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Michał Potocki  14 sierpnia 2020

Will Zelensky overcome the system?

Michał Potocki  14 sierpnia 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 9 min
Will Zelensky overcome the system? Володимир Зеленський / facebook.com

Volodymyr Zelensky came to power in Ukraine as the anti-political antithesis to Petro Poroshenko, but after a little over a year of rule, he is increasingly following in his predecessor’s footsteps. And although he has undeniable ambition and a sincere willingness to make a big change, he has not managed to break the rules that govern Ukrainian politics.

Impressive start

From a purely technical point of view of running an election campaign, the change that is promised in response to the people being tired of the current political class cannot be too specific, as it is intended to encourage electoral groups with very different expectations. Zelensky managed to strike such a balance. In 2019, Ukrainians voted in equal measure for Zelensky—who was promising everything and nothing at the same time—and for his TV series’ alter ego, Vasyl Holoborodka, who on Servant of the People dismantled oligarchy and united and enriched Ukraine to the point that it could speak from a position of power, even with the West.

The 73 per cent of the votes he received in the second round of the presidential election gave him a lot of confidence. Immediately after being sworn in, he followed up on his success and disbanded the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament), then repeated his success in the parliamentary elections. Even as a virtual entity, the Servant of the People party climbed to the top of the polls. The election lists were hastily compiled from the president’s former associates and colleagues, people recommended by the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi (who supported Zelensky from day one), as well as young and talented people who were selected in a one-of-a-kind audition.

As a result, Servant of the People was the first party in the history of Ukraine to win 248 out of 450 seats in the parliament, which translated into an absolute majority. Zelensky appointed a young management specialist, Oleksiy Honcharuk, to be prime minister. The mono-majority—as the Ukrainian media called it—took full power over the state.

In theory, the party is able to carry out all the reforms Zelensky dreamt of. In practice, however, the more you get into it, the more complicated it becomes. There are unwritten rules in Kyiv that cannot be circumvented just because you have a president and a parliamentary majority.

At first, the country was ruled by a sort of triumvirate. It was headed, of course, by the president, who was assisted by Andriy Bohdan—the head of his office and Kolomoyskyi’s former lawyer—and his trusted associate Dmytro Razumkov, who he made head of parliament. Bohdan was to maintain the power structures, and Razumkov was to ensure that bills were passed by the parliament quickly and seamlessly. The machine worked at first, and Ze!Commando, as it is abbreviated on the Dnieper River, entered the turbo-regime mode. The bills passed through the parliament so quickly that experts complained there wasn’t enough time to analyse them and discuss them properly.

This way, Zelensky managed to push through what Ukrainian leaders had been avoiding for nearly 30 years: he established a procedure for impeaching the head of state. The constitution provides for the removal of the president from office, but no-one has so far decided to pass executive regulations, for fear that someone would use them someday.

Incidentally, that is why in 2014 the parliament removed Viktor Yanukovych from power: not for his crimes, but—slightly distorting the reality—for refusing to perform his duties (Yanukovych did, in fact, announce that he would not sign any new laws).

Servant of the People also abolished the parliamentary immunity, which was simple enough, seeing how its deputies had not yet managed to learn its true meaning. The key was the fact that none of the new members had any parliamentary experience. When selecting candidates, Zelensky rejected even those politicians who started siding with him relatively early, such as the former investigative journalist Serhiy Leshchenko, or Kolomoyskyi’s lawyer, Vitaliy Kuprij. The change was supposed to be fully anti-political, and that it was (with the exception of the re-election of the all-powerful head of the Ministry of the Interior, Arsen Avakov, who is already serving under the fifth successive prime minister).

A spanner in the political works

On the other hand, it meant fewer options; the longer Zelensky ruled, the more difficulty he had with the appointment of offices. At the beginning of 2020, the president frankly confided to journalists that he had no-one to appoint as the minister of culture. Even in Honcharuk’s first government, there were ministers who publicly had stated only a few months earlier they would vote for Poroshenko in the second round. In fact, it was difficult to find a well-educated reformer with pro-Western views who would not vote for Poroshenko. However, it was a price worth paying for a simple reason—Zelensky needed approval in the West, and such approval could be granted by the appropriate staff in the Ministry of Diplomacy and the deputy prime minister for Euro-Atlantic integration. In this respect, he relied on diplomats who were experienced and well-known in the West.

After the initial euphoria in the parliamentary club, internal divisions became more and more visible. President Zelensky began making regular use of his authority and personally asking MPs to support further projects. This way, two very important laws were passed, which showed that Zelensky still had authority.

It should be highlighted that passing both bills was also a prerequisite for a loan granted by the International Monetary Fund. The first was the legalisation of trading of land. Although it does not provide any new opportunities for foreign investors, the Ukrainians themselves will be able to freely trade in agricultural land, after a transition period.

This law was extremely unpopular in society because most Ukrainians were against liberalisation, for years being fed populist slogans by both Yulia Tymoshenko and the pro-Russian camp, stating that our land is our mother and one does not sell one’s mother. The second bill in question violated the interests of a much more important group than the citizens of Ukraine —from the point of view of exercising power. It violated the interests of the oligarchs, with particular emphasis on… Ihor Kolomoyskyi. The Banking Act, which is what we’re referring to, would prohibit the return of illegally seized banks in kind. Only financial compensation would be allowed.

It is worth pointing out the wider context of this issue. Poroshenko and the head of the National Bank of Ukraine, Valery Hontarev, applied drastic measures to clear the banking sector of institutions used by oligarchs as piggy banks. In short, a bank—using the money creating function—granted loans to entities suggested by its very owners. It’s one thing to euphemistically describe the credit terms as preferential, but the money was often never repaid at all, which the banks were not particularly bothered about.

The ‘bankopad’, as the liquidation of this type of institution, return was referred to, covered over one hundred operators in total. It wouldn’t be so bad if it only involved small banks. The problem is that Kolomoyskyi had used for this end PrivatBank – the largest bank in Ukraine in terms of the value of deposits. Its inevitable collapse, if someone looked into its real accounts, could have caused a crash that Ukraine, a country historically ‘rich’ in crashes, has not seen the likes of. Nationalisation was a necessity, but it was also part of the disputes between Poroshenko and Kolomoyskyi. It was after that that the oligarch swore revenge and began to support Poroshenko’s opposition, from the nationalists, through Tymoshenko to Zelensky.

Inertia of the system

While Zelensky was seeking power for a change that he might not have fully understood himself, Kolomoyskyi fought to regain PrivatBank.

And yet, equipped with the argument that it is ‘what the IMF demands’, the new president said ‘no’. Even if the court finds that Gontareva and Poroshenko had violated the law when nationalising the juggernaut, the oligarch can only hope for compensation. There was a price to pay for the open violation of the current patron’s interests. Zelensky resorted to the old ways of the system, established by Leonid Kuchma (in power between 1994–2004).

To put it in simple terms, Kuchmism, from which Ukraine has not recovered to this day, was a symbiosis between the state and the oligarchs. In this system, businesses should pay for politicians and support the state if necessary, and in return, they get a free hand in getting rich from its ties with institutions. This is how successive presidents—from Kuchma, through Yushchenko and Yanukovych, to Poroshenko—had ruled. And when Yanukovych tried to violate these rules at the end of 2012 and build his own oligarchic clan which would not have to reckon with the traditional bosses, he paid for it by receiving sparse commitment to defending his power during the revolution of 2014.

Since Zelensky was battling with Kolomoyskyi, he had to rely on someone else. The best candidate was a Donetsk citizen, Rinat Akhmetov, whose one of the many advantages include the fact that he admires and is able to get along with any president. As a result, we are now dealing with a government whose prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, is a former manager of Akhmetov’s companies. It has come to the point where, when drawing up regulations defining the principles of operation of the energy sector, Rinat Akhmetov’s interests are taken into account as if he himself had written them. In truth, that was also the case under Poroshenko, but Zelensky was meant to bring about a positive change (as was Poroshenko five years earlier).

Zelensky had to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps in another area as well: foreign policy. He has failed to achieve the promised breakthrough in the Donbass case for the simple reason: its key lies not in Kyiv but in Moscow, which is not interested in regulating Ukrainian–Russian relations.

That is, not unless its demands were met, conditions which, in turn, no Ukrainian president could accept. Moreover, Zelensky quickly faced brutal pressure from the Trump administration to provide him with dirt on Joe Biden—partly real and partly made up by Rudy Giuliani.

Meanwhile, for Ukraine—as for all countries in the region threatened one way or another by Russia’s expansionist policy—the most important thing is the stable support of both major parties. Zelensky tried, albeit politely, to torpedo the pressure from Washington so as not to lose future support in the event of a Democrat victory, especially as Joe Biden was gradually becoming their presidential candidate for November 2020. The lessening of tension with Poland by removing historical topics from the agenda also helped. The causes of the friction did not disappear, but it turned out that not bringing them up can improve relations.

Zelensky’s uncertain future

In recent months, the parliamentary turbo-regime has got stuck for good. The president has found it more and more difficult to maintain his team’s unity. A number of interest groups have been created under Servant of the People, focused around various figures in politics and business, who have to be asked for support each time, or even occasionally bought in exchange for specific political benefits. Each party fraction has its own propaganda channels, mainly on the instant messenger Telegram, which is often used to sling mud on one’s competition inside the party. After all, it was one of the deputies of Servant of the People who revealed the tapes showcasing how Honcharuk criticised the president’s knowledge of the economy.

Even appealing to Zelensky’s authority is working with every passing day to smaller and smaller extend. The government is losing a string of important votes, and even the option of holding early elections in September has started to be seriously considered within the president’s entourage. To make things worse, Zelensky’s and his party’s ratings are plummeting. Moods are not being improved by the coronavirus crisis—Ukraine has avoided a collapse of the Italian or Belgian type, but the number of cases makes a negative impression when compared to the rest of the region—or the economic problems that began even before the pandemic. Managing the country and one’s own camp is more and more about putting out fires. It also makes Zelensky rather similar to his predecessors.

Michał PotockiThe author is the head of the Opinions section of ‘Dziennik Gazeta Prawna’ and co-author of three books about contemporary Ukraine, the latest is: ‘Black Gold’. ‘Coal Wars in Donbass’ which describes the trade-in anthracite coal from occupied Donetsk.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.