After a year ago the former comedian won a landslide victory in the presidential election with promises to fight corruption, imprison the country’s biggest crooks and thieves, end the war with Russia and attract billions of dollars in foreign investment, now it turns out that none of these points have been reached.
And besides, many Ukrainians are already losing patience and confidence in the president.
Before winning the election, Zelensky’s experience in politics was limited to starring in The Servant of the People. There, he plays a teacher whose angry anti-corruption video makes him a sensation and sends him as a candidate and subsequent winner of Ukraine’s presidential election. Zelenski’s character manages to stay in office with a pure heart and cunning moves and to achieve some positive changes, as well as to fall into a number of comic situations.
In fact, after a year in power, the former comedian has not moved much forward on the issue of corruption, the war in eastern Ukraine against Kremlin-backed separatists still seems stalemate, and Ukraine has been at the center of the biggest scandal in the United States since Monica Lewinsky.
The big problem for the country’s current government – Ukraine’s slow progress in anti-corruption reforms and the restructuring of the country’s economy – is being met with concern by Kiev’s international partners.
After winning the presidential election, Zelenski was lucky to win a decisive victory in the parliamentary elections, which gave him the comfort of having the executive and the legislature on the same page. However, this meant that a young, unproven team would come to power with him.
So at one point it turns out that in the “Servant of the People”, as the president’s party is called, there are people with very different and even divergent interests. Factions – in the party and throughout parliament – have come into conflict over a number of parts of the program, leading to a clash that could be reduced to reforms against private interests (of various oligarchs).
This is well seen in the case with the restructuring of the country’s banking sector – a requirement of the International Monetary Fund.
The IMF has backed Ukraine billions of dollars in financial aid over the past few years, but in return has set conditions for the country to pass a bill affecting its banking sector.
In particular, the bill states that the largest bank in Ukraine, PrivatBank (nationalized in late 2016 after a serious discrepancy was found in its accounts of more than $ 5.5 billion) will not be returned to previous its owners – Gennady Bogolyubov and Igor Kolomoisky.
Kolomoisky is a former business partner of Zelensky, and his television channel strongly promotes the presidential campaign – something that is of serious concern to the IMF. Hence, they are worried that because of these close ties with the government, the businessman may regain control of the bank despite serious abuses.
The implementation of the reforms itself came too slowly and in combination with political turmoil, the resignation of the Prime Minister
And there is cause for concern. Kolomoisky has his own people in parliament, who managed to submit a record 16,335 proposals for the IMF bill, thus delaying its adoption.
Zelenski tried to distance himself from the banking tycoon, standing firmly behind the reform. Thus, when it finally passed a second reading in parliament on May 13, thus securing another tranche of IMF funding of nearly $ 2 billion, many set out to congratulate the president on his victory.
However, a number of experts and critics of the president recalled that this law should have been passed a long time ago, despite the fact that Zelensky’s party has control over the Verkhovna Rada.
But if Kiev’s Western partners pick up conflicting signals in domestic politics, Zelensky’s and his government’s attitude toward Russia is a cause for even greater concern.
One of Zelensky’s key promises in his presidential campaign was an end to the war in the eastern part of the country with the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk people’s separatists, separatists backed by the Kremlin. Now, a year later, however, the situation still seems hopeless, despite the meetings in the form of the Norman Four (Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany).
There is still shelling on a daily basis along the front line, although the line itself is not shifting in either direction. However, the doubts in question are not about the way Kiev is waging war, but about the personnel changes around the president.
An interesting move was the replacement of the head of his personal cabinet – on February 11, Andrei Bogdan (former lawyer of businessman Kolomoisky) was replaced by Andrei Ermak – a man with good connections among the Russian business elite, who does not hide his bias towards the Kremlin.
At the same time, Zelenski appointed a new chief prosecutor in the person of Irina Venediktova, who provoked many negative reactions and criticism against himself. On the one hand, it undertook the abolition of the anti-corruption movement, and on the other, which provoked more anger among Ukrainians, it appointed Alexander Babikov, a former lawyer for Kremlin-affiliated Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, as its deputy. It was with the overthrow of Yanukovych at the end of 2013 that Ukraine’s reorientation to the West began.
Meanwhile, the country’s newest prime minister, Denis Schmihal, announced immediately after his appointment on March 4th to resume water supplies from mainland Ukraine to Russia’s annexed Crimea.
Days later, Ukrainian MP Viktor Medvedchuk and other members of parliament arrived in Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Parliament Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin.
Thus, in recent months, there have been more movements at the top in Kiev, which to one degree or another are in Russia’s favor, including attempts to start a dialogue with Kremlin proxies in the Donbas region and the appointment of the former MP and especially vocal activist during on the Maidan Tetyana Chornovol under house arrest.
Amid criticism of Zelensky for “squatting” in front of Russia, he remained silent for the moment.
All this comes against the background of Ukraine’s controversial relations with the United States. The country has become an involuntary extra in the domestic political dramas in Washington and the impeachment process for President Donald Trump.
The US president was accused of refusing aid from Ukraine until Zelensky announced an investigation against Joe Biden, whose dream Hunter has connections and business in Ukraine.
As part of the impeachment process, recordings of Trump’s telephone conversations with Zelensky were released, including a phone call in which the US president directly asked for a “favor” – an investigation by Ukrainian authorities against Biden.
In the same telephone conversation, Zelensky agreed with Trump that European leaders were not helping Ukraine enough.
“This has taken American and international attention away from the issues that matter most to Ukraine and turned our country into a story for President Trump,” Zelensky told the New York Times on the occasion of the first anniversary of his election.
At least on the surface, Ukraine is currently declaring itself an ally of the West, the EU and the United States. However, how long this will last, no one can say for sure.
Doubts grow with the various controversial moments in Kiev’s politics, but will Zelensky dare to do more? Controversial, unless he wants to draw too many enemies into his own country.
This one year in power has left its mark on public opinion. If a year ago about 77% of Ukrainians had a positive opinion of their newly elected president, now they have fallen by more than 20 percentage points, and 39.2% say they would vote for him again.
However, no one has any illusions anymore that Zelenski’s rich promises are so easy to fulfill.
Neither corruption nor the conflict in Donbass is easy to resolve, and proving to international partners that it is a safe country for investment requires a lot of time and perseverance – something that, at least for now, has not been attributed to the comedian who became president. In his series, the reforms happened much easier …