The End of Volodymyr Zelensky’s Honeymoon
Changing Ukraine is much harder than its president thought. Here is how Zelensky should reboot his presidency and secure his place in history.
When Volodymyr Zelensky catapulted to Ukraine’s presidency in April 2019, the actor-turned-statesman promised a fresh start, a rejection of politics as usual, and a thorough overhaul of Ukraine’s political and economic system. Parliamentary elections three months later gave Zelensky’s Servant of the People party a majority of 254 out of 424 available seats.
With a clear mandate from his country, the wildly popular president put into place a government and inner circle with a reputation for honesty and integrity. He has jump-started reform, scoring a number of impressive legislative achievements. But despite continued foreign and domestic enthusiasm over Ukraine’s new direction, Zelensky is now facing a grim reality: Dramatic change in Ukraine is difficult, yet public expectations are high. As the new president struggles to deliver on promises of radical change made during his campaign, confidence in his government is beginning to erode.
To be sure, Zelensky has already launched reforms that used to be unthinkable in Ukraine. His administration has turned more than 500 state-owned companies over to the State Property Fund for rapid privatization. A sweeping land privatization bill—something no Ukrainian leader has been able to deliver for three decades—is on the verge of passage in parliament. Also in the works is a major banking reform that would prevent corrupt oligarchs from claiming compensation for banks that were nationalized after having been stripped of their assets by dubious related-party loans. Above all, the people Zelensky has put into office have in the main been untarnished by association with oligarchs and largely immune to corruption. Indeed, Zelensky demonstrated his independence from Ukraine’s traditional power brokers by breaking links with Ihor Kolomoisky, the billionaire businessman whose TV channel was a bedrock of the president’s rise to power.
But despite these accomplishments, many of the promises on which Zelensky ran are encountering resistance. Ukraine needs a thorough overhaul of its legal system if it wants to tackle endemic corruption—yet it remains to be seen whether mass firings in the prosecutor’s office and changes in the security services will help. Criminal prosecutions for corruption are stalled in backward courts. The economy also hasn’t improved, with 2020 growth projected at a moderate 3.5 percent—a similar rate as in 2018 and 2019 but very far from the 7 percent promised last year by the inexperienced new prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk.
What’s more, a major source of Zelensky’s popularity was his promise to do whatever it takes to secure a peace deal with Russia. That promise, however, is coming up against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unacceptable demand that Ukraine surrender part of its sovereignty over the Donbass, which would perpetuate de facto Russian control over the region.
As an outsider with no previous experience in politics, Zelensky also faces resistance from much of Ukraine’s civil society and intellectual class. In part, this is because of their contempt for his background in entertainment—and for his reliance on a trusted inner circle of entertainers, comedians, and TV producers. Critics also see him as insufficiently committed to Ukraine’s national and cultural identity. A case in point was his New Year’s address, in which he called on Ukrainians to be one nation despite their many differences. An innocuous, uplifting message, one would think—but to many Ukrainian intellectuals, Zelensky’s unity speech seemed to suggest that it made no difference whether one supported a pro-Western Ukraine committed to liberal democracy, the rule of law, and market economics—or a pro-Russian Ukraine indifferent to democracy, lacking its own cultural identity and steeped in Soviet-era nostalgia like the occupied eastern province. As long as Ukraine is at war with Russia, his many critics felt, Zelensky should be articulating a clear pro-Western vision—and not muddy the waters by suggesting that there is no fundamental difference between the European Union’s declared values and those of Putin’s small but influential coterie of Ukrainian admirers.
While Zelensky remains trusted (in large measure because he is seen as personally incorruptible), there has been a steep erosion of public trust in the country’s ability to move forward. The share of voters who believe Ukraine is heading in the right direction has dropped from 57 percent in September 2019 to only 25 percent today, according to a recent poll by the Razumkov Centre, a Kyiv-based think tank. Over the same period, the share of voters who say the country is moving in the wrong direction has risen from 17 to 53 percent. Today, only 21 percent believe Ukraine will be able to surmount its many challenges in the next few years, according to the same poll.
There are yet more signs that Zelensky’s honeymoon as president is over. He is now facing the same sort of political intrigue and sabotage that brought down his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. Someone released a secretly made recording of Honcharuk, the prime minister, saying that Zelensky was a greenhorn in economic issues. Anti-Zelensky media have spread the (unfounded) claim that Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s newly appointed chief of staff, is a Russian agent. Others are trying to discredit Yermak as an opponent of Zelensky’s reforms. Some of this backstabbing and rumormongering has been provoked by loyalists of Kolomoisky, the former benefactor with whom Zelensky has broken ties.
In part, though, Zelensky has himself to blame if the mood is souring. His decision to appoint politically inexperienced personnel to key posts is taking its toll, overshadowing the optimism that accompanied his victory. Mistakes and missteps have become all too frequent, especially in parliament and government. Confusion in the corridors of power abounds, including in some legislative committees and in several ministries and government agencies. The health bureaucracy, for example, hasn’t provided even a minimum of public information about the global coronavirus outbreak, leading to shameful scenes of protesters throwing stones at buses carrying Ukrainians evacuated from China.
To avoid derailing his presidency, Zelensky therefore needs to quickly refocus.
First, he has to secure his power base in parliament to pass critical legislation. That means transforming his politically inexperienced deputies into an effective legislative majority—without concentrating too much authority in his own hands. It also requires better defining the ideas and principles that will make Servant of the People a political party, not just a movement to elect a president. Zelensky’s team seems to understand this and has started to redefine the party as avowedly centrist, taking what is best from free market liberalism and social democracy. With a party identity and a firm set of principles, Zelensky’s deputies will be less likely to fall under the sway of oligarchs and their money.
Second, Zelensky should pivot on his promise to end the war with Russia and its separatist allies as soon as possible. He should acknowledge reality: It will be impossible to hold elections in the occupied territories as long as Russia sends snipers to kill Ukrainian soldiers, fills key administrative posts with Russian officials, expands the distribution of Russian passports in the Donbass, and recruits and trains inhabitants of the region for the Russian secret service. Instead, he should redouble efforts to challenge Russia’s occupation in international courts, intensify communication with Ukrainians living under Russian rule via the media, and strengthen Ukraine’s military potential. He should also abandon his endless overtures to Putin, which strike most Ukrainian intellectuals, war veterans, and civil society members as naive at best and treasonous at worst.
Third, despite continued moderate economic growth, Ukraine needs a game-changer to recharge and accelerate its economy. One high-impact reform could be the establishment of a powerful economic arbitration court, for which the Justice Ministry is currently preparing legislation. Such a court—possibly staffed with experienced, untarnished judges from the West—would have broad powers to enforce contracts and protect property rights, a prerequisite for any boom in foreign investment.
Implementing all these approaches (most of which are under discussion inside the government, parliament, and presidential team) will require a coordinated, systematic response.
Zelensky’s chances, should he seize them, are still good. Despite his administration’s missteps and attacks from his enemies, he can still count on broad support among Ukrainians. His approval rating, while down from 74 percent a few months ago, was still at a decent 49 percent in February. And one sign that Zelensky is serious about giving his presidency a boost is his decision on Feb. 11 to remove his abrasive chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, a Kolomoisky associate. Yermak, who replaced him, is Ukraine’s seasoned negotiator with the Putin and Donald Trump administrations and seems to signify a new seriousness in Kyiv.
2020 will be the pivotal year for Zelensky’s presidency. If he goes on as before, he will meet increasing obstacles, watch his support melt away, and fail to truly reform Ukraine. If he refocuses his administration and gets things right, he has a chance not only to preserve his personal popularity but to take his place in history—as post-independence Ukraine’s most successful president.
Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and founder of Myrmidon Group.