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A man in a cobweb

A retrospective reportage from Kyiv.

January 7, 2020 - Paulina Siegień - Articles and Commentary

Volodymyr Zelenskyy presidential inauguration‎, May 20th 2019. Photo: Mykola Lazarenko. The Presidential Administration of Ukraine. Wikimedia.org (cc)

It was Friday morning in Kyiv, December 6th, when a friend told me that she did not like the men in turtle-neck sweaters and a second later we saw in our news feeds a photo of Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the cover of The Time magazine. On it, the president of Ukraine also wore a dark, two-coloured turtle-neck in which he looked both tired and stunning. For certain, on this photograph he did not look like a comedian. Nor was there anything funny in what he said to the foreign journalists who were interviewing him for The Time, Spiegel and Gazeta Wyborcza. His words matched the mood that was expressed in the cover photo; Zelenskyy talked about mistrust and disillusionment. Politics, as he has found out, is more about interests than values.

Zelenskyy was not at the Maidan

The title on the cover reads “The Man in the middle”, explaining that Zelenskyy has got caught between Trump and Putin. These words, if not entirely wrong, are surely a bit too optimistic. It is probably more adequate to say that Zelenskyy is a man caught in a cobweb. One that is made of huge social expectations, accusations and mistrust of the opposition. In addition, there are openly expressed fears of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, as well as some scandals that have already been orchestrated by some people in his political circle. Not to mention the unexpected developments in the West, with the US political scandal caused by Donald Trump’s “perfect call” with Zelenskyy as the prime example. However, there is also the issue of Angela Merkel’s weakened leadership and not so clear but still disturbing ambitions of Emmanuel Macron to shake up the architecture of Euro-Atlantic security system. To all of these add the ongoing war in Donbas and the longing of the Ukrainian society for stabilisation and development.

I spent the week prior to the Paris Normandy Summit, which was a meeting between Merkel, Macron, Zelenskyy and Putin, in Kyiv. This stay was like an insight into all the fear and anxiety that accompany Zelenskyy’s presidency.

As a matter of fact, for some parts of Ukrainian society the summit and negotiations with Putin were the key evidence of Zelenskyy’s pro-Russian stance. In this group are mostly the Ukrainian-speaking intellectuals for whom Zelenskyy is like a Kremlin agent. As such, he has been placed in Ukraine’s highest office by means of sophisticated political technologies. The latter is hard to disagree with since winning presidency with the help of a fictional series has had no precedent in the past.

When asked about Zelenskyy’s ties to Russia, Kristina Berdynskykh, an experienced Ukrainian journalist and political correspondent for Novoye Vremia weekly, calls this idea hysterical. She is certain that Zelenskyy is not a Kremlin-project and points out to the one issue that the Ukrainian intellectuals have with the new president. “Zelenskyy was not on Maidan,” she says.

The 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity is surely seen as the beginning of a new political era in Ukraine. The fact that five years later 73 percent of voters chose a person who did not participate in it as a president of the country is difficult to understand for those who identify themselves with those protests. Many of them cannot help but think of the 2010 backlash when, five years after the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych won the presidential election against Viktor Yushchenko.

Thus, while Petro Poroshenko is considered to be a Maidan president, Zelenskyy for sure is not. According to this logic, not being a Maidan president means that he must be a pro-Russian one.

A new Ukrainian

The feeling of distrust towards Zelenskyy that is widely shared by Ukrainian intellectuals was probably best explained by the writer Taras Prokhasko, who wrote a column for Novoye Vremya back in May where he claimed to feel antipathy for Zelenskyy because he was a carrier of a culture that he did not like. He put it as follows: “The fact that I don’t like it doesn’t mean I am hostile towards it. It is rather that I see this culture as one that threatens my world”. Prokhasko actually perceives Zelenskyy as one of the “new Ukrainians”. They display their patriotism, but do not stand on the side of the ethnic Ukrainian culture. The writer, however, admits that he is trying to overcome his prejudice and hopes that president Zelenskyy will bring a breath of fresh air to Ukrainian politics. This would mean changing the model of interaction and relation between the citizens and the authorities. He could achieve that because he positions himself as an ordinary man. One that is devoid of pathos which is so characteristic for Ukrainian politics.

Berdynskykh, although trusting in the president’s good intentions, does not yet notice any change in Ukraine’s political culture. Unless it is a change for worse. The Servant of the People, that is the presidential party built in a hurry before the elections and which is supposed to secure an efficient legislative process for Zelenskyy, has faced increasing problems maintaining its integrity. It has already been shaken up by the scandals and internal fraction fights. For the moment, Zelenskyy seems to be pursuing a very simple strategy; he keeps distance from the people who are in the centre of the scandals. However, without a stable majority in the parliament, Zelenskyy’s reform plans will be threatened. Just as much as his personal rating.

Dirty methods are still popular in Ukraine’s politics. They include wiretaps and internet-pranking. Verkhovna Rada is still the scene of fights and the language of political debate is far from polite. “Despite all that, they [Servant of the People] are voting for the laws that needed to be introduced years ago, especially in the area of the economy,” notices Berdynskykh.

A dark shadow on the judiciary system reform, undoubtedly the most urgent one in terms of fixing the state and combating corruption, has been laid by the scandal that emerged around the head of the State Investigation Bureau (SIB). It is a new institution which was established to investigate abuse at the highest levels of power. However, its chief, Roman Truba, was recorded in his office for several weeks, something he reported after having found a wiretap. The recordings (although at the moment no-one can confirm their authenticity) have been published by an anonymous channel in the Telegram-messenger. The picture that emerges from the recordings is far from optimistic. SIB would act as a political commission, initiating, among others, an investigation into Petro Poroshenko. Accordingly, the former president could be even investigated for state treason which he conducted by signing the so-called Minsk agreements. In the view of the opposition, such an activity of the agency is a form of political repression, one that reminds them the case of Yulia Tymoshenko who was imprisoned by Yanukovych for political reasons.

A Yanukovych test

Zelenskyy’s cobweb also includes people who were once associated with Yanukovych, the Party of Regions and the government of Mykola Azarov. Some of them indeed re-emerged around Zelenskyy. Andriy Portnov, whose name appeared in the context of the SIB scandal, is a perfect example. He is in fact the contractor in the investigations against Poroshenko. Also, the head of Presidential Office, Andriy Bohdan, is not the favourite among those who stood on Maidan. Bohdan, at a certain point, was a part of Azarov’s government where he served as the deputy minister of justice, and after Maidan worked for the oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, as his personal lawyer. Also, Kolomoyskyi, the alleged financial patron of Zelenskyy, has been causing the president more and more headache. This was especially true after his latest interview with the New York Times where he called for Ukraine’s ending cooperation with IMF and normalization of relations with Russia. “Mr Kolomoyskyi is neither the president, nor any state-official of Ukraine. Therefore, his words cannot be treated as Kyiv’s official position. However, there is freedom of speech in Ukraine and everybody can say whatever they want,” explains Yulia Mendel, Zelenskyy’s press secretary.

Also, Berdynskykh does not overestimate Kolomoyskyi’s influence on the president. In her view, from the moment he took office, Zelenskyy was well aware of the rank of his position and has not given in to the pressure of influential people in his surroundings. She yet stresses that it is impossible to control everyone, and there are dirty political games being played behind the scenes. “Nothing is black or white in Ukraine,” she says.

So does believe Inna Sovsun, an MP of Holos party. Her organisation is open to supporting some of the Servant of People’s legislation, especially in economic matters, but also remains sceptical of the president’s and his party’s political actions. “We have developed what we call a ‘Yanukovych test’. What we do is that whenever we encounter a new legislation that would change the power structure, we ask a question whether we would support this law if Yanukovych was the president. We do this because we believe that we should built institutions also for the times when the president is a bad guy, not a good guy. Recent developments in the western states confirm our approach. Under Zelenskyy, there have already been many attempts to centralize the power. Starting from the judicial reform and the change that the national guard should be responding to the command of the president, not the ministry of internal affairs. As a party, we do not support such ideas.”

Yet the greatest problem of all, and not only for Holos but for the whole opposition, is the war in Donbas. When asked about it, Sovsun made it clear that she would rather answer the question the day after the Normandy Summit in Paris. Before it, she could only say the following: “Half a year of president’s work would culminate in this meeting. As a party, we believe that right now the Normandy Summit is pointless. We need the war to stop, we need Putin to withdraw the military forces, we need Putin to give us back Crimea. This means that we need Putin to do something, although visibly it is impossible to make Putin do anything right now. We don’t have leverage against him. We believe that the president focused too much on getting the meeting arranged that he might have forgotten that he should get prepared for that meeting. We are very afraid of potential results of this meeting. The best we could reach is a frozen conflict.”

Inexperienced and naive

Yevhen Hlibovitzky, a security expert and founder of a think tank called Pro Mova, holds a similar view. “It would be better if the Normandy Summit did not take place at all” he says in a conversation we held. This would help to “avoid potential risks”. Such thinking is justified by the fact that Zelenskyy is still an inexperienced diplomat and negotiator. And he is naive. These are the two most often used words to describe the president that I could hear in Kyiv in the week preceding the Normandy Summit. Naive and inexperienced. Hence, many interlocutors were stressing the potential risk of Zelenskyy agreeing to something unfavourable to Ukraine, especially if it came under the pressure of Merkel or Macron. The image of the summit, before it took place, was of a meeting of three against one. Zelenskyy was the one.

Mendel gives the impression of being tired of constantly repelling the critics of the Normandy format. “You are not guilty until proven otherwise. The burden of proof is with the one who argues, and not with the one who denies. We were victims of people’s fears for the last six months. We don’t have the reason to defend ourselves. At least not yet,” she said.

Mendel argues that the ideas of freezing the conflict and reforming the country contradict each other. Without ending the war, Ukraine will always be an unpredictable place for investments. What yet brings an end to any war are negotiations and a peace treaty, not another war.

Making peace in Donbas was the central promise of Zelenskyy’s campaign. It was basically his only promise. Zelenskyy believes that ending the war and regulating the situation in Donbas is crucial to give the Ukrainian people the sense of security they have been longing for. Nonetheless, he remains a “political outsider and extremely inexperienced” as Hlibovitzky underlines. “Zelenskyy is trying to make up for it. In my opinion, Zelenskyy is a very Soviet man. I think he may consider this all a part of a huge misunderstanding. So probably in Paris there will be an attempt to bring the sides together but there are no signs that Russia would make any concessions. And Zelenskyy found himself in a narrow corridor, threatened by the opposition and public opinion. The opposition does not have the majority but had proved several times that it has/d the streets when it needs/ed them. My personal view is that it would be safer if there was no meeting.”

Red lines, capitulation and treason were also among the phrases found in the headlines of this vibrant week. The veterans of Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in Donbas, even if one cannot speak of them as of a whole, but at least those I met do not support Zelenskyy, treating him with high mistrust. The same position has been expressed by the former Ukrainian prisoners who were held in Russia, also those who were freed in early September in exchange for Oleg Sentsov in what was one of the biggest success of Zelenskyy’s presidency so far. They yet believe that the war can only be won by a military operation, possibly by involving UN peacekeeping forces. Without the Russian soldiers as a part of it, obviously. For the Ukrainians who were directly affected by the trauma of the war, meaning those who fought in it, were imprisoned, or indirectly, as they lost their relatives and beloved ones, any negotiations with Putin are a betrayal and capitulation. Zelenskyy is definitely not their president.

On December 8th, the day before the Paris summit, leaders of the opposition parties Holos, the European Solidarity and Batkivshchyna, called on people to come to Maidan to remind the president that there are the red lines he cannot cross in the negotiations with Putin. Around eight thousand people gathered at the historical square of Kyiv.

There is no treason

The meeting in Paris took place on December 9th 2019. Its results, as predicted, did not bring a breakthrough. New decisions were made in regard to the ceasefire, demarcation and exchange of prisoners. The next meeting of the Normandy format is planned to occur in a few months. The Ukrainian opposition approaches these results sceptically, even though Zelenskyy did not prove its fears that he would exceed the mandate given to him by the Ukrainian people. “Zrady nemaye,” said Arsen Avakov, minister of internal affairs in the first official comment on the Normandy meeting. Literally his words mean: “There is no treason”.

The pressure has dropped but surely not for long. “In Ukraine, everything is possible,” I heard repeated several times during the week I spent there. Fukuyama’s end of history has never matched this country’s situation.

On Thursday December 12th 2019, the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior announced that five people were accused of taking part in the assassination of the journalist Pavel Sheremet. He was killed in the centre of Kyiv in a car explosion in July 2016. Those who have been accused had participated in the ATO operation, either by fighting on the side of Ukrainian units or as volunteers. Thus, new questions started to arise in the Ukrainian public discourse and the Normandy Summit quickly moved from hot topic event to the one of distant past.

This text is a result of the author’s visit to Ukraine as part of a study tour organised for Polish and German journalists “Inside Ukraine” organised in early December 2019 by the Foundation for Polish-German Co-operation and N-Ost association.

Paulina Siegień is a freelance journalist, writing about Polish-Russian neighbourhood and general Russian developments. She is currently working on a book about the Kaliningrad Oblast.

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