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Decoding the enigma

A 100 days of the Zelenskyy presidency.

August 29, 2019 - Mattia Nelles - Articles and Commentary

May 20th 2019, during the solemn session of the Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv, newly elected President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky was sworn in as Head of State Photo: United States Embassy in Ukraine (cc) flickr.com

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s successful campaign elevated the widely popular showman in less than four months from a political nobody to the presidential office. Throughout the innovative campaign, Zelenskyy – aided by massive support by one of the country’s main TV channels – successfully managed to tap into the public discontent and high distrust of the electorate fed up with stagnating living standards and rampant corruption. His election for some already symbolises a break with the post-Soviet past and most of the political elite which was socialised in the 1990s. With 100 days into his presidency, what do we know about the president’s plans besides a change of style and ability to connect with the electorate through effective and creative usage of (social) media?

Elections, elections, elections

Zelenskyy began his presidency with dissolving the parliament, a move criticised by some as constitutionally questionable. His first two months in office were marked by yet another intensive political campaign. Throughout his first 100 days, the president toured the country and repeatedly shouted at and on occasion even fired local officials, which he described as “inefficient” or “corrupt”. This rather populist manner which resembles similarities with Belarusian Lukashenka, and it raised fear among critics and some analysts, but it seems to only strengthen his approval ratings.

Given Ukraine’s mixed political system, in which the parliament is in the lead role for most of the domestic policies, the new president was dependent on the old parliament for adopting any major domestic legislation. Since day one, the president was in a hurry to issue numerous decrees and to launch several legislative initiatives, most of which was flatly rejected by the ostensibly hostile parliament- a fact the president and his team knew to exploit and showcase during the campaign. Some of the president’s initiatives were largely meaningful, like reintroducing illicit enrichment, introducing an impeachment procedure, or changing the electoral code. Others, like the expansion of the lustration law to officials serving under Poroshenko, were outright ludicrous and rightfully criticised by Western partners.

During the first 100 days, Zelenskyy took some other decisions that enraged his critics but were applauded by his supporters, such as cancelling Ukraine’s military parade on Independence Day. Other decisions included the rebranding of the “Presidential Administration” to “Presidential Office”. Soon after, the president announced that the new office to European Square near the independence square. The old presidential administration on Bankova will be made into a museum space.

Appointments as a key indicator

In the absence of major policy decisions, a crucial indicator of the president’s intentions are his key appointments. Zelenskyy’s most controversial appointment doubtlessly was Andriy Bohdan to the influential position of head of the presidential office. The 42-year old is a trained lawyer, who served in the Yanukovych administration, and who’s client list includes the notorious oligarch and Zelenskyy’s former business partner Ihor Kolomoyskyi. The nature of Zelenskyy’s relationship with the oligarch remains somewhat unclear but so far, fears that he might be a puppet of the oligarch seem to be overblown.

Nevertheless, it became clear that Bohdan is a key figure in the new administration. The influential weekly Novoe Vremja called Bohdan the “shadow president” and dedicated one of their title stories to him. Bohdan also made the headlines with an ongoing feud between him and Kyiv mayor Vitaliy Klitschko. The sitting cabinet refused a request by Bohdan to sack Klitschko from the position of Kyiv City Administration, which would leave the elected mayor with significantly less power. After a leaked undated resignation letter Bohdan refused to address the issue but suggested that the media should not act as the public’s voice and claimed that President Zelenskyy and his team can “communicate with the public directly, without intermediaries.” A statement that raised questions about the administration’s values and its relationship with the media. He went even further by initiating a libel suit against the investigative journalists, who revealed his numerous travels to Kolomoyskyi, before the latter moved back to Kyiv in May. Observers will be watching keenly to see whether he puts his policymaking talents at the service of the president and country or if he forwards the interests of his former business partners and how the difficult relationship with Ukraine’s media continues.

Other appointments included his trusted friends and former colleagues to the position in the presidential administration. For instance, Zelenskyy made his long-time friend Ivan Bakanov the acting head of the very influential security service (SBU). Critics of the president accused him of clientelism, but supporters have maintained that for the delicate reform the powerful spy agency – a declared policy objective which is in line with demands of the West – a loyal ally is needed.

Other generally positive appointments included Ukraine’s former finance minister Oleksandr Danylyuk, as head of the National Security and Defense Council, and the former Minister of Economics Aivaras Abromavičius as the head the large state defense firm Ukroboronprom’s board of directors. Both are respected reformers but now have to prove their skills in the realm of foreign and security politics. It will be crucial to observe how the president and the powerful Bohdan will supports both in their difficult roles.

Since this week, numerous Ukrainian outlets have reported about alleged cabinet selections. Ruslan Riaboshapka, a respected reformer, and anti-corruption expert, who made deputy chief of staff in charge of anti-corruption policy, is widely believed to become prosecutor general. In late July Zelenskyy stated that Riaboshapka is a candidate for the prosecutor general’s office. His appointment would mark a very positive step, given Riaboshapka experience and positive plans for reforms of the prosecutor’s office.

Another key pending appointment is Oleksiy Honcharuk as the next prime minister. The 35-year old trained lawyer currently serves as Zelenskyy’s deputy chief of staff. Prior to joining the Zelenskyy administration, Honcharuk unsuccessfully ran for parliament for Syla Liudey in 2014 and since 2015, he headed the Office of Effective Regulation, which develops and implements a system of state regulations in order to improve the business climate. Despite his positive policy track record questions remain how the possible Prime Minister would handle political infights within the administration. If indeed selected, it would indicate the president’s desire to select select trusted and loyal allies over those with more independent and more experienced.

What about policy?

Despite the confrontation with parliament, Zelenskyy and his team have spelled out a couple of broad and laudable policy objectives, such as ending the war in the Donbas, fighting corruption and cleaning the judiciary, establishing a better business climate to attract more (foreign) investment and significantly increasing e-services by the state. During the Turkish-Ukrainian Business Forum in Istanbul Zelenskyy also announced his intentions to roll out this land reform this autumn, a key demand of the International Monetary Fund. Both Danylyuk and Riaboshapka committed to implementing the civil societies “Agenda for Justice”, a far-reaching program for reforms for the next Rada. The designated president of the Ukrainian Parliament Dmitry Razumkov has stated that they will not influence anti-corruption and law enforcement agencies. Zelenskyy has also made large-scale privatisations of the 3500 state-owned enterprises (SOE) a key objective and his advisor Oleg Ustenko made headlines in saying that large SOEs, like Naftogaz will have to be “ripped apart”.

During his early visits to Brussels, Paris, Berlin and later Toronto Zelenskyy assured Ukraine’s western partners that his country was “course toward Europe” and committed to continuing the reform process. Moreover, the president has demonstrated a genuine commitment to ending the Donbas war. Early in his tenure he visited frontline, made changes in the Minsk negotiation team, and made numerous unliteral steps to improve the humanitarian situations for those crossing the contact line. In late June, disengagement of forces and military hardware from Stanytsia Luhanska, the only checkpoint in the Luhansk Oblast, was completed. In fact, this is a localised ceasefire that many hoped could be expanded to other areas of the frontline. Several weeks after, an unlimited ceasefire was agreed in Minsk starting on 21 July.

Even though the ceasefire was violated numerous times, the Special Representative of the OSCE in Ukraine, Martin Sajdik called it “the most effective” so far.

Zelenskyy’s resolve and the positive developments on the grounds were met by Russian initiatives allowing and simplifying residents in the occupied areas of the Donbas and those in the Ukrainian controlled area to get Russian citizenship. According to the Russian ministry of interior, as of mid-August, about 25.000 people seem to have been granted Russian citizenship and another 60.000 have applied. This move could drastically complicate any solution of the conflict.

Zelenskyy reacted to Russia’s passport offensive, making it easier for persecuted Russians to gain Ukrainian citizenship. Furthermore, he held two direct phone conversations with Putin about the conflict and the prisoner release. Currently, the preparations for a high-level Normandy Format are ongoing and rumors are afloat that a prisoner swap is imminent. But it remains unclear whether and how the various Ukrainian initiatives will change any of Russia’s overall calculations or policies.

Looking forward

Zelenskyy’s approval ratings remain very high and the general mood of the population about the direction the country is heading is as positive as it has not been in years. Surprisingly, the economic data suggest that markets and investors are positive, too. Stable macroeconomic figures, growing exports figures, and the surging economic growth in the second quarter of 4.6 per cent surprised many. However, the upbeat mood will soon have to be underpinned by economic reforms.

In sum, Zelenskyy’s first 100 days shed some more light on the president’s intentions and his policy goals but the overall picture remains ambigous. In a system with weak-checks and balances, Zelenskyy controls the executive and enjoys a historic majority in parliament. Only, the next weeks and months will show whether Team Zelenskyy is serious and able to deliver the much-needed reforms. Crucial indicators will be the quality of the many laws that will be adopted. Equally important are the remaining key appointments.

The near future will also show, whether the demonstrated populist impulses will find their way into legislation or not. How, if at all, will referenda be implemented? Will parliament expand lustration to Poroshenko officials, how will changes to immunity come and will they be used as a political tool? Many questions remain but nevertheless a new window of opportunity has just opened. As Anders Aslund noted, this “might be Ukraine’s greatest chance yet. The West needs to assist as well as it can.” If Zelenskyy is serious with his ambitious plans, Ukraine will need quick and substantial help by the West.

Mattia Nelles is a Ukraine and Russia expert at the Center for Liberal Modernity, a Berlin-based think tank.

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