confidence-building measures (CBMs) related to the conflict in the Donbas have also been taken.

Still, some of his decisions have been controversial. Dismissing what many viewed as a reformist government in March 2020, claiming it had not delivered enough, is one example. His recent appointment of former Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, as chairman of the Ukrainian Executive Reform Committee, despite oppositions from both the Rada and the government, is another.

Zelenskiy’s next twelve months will be tough. The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is going to painful. If Ukraine is to keep its head above the water, Zelenskiy will need to double down on reform, demonstrate strong leadership, carve out clear policies and better communicate them. The support of the European Union (EU) and other international partners will remain crucial.

Evaluating Zelenskiy – The honeymoon is over

Two months after taking up the presidency, Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party became the first party in Ukraine’s history to secure a parliamentary majority without forming a coalition. This placed Zelenskiy in the unprecedented position of controlling both the executive and legislative branches. The Rada became a “voting machine”. Legislation passed through at breakneck speed. This is no longer the case.

Today, Zelenskiy often has trouble getting sufficient support from his own party to pass bills. They are often sent back to be amended, resulting in long delays. This happened with the land reform bill. The new banking law was tricky too. Over 16,000 amendments were submitted. It finally passed on 13 May, paving the way for a USD 5 billion aid deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Unity has been impaired by different interest groups competing for influence within the party. The most powerful is Zelenskiy’s former business associate, controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whose television network and money helped boost Zelenskiy’s bid for the presidency.

Zelenskiy’s party is a mixed bag of mostly young people from various backgrounds. Many had no political experience when they entered the Rada. Recruiting so many ‘unknowns’ is proving to be increasingly problematic. Zelenskiy’s ability to bring the rebels in his party under control is limited. He will, therefore, need to reach out to other parties to find the necessary votes to pass bills. This should be welcomed as a positive development in Ukraine’s political culture, given that it can help strengthen cross-party cooperation.

Draining the swamp

Zelenskiy promised "victory over corruption". He has made some changes, including re-booting the National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP), and stripping MPs of immunity from prosecution.

However, an independent judiciary, free from political interference, is crucial to fight corruption. Despite launching a High Anti-Corruption Court, Zelenskiy has failed to adequately carry out broad judicial reform. For example, there has been no progress in high-profile criminal cases. Moreover, the dismissal of Ruslan Ryaboshapka, the first prosecutor general under Zelenskiy, in March 2020, was disappointing, irking many in Ukraine along with international partners.

Previously with Transparency International, he was seen as an independent-minded reformist. Ryaboshapka claims that he was dismissed due to his readiness to take action against those considered ‘untouchable’, including the former management of Privatbank, which used to be owned by Kolomoiskiy until it was nationalised. The decision of Ryaboshaka’s successor, Irina Venediktova, to pursue corruption charges against former President Petro Poroshenko and former activist and MP, Tetyana Chornovil, has also created controversy, viewed by many as politically motivated.

Changing the Donbas dynamic

The armed conflict in Donbas remains a serious security threat. Changing the dynamic was a priority for Zelenskiy, including improving the humanitarian situation of Ukrainians living in the conflict zone. Some positive steps have been taken: three major prisoner exchanges, troop withdrawals in three locations on the line between government-controlled and separatist-held territory, and the completion of a vital civilian bridge in the frontline town of Stanytsya-Luhanska. Ukraine also regained three ships which had been captured by Russia during the November 2018 Kerch Strait incident.

For the first time in more than three years, a summit of the Normandy Four (Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany) took place in December 2019. While there was no major breakthrough, the fact that Zelenskiy stood by Ukraine’s red lines and did not capitulate and accept peace on President Putin’s terms, as some in Ukraine had feared, was deemed positive. Talks have also continued under the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, OSCE).  

Yet, despite several ceasefire agreements, fighting continues. There is repeated military activity from the Russian-backed separatists with daily exchanges of fire. This has been confirmed by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) monitors.

Furthermore, some of Zelenskiy’s decisions have created controversy. Ukraine has, so far, rejected negotiating with the separatist Donbas 'republics'. However, on 11 March, Zelenskiy’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, together with Dmitriy Kozak, Russia's plenipotentiary for the Donbas conflict, endorsed a protocol that seems to upend this red line. It envisaged establishing a Consultative Council, whose task would be to conduct and develop proposals for political and legal solutions towards the settlement of the conflict.

It grants co-equal status to Ukraine’s state representatives and Russia’s proxies in the unrecognised Donetsk and Luhansk ‘people’s republics’. Following the initial protocol, the signing of the final document was due to take place on March 24-26. It did not happen due to the COVID-19 crisis. Nevertheless, this development cast uncertainty over Zelenskiy’s position.

If Ukraine negotiates with the separatist regions, rather than Russia, it will weaken Kyiv’s position. While it seems unlikely that Zelenskiy plans to go down this path, he needs to better clarify his approach to avoid further misunderstandings and disinformation, which will damage his credibility. He also needs to maintain a consistent and effectively communicated position regarding the conflict. This entails developing a clear conflict management strategy and humanitarian policy, along with introducing a broad public dialogue on the settlement process.

Foreign policy priorities

Zelenskiy has remained committed to deepening ties with the EU. However, unlike Poroshenko, he rarely speaks about EU membership. This approach helps to manage expectations. Beyond the ongoing implementation of Ukraine’s Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Deal (DCFTA), he has focused on realistic goals. This includes the inclusion of Ukraine in the EU’s Green Deal. Zelenskiy has also concentrated on strengthening bilateral ties with key EU member states (France, Germany and Italy) as a way of boosting support for Ukraine on crucial issues, such as sanctions against Russia.

Cooperation with the US remains critical. The USD 1.6 billion in security assistance that the US has provided since 2014 has helped Ukraine defend its territorial integrity, deter further Russian aggression, and progress toward NATO interoperability. However, it has not been smooth sailing. The impeachment of US President Donald Trump – which stemmed largely from a telephone conversation between Trump and Zelenskiy in July 2019 – has hurt ties between Kyiv and the current US administration.   

A difficult road ahead

Zelenskiy’s first year has not been brilliant, but it has not been a disaster either. Coming to the post totally unprepared, he has had to learn on the job. Dealing with the different power centres that gravitate around him has been challenging, as has the never-ending speculation over the nature of his relationship with Kolomoisky. Furthermore, his promise of ‘de-oligarchisation’ has been little more than wishful thinking.

Yet, while he has failed to deliver the ‘new start’ that he promised, Zelenskiy remains more popular than any other president going into their second year, with some 67% of citizens stating that they fully or mostly trust Zelenskiy.[1]

The next twelve months will further test him. Local elections are slated for October, and Ukraine will need to survive the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting global economic slowdown which is expected to hit Ukraine’s export-oriented economy hard. GDP is predicted to contract by 7.7% this year. Unemployment has already skyrocketed. With over USD 16 billion debt to be paid in 2020, Ukraine will continue to need significant international financing to avoid the country going into default. Zelenskiy must plan and implement an effective economic recovery strategy.

The situation in the Donbas will also remain challenging. Despite COVID-19 and the oil price crisis plunging Russia into an economic crisis, a change of approach from Moscow is unlikely. Ukraine is on the front line of a battle to prevent Russia from overturning the post–World War II order. It is, therefore, imperative that the West is unwavering in its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This means maintaining sanctions on Russia despite difficult economic conditions at home.

Zelenskiy must learn lessons from his first year in power. Pushing ahead with reform, while properly implementing newly-adopted legislation is crucial. A thorough overhaul of the judicial governing bodies, not least the High Council of Justice, should also be a priority. The quality of life of citizens and the development of the country depend on an independent judiciary and strong rule of law. The COVID-19 crisis has also underlined the urgent need for health sector reform.

The EU anchor will remain crucially important in this process as it has provided the basis for the political and legal reforms transforming Ukraine. EU support has already played a critical role in strengthening Ukraine’s transformation and resilience and needs to continue despite the challenges the EU faces. It should adopt a tough-love approach: remaining open to further integration possibilities by, for example, giving access to structural funds, while conditioning such developments on real reform, especially in the fight against corruption and progress towards an independent judiciary.

Amanda Paul is Senior Policy Analyst of the Europe in the World programme.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

[1] Ukrinform, “67% of Ukrainians trust Zelensky”, poll.

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