Zelenskyy while visiting conflict zone in Donbas, where he talked with soldiers more informally than his predecessor Poroshenko. Source: Priamyi
Stability and previous course in foreign policy are generally preserved
Among the 20 achievements listed are such routine items as: Zelenskyy “assured international partners that the course of Ukraine towards European integration is unchanged; received confirmation of support for Ukraine’s position on the release of Ukrainian hostages held by Russia from European leaders, as well as maintaining sanctions on Russia; and made clear that there will be no negotiations with the separatists.” From this brief sampling, one can only conclude what Zelenskyy will not do, rather than what he has done.
Nonetheless, the greatest fears about Zelenskyy being openly pro-Russian which his opponents had previously propagated have not been realized, as the new president had announced intentions to continue Poroshenko’s foreign policy line. Fears regarding the immediate submission of Ukrainian interests to oligarch Kolomoyskyi also seem to have passed.
It’s clear after the first month of holding office that in a short while Zelenskyy doesn’t plan to negotiate directly either with Putin or — even more dangerously — with separatists. As he admitted, the former option would only be possible with the engagement of Western partners, to create an advantage and a stronger position. The latter option is not acceptable at all. Negotiations with separatists would mean at least partial acknowledgement of their illegal actions and goals.
Leading up to the elections, he never clarified his position regarding these questions. Some people indeed voted for him in the hope that he would end the conflict in the east and establish peace, even if it meant a total capitulation for Ukraine. This is not happening, although the absence of abrupt retreat doesn’t mean that Zelenskyy has any definite strategy regarding Donbas or Crimea. At least, he presented none.
Regarding suspicious relations with oligarch Kolomoyskyi, athough Zelenskyy appointed oligarch’s lawyer as the head of Presidential administration, he appears to be bypassing Kolomoyskyi’s radical advice to default on Ukraine’s debt. Negotiations with the IMF are in progress.
But Zelenskyy shows himself as a weak president in negotiations
The president’s Facebook page is full of photos with Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron, as well as other officials and members of the business community, with whom he met during his first visit to the EU. At the same time, not a single effort was made by Zelenskyy during the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) session to prevent sanctions being lifted on the Russian delegation during 24-26 June.
Of course, not all battles in foreign policy can be won, but ultimately the Ukrainian president, one of whose main responsibilities is foreign policy, did nothing substantive to influence the outcome of the PACE vote. By posting a small statement of “disappointment” on Facebook the day after the vote, he only demonstrated his weak position, if not a dereliction of national interests.
What’s more, Iryna Herashchenko, deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada and part of the Ukrainian delegation to PACE, noted on her Facebook page that the president ignored the earlier request of the Ukrainian delegation to discuss joint efforts.
“Before the June session of the PACE in Strasbourg, the Ukrainian delegation appealed to the new president with a request for a meeting to exchange information about the challenges, agree on our joint action plan, and speak out on how to defend our interest in the Council of Europe. Success required serious preliminary work, pressure on our international partners, daily telephone conversations. It required first of all the leadership of the president. That’s how it was during all the previous five years. However, this time our delegation did not receive any response from the president and his office. Our delegation stayed on its own in that session hall.”
Herashchenko was also outraged that Zelenskyy did not take the opportunity to personally discuss with leaders of the EU the need to prevent a Russian comeback. These same objections appeared on the president’s Facebook page where thousands of comments were posted asking where he was on the day of the PACE vote.
In his inauguration speech and pre-election campaign, Zelenskyy claimed he would begin real anti-corruption reforms, “restart courts,” implement deregulation, and appoint staff to key offices on the basis of open competition. However, in the first month of his presidency Zelenskyy:
- renamed and reorganized the office of Presidential Administration to Office of the President and plans to change its location;
- dissolved the Ukrainian parliament;
- started the Lift project to add new people to the team, but appointed key positions to his former business partners — just as Poroshenko did;
- canceled 161 decrees of previous presidents — probably the largest such cancellation in the history of Ukraine.
Are these changes real far-reaching reforms or merely cosmetic campaign tactics leading up to parliamentary elections on 21 July? With the exception of canceled decrees, all the other points can be considered cosmetic.
Canceled decrees and a good start for the deregulation policy
Cancelling 161 decrees was a surprise, particularly since they all were canceled within one day. Most of them dated from the decade of 1991-2001. They were introduced during the transition period after independence, by the first two presidents Kravchuk and Kuchma. Today they are outdated and have had little relevance in the last five years. The abolition of this decrees was done with the intention of deregulating certain economic restrictions, and thus creating better conditions for business. Not all of the decrees were significant or impactful in the current climate, but some indeed impeded the business community.
Among key changes was the abolition of a fine for violation of cash discipline, which was used by local bureaucrats to pressure businesses. Also important was the abolishment of the minimal fees for notaries that had been defined as 1% of the value of the given real estate. The provision of notarial services is very competitive, and the presence of such a “bonus” distorted its value. Now fees are determined solely by market demand.
Abolishing school uniforms was a symbol of the need to cancel decrees. According to this 1996 decree, all “students of secondary education institutions of all types” had to buy and wear a uniform. On 15 April, a petition was filed on the president’s website asking to cancel the decree as parents considered it discriminatory. Zelenskyy supported the petition by cancelling this decree.
Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Trade Max Nefyodov noted in his post that the abolishment of outdated rules was one of the key propositions that had been put forward by business associations for years:
“About notaries, for example, we started the fight back in November 2016! 32 months of dragging the rope!.. [These] requirements were among the top 10 demands of business associations, and the result is saving of billions for business, a powerful step to reduce the field for corruption. Thank you Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the motor of this victory Oleksiy Honcharuk, now Deputy Head of the President’s Administration on the economy!”
Former comedians to lead Security Service and other questionable appointments
However, along with the successful start of deregulation, which still needs further development, Zelenskyy has taken many “old-style” actions. Earlier, he claimed that no business cronies would be appointed if he was elected. Yet, that is precisely what has happened.
Key positions have been awarded to Zelenskyy’s former partners from studio Kvartal 95. The executive producer of the studio, Serhiy Trofimov, and scriptwriter, Yuriy Kostiuk, have been appointed as deputies to the Presidential Administration. Another partner from Kvartal 95 and friend of Zelenskyy, Serhiy Shefir, has become the first assistant to the president. Ivan Bakanov, longtime friend of the president and the director of the Kvartal 95 has been appointed First Deputy Head of the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) and is currently serving as the interim head of the SBU since Vasyl Hrytsak, current head of the service, has been on vacation.
Also, the Foreign Intelligence Service was headed by People’s Deputy from the “Batkivshchyna” party Vladislav Bukharev, who received a medal from the FSB “For Combat Cooperation” in 2004. Andriy Bohdan became the head of the Presidential Administration. He worked as a lawyer for oligarch Igor Kolomoyskyi and accompanied Zelenskyy during pre-election meetings with the oligarch.
Zelenskyy tried to compensate such dramatic contradictions to his pre-election promises by launching the Lift project, aimed to recruit ordinary people to work in politics. However, after the first month, the project appears to only support populists.
Right now, there are a mere four vacancies and all are technical or administrative; such as the coordinator of digital-office, web-designer. This is not in accordance with truly open social lifts, and the only hope is that the project will evolve in the future.
Presidential “Administration” becomes “Office” to mark future reforms
Disputable is the reorganization of the Presidential Administration to the Office of the President. The corresponding decree of the president was signed by Zelenskyy on 20 June. However, the structure of the new “Office” and the old “Administration” are almost the same with only some curtailments in staff. In fact, the name is probably the biggest change.
Also, as depicted in his pre-election TV show, Sluha Narodu, Zelenskyy announced that he would move his Office from its current location on vul. Bankova to the Ukrainian House on Yevropeiska Ploshcha. He claimed that he “can’t reside in that building on Bankova.” However, the Ukrainian House is just another Soviet-style building and requires large-scale expensive reconstruction.
Journalist Dmytro Shurkhalo compares Zelenskyy with the third — and as proven, weak — President Victor Yushchenko, who also wanted to relocate his administration but “such things didn’t help him to become a more effective president.” Yushchenko thought Bankova Street was bad because of its “bad aura.” Zelenskyy claims there is “bad Wifi and closed windows.” Finally, Shurhalo adds: “In history, there are many cases where prominent reform rulers not only changed the residence but even moved the capital. However, as a rule, such things happened at the finish, not at the start. They marked the success of reforms and not their beginning.”
Finally, the judicial reform has been “relaunch” by the very same persons who guided it during the Poroshenko presidency
Relaunching the judiciary was one of Zelenskyy’s main promises. However, his first decision in that domain was, at the very least, disappointing.
The High Council of Justice is exceptionally important since it’s the first step in the appointment of judges and serves as a filter to assess integrity, professionalism, and corruption. Zelenkyy dismissed two prior members, but at the same time appointed the very same Poroshenko-era judges to the special commission that chooses people to The High Council of Justice . Mykhailo Zhernakov, Chair of the DEJURE Foundation — a key advocate of judiciary reform — claims that this is the way in which Zelenskyy will try to establish (indirect) control over the judiciary, just as Poroshenko had.
Among others, Zelenskyy appointed Oleksandra Paseniuk, the long-term Chair of the Supreme Administrative Court (2004-2011). In 2011, Paseniuk was appointed as a judge of the Constitutional Court by the party of exiled President Yanukovych, the Party of Regions. She was one of the officials who issued a ban on Euromaidan protests in 2013-2014.
Finally, more than 100 government agencies and business associations signed an appeal to Zelenskyy regarding judicial reform, demanding the appointment of honest members to the special commission. They stressed the need to include international experts and civil activists and in that way really restart the judiciary in Ukraine.
A script to play before elections?
At the same time, the appointment of judges is not a significant concern for most of the public. They are minor appointments to which only specialists pay attention. In fact, except for obvious actions, such as the cancellation of 161 decrees, dissolution of parliament, and changing the name and location of the Office of the President, Zelensnkyy remains quite limited in his undertakings. A direct conflict with the current parliament has de-facto circumvented a large part of his work. He has filed 16 draft laws, but due to time restrictions they likely will not be considered until the new parliament is in place. The MPs refused to dismiss Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak, and Security Service Chief Vasyl Hrytsak, as requested by Zelenskyy. Although these ministries report directly to the president, he cannot yet dismiss them.
Nonetheless, such a parliamentary blockade is favorable for Zelenskyy. He can blame parliament for his inability to do more, waiting for Parliamentary elections where his party is forecasted to receive 40%. To hold up changes an additional month into his term — when expecting such a high rate of support — is definitely to his advantage.
Two key questions remain unanswered: whether president Zelenskyy will change his policy, especially foreign policy, after parliament is elected; and whether he will reconsider dubious appointments of close friends or even staff of the former president. This especially includes crucial appointments to the High Council of Justice.
Yuriy Butusov, editor-in-chief of one of Ukraine’s largest online medias, censor.net, writes that in effect Zelenskyy is continuing Poroshenko’s mistakes by having no strategy on war in Donbas other than maintaining the status quo. The absence of a substantial strategy, as well as a lack of communication to the country as to why Ukraine needs to remain in the war — paying the high price it does every day — only results in mixed messages from the president.
Zelenskyy openly declares his desire for peace, but knows he can’t simply withdraw from the conflict. Meanwhile, any hint of concession to the Russians erupts in loud protests, let alone boisterous rallies, by civil society. Thus, with respect to the war, after his first month, Zelenskyy is between a rock and a hard place, with no blueprint on how to go forward.