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Ukraine’s new government: more oligarchic, more pro-Russian

New Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal in the loge of Cabinet before his appointment. Source: Ukrayinska Pravda
Ukraine’s new government: more oligarchic, more pro-Russian
Edited by: Michael Garrood
The age of young new faces is over after six months of work of Honcharuk’s government. “Not stealing isn’t enough,” said President Zelenskyy while parliament was voting to sack it on 4 March. However, the anxiety grows in Ukrainian civil society as the new government which was sworn in that day includes some old faces who worked with disgraced ex-President Yanukovych, have close links with Russians, or worked for oligarchs. Moreover, the very procedure of governmental change was conducted with violations. It proved that parliamentarian independence in Ukraine is dead in favor of presidential control.

Even more presidential control over parliament

From his first days in office, Ukrainian president Zelenskyy showed his disregard for the rule of law by dissolving parliament and ignoring the law of lustration while making appointments. However, events in Ukraine’s Rada on 4 March 2020 show a new level of the parliament’s servitude to the president, having no will of its own, even when the law requires it.

First, the very fact that Honcharuk’s government was dissolved is disturbing. Having made both reforms and mistakes during its six months of work, the government was definitely not one of the worst. Among its most positive sides was an attempt to reorganize some markets and state enterprises, continuing reforms introduced by the previous government. Although some reforms, like the land market reform, were disputable in their details, and general economic indicators tended rather to fluctuate than to rise, the government at least had no obvious links to oligarchs.

Six months is not enough fully evaluate a government’s work. According to the law, the government has a one-year immunity from dismissal by the parliament. If Honcharuk wanted, he could start playing his own game and become a true politician instead of performing Zelenskyy’s wishes. It wasn’t hard — the law was on his side. He just had to say that the government will continue working throughout the whole year to finish some reforms. Why he, instead, submitted his resignation to Zelenskyy is perplexing.

Second, parliament also proved it is not independent but rather a presidential machine for voting. According to the law, the government in Ukraine is appointed by the parliament. This requires that all candidates for ministerial positions be first interviewed in parliamentary committees. Then, voting should be conducted regarding each candidate. This is a relatively long procedure that requires several days at least.

However, deputies were handed the list of the candidates just a few hours before the vote. Moreover, they did not conduct any discussion in the committees and voted for the whole cabinet at once without any consideration of each particular candidate’s merits. That was a formal approval of Zelenskyy’s will by the monopoly majority rather than real voting.

Third, how the Cabinet was formed and by whom raises questions. In principle, the prime minister should form his government and the parliament should vote on his proposals. In reality, nobody knows who selected the ministers and how. Reportedly, until the last moment, some candidates were refusing offers of working in the new government. Four positions are still vacant, those of the ministers of education, energy, culture, and vice-prime minister for economic development.

The ex-minister of education Hanna Novosad commented that she does not understand the reasons for the old government’s resignation. She also has questions regarding the next prime minister’s reforms agenda. Therefore, she declined to enter the new government. A similar comment was offered by the ex-minister of economic affairs, Tymofiy Mylovanov, who rejected the proposal to work in the new government because of the new minister’s unclear position regarding market reforms.

“Young technocrats” did not succeed, now is the turn of the “tough proprietors”

The characteristic of the new government as “tough proprietors” (krepkikh hoziaystevennikov in Russian) by economist Serhiy Fursa has gone viral. The expression refers both to the Soviet past of most ministers as well as their age. While the government of Honcharuk, who was only 35, was the youngest in Ukraine’s history, the average age of the newcomers in the next government is 51. Most of these newcomers are old faces who worked for runaway ex-President Viktor Yanukovych or oligarchic companies.

For example, prime minister Denys Shmyhal worked as a top manager in oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s electricity and energy company DTEK. Some colleagues of former prime-minister Honcharuk say that one of the reasons for his resignation was the prime minister’s replacement of managers in regional and central electricity operators, which was deemed unfavorable to Akhmetov.

Immediately after his appointment, Denys Shmyhal found himself embroiled in a scandal. Shmyhal stated that Ukraine should renew water supply to Crimea “because our people live there.” However, a few hours later he rejected this statement and apologized.

Denys Shmyhal and Volodymyr Zelenskyy before Shmyhal’s appointment as prime minister. Source:

Minister of social policy Maryna Lazebna is a governmental functionary with a long career. She also worked as head of a department in Mykola Azarov’s government and head of the state service for employment in 2013-2014, during the Yanukovych era. She left her governmental office after the Maidan but has now returned.

Minister for the development of municipalities and territories Oleksiy Chernyshov, according to the journalist Serhiy Leshchenko, has links to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. He has also cooperated since 2003 with pro-Russian businessman Oleksandr Feldman, now people’s deputy from the Oppositional platform.

Minister of Finance Ihor Umanskyy is an experienced professional. However, the decision to dismiss Oksana Markarova, whose work all prominent Ukrainian economists evaluated positively, raises questions.

Minister of Defence Andriy Taran is a retired general. With huge military experience and NATO education as his strengths, he, however, represents the old generation of the Ukrainian military, contrary to former defense Minister Zahorodniuk who was not from the military hierarchy but had experience in the reform office and business. Ukrainian military expert Yuriy Butusov warns that nobody knows about Taran’s view on the war with Russia and Ukrainian policy on it.

Minister of Sport Vadym Hutsait reportedly has business in Russia that he failed to declare as a public official, and has also been accused of plagiarism. Vadym Hutsait also worked for years as an assistant to a people’s deputy from the Yanukovych Party of the Regions. He was mentioned in anti-corruption journalist investigations.

Minister of veterans Serhiy Basarab, minister of healthcare Illia Yemets, and minister of reintegration Oleksiy Reznikov came either from business or are merely proceeding in their careers, so there is little to be judged on thus far.

Five ministers remain from the former cabinet: minister of infrastructure Vladyslav Krykliy, minister of digital transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, minister of justice Denus Maliuska, minister of foreign affairs Dmytro Kuleba, vice prime-minister for European and Euroatlantic integration Vadym Prystaiko. Prystaiko and Kuleba swapped positions. This castling was reportedly performed to solve the inner conflict between Vadym Prystaiko and the head of the presidential office, Andriy Yermak.

The experts are not convinced

Almost all prominent Ukrainian economists and political commentators share skepticism about the new government with its old faces, links to some oligarchs, or the pre-Maidan officials.

Serhiy Fursa stresses that Honcharuk’s government was dismissed because it crossed oligarchic interests in some points, in particular Kolomoiskyi’s Privatbank and Akhmetov’s electricity industry.

A media campaign against the so-called Sorosiata, which reads as the derogative “George Soros’s piglets,” was an introduction to the dissolution of the former government. Led mainly by the pro-Kremlin media linked to the Oppositional Platform, the campaign aimed to accuse Honcharuk’s government of serving western capital instead of the people. Although there were some disputable policies carried out by the government, few would disagree that the general continuation of reforms aimed at establishing fair rules in Ukraine would be harmful to oligarchs.

Although it is too early to accuse the new Shmyhal government of serving oligarchs, Zelenskyy is already blamed for the unreasonable dissolution of the former government. As prominent Ukrainian intellectual Valeriy Pekar writes, this was done in the style of TV-show logic. Approval ratings falling means it’s time to change something and find somebody to blame. Contrary to this logic, real reforms at first always eat into ratings to a certain degree but bear fruit in the longer term. Valeriy Pekar estimates events as follows:

“Members of the previous government do not know why they were fired. It is demotivating because they cannot draw conclusions. Members of the new government do not know why members of the previous government were fired. This is disorienting because they can repeat the same mistakes by ignorance. Citizens do not know why members of the previous government were fired. This impairs the ability of citizens to adequately assess government performance. Some of the members of the previous government have joined the new government. Neither those who have been dismissed, nor those who remain, know the criteria for dismissal or reapproval. The new government also lacks key performance indicators. Doing the impossible is not the best goal setting nor the best motivation. The Prime Minister as the head of the government had little or no influence on the election of members of the government. He didn’t even have time for that. His authority among ministers will be roughly zero.”

Yuriy Butusov, a Ukrainian military expert, also blames Zelenskyy for the arbitrary replacement of the defense minister without drawing a strategy and looking for people who can implement it.

Ukrainian political scientist Viktor Taran is even more austere in his estimations: “During two days, Ukrainians got an oligarchic-Russian re-establishment. In turbo-mode.” He also links the change of the cabinet to the simultaneous dismissal of the prosecutor general Ruslan Riaboshapka. According to the head of Servant of the People faction David Arakhamiya,  the final argument for Riaboshapka’s dismissal was “his inability to serve a notice of suspicion on Poroshenko.” Thus the head of the parliamentary majority openly favored the persecution of political opposition.

August 2019. Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Bohdan, newly-appointed head of the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast State Administration Denys Shmyhal, and President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The eternal Avakov

As the cherry on the top, Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov remains in his position. It will be his fourth government in this position. Avakov’s seventh year in office started on 22 February. Recently, protests in Kyiv and Kharkiv called for his resignation. However, no relevant decision has been made by the ruling party.

The Right Sector accuses Avakov of the political killing of Oleksandr Muzychko in 2014. Avakov has also been criticized many times for police inactivity and covering up corruption or crimes, as well as sabotaging the police reform. He is suspected of cooperating with Yulia Tymoshenko against Petro Poroshenko during the 2019 elections. The reason why Zelenskyy leaves Avakov in office is unknown. One possible version is to maintain firm control over police, in particular in the event of mass protests.

“Virus that spreads over the country.” Protest for Avakov’s resignation in Kyiv, 24 February 2020. Source: hromadske

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Edited by: Michael Garrood
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