Direct talks with Russia, dual citizenship, pride, and debunked claims. Zelenskyy’s annual address to Parliament

Direct talks with Russia, dual citizenship, pride, and debunked claims. Zelenskyy’s annual address to Parliament

President Zelenskyy speaking in the Verkhovna Rada. Photo: president.gov.ua 

Ukraine

On 1 December, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the Ukrainian Parliament in an annual speech. In it, he talked a lot about his victories, announced big plans and called upon politicians to unite in the fight for Ukrainian territories “before it’s too late.” His talk was held to ovations by MPs from his ruling Servant of the People party, which holds a majority in Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, who wore identical T-shirts stating “For the president against the oligarchs.”

Revealing are the topics on which he stayed mum. Crucially, the alleged fight against oligarchs, one of Zelenskyy’s key “projects” currently, did not get a mention. Neither did the coup with the purported participation of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov which Zelenskyy announced would happen for 1 December on his press marathon held a few days eariler. As well, he barely brushed upon the topic of the still-unreformed courts, which should have implemented one of his greatest pre-election promises — to jail corrupt officials. However, he did expound upon the mass construction of new roads across the country, digitalization, and pension hikes.

Here are the main points of his talk, as provided by Ukrainska Pravda, and a few reality checks, courtesy of factchecheckers from Zn.ua, who debunked some of Zelenskyy’s statements as false.

Security and talking directly with Russia

Zelenskyy praised Ukraine’s operation to rescue 700 people in Afghanistan and an increase of funding for Ukraine’s security sphere to UAH 320 bn (1.2 bn), Ukraine’s state-funded domestic construction of Antonov An-178 airplaines for the army (the first one in 30 years), and the construction of a factory for the joint production of Bayraktar drones.

Regarding the war with Russia, Zelenskyy said that “We must speak the truth, that we cannot stop the war without our army and we cannot stop the war without direct talks with Russia.”

While this phrase about direct talks with Russia was criticized by Ukraine’s opposition partiy headed by former President Poroshenko, Ukraine’s representative of the temporarily occupied retions of Donbas to the Trilateral Contact Group regarding Donbas peace talks Serhiy Harmash stressed it is important that Volodymyr Zelenskyy said about direct talks with Russia, not the self-proclaimed “republics” in eastern Ukraine. According to Harmash, Ukraine has been conducting direct talks with Russia for the eigth year in a row, however, Russia does not recognize itself as a side to the conflict, which impedes any conflict resolution.

Russia has already responded to Zelenskyy’s statement and denied the possibility of direct talks on Donbas. Moscow is not a party to the conflict in Donbas, so negotiations on its resolution are the subject of “negotiations between Ukrainians and Ukrainians,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, said on December 1, commenting on Zelenskyy’s speech in the Rada.

The question of a possible meeting between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine was first raised in the spring of 2021, when Zelenskyy declared his readiness to meet with Putin “anywhere in the Ukrainian Donbas.”

Later, after several statements about the possibility of a meeting, the official Kremlin said that this dialogue is unlikely to take place, as Zelenskyy insists on discussing Crimea, and the Kremlin believes that there is no topic for discussion. In addition, Russia rejects accusations by Ukraine and the West of providing armed support for the militants. The Kremlin says that only Russian “volunteers” are present in Donbas.

On the Crimean platform and occupied territories

Zelenskyy lauded the creation of the Crimean platform, which he promised will be formalized in an UNGA resolution, and its first summit with the participation of 46 delegations. He also noted the adoption of the Strategy to deoccupy and reintegrate Crimea and the adopted law on indigenous people, an easening of requirements for kids from the occupied Crimea and Donbas to enter Ukrainian universities and the launch of broadcasting for occupied Donbas.

Will the Crimea Platform help Ukraine return Russia-occupied peninsula?

Presidential programs and promises

  • 13,000 km of roads were built in the “Great [road] Construction” project and 15,000 more are planned during Zelenskyy’s term; 560 bridges were renewed and built. A national air carrier will be launched, as will new trains;
  • Zelenskyy announced the launch of the program “Ukrainian dream,” as part of which citizens can receive loans at 5% interest rates in UAH to purchase real estate, electrocars, pay for education or change their profession;
  • As well, he announced a “Big thermomodernization” project in 2022, as part of which apartment houses, schools, kindergartens, and hospitals will be insulated.

The economy

Ukraine’s economy set a new record in 2021 and its GDP for the first time exceeded $190 bn, more than in 2013, Zelenskyy claimed.

However, this is an exagerration, Zn.ua writes: inflation impacts the GDP, and it stands at more than 10% this year. The Real GDP is a more adequate measure than the nominal GDP, and it is only 1.2% higher than the Real GDP of 2019, and is 15% lower than the Real GDP of 2013.

Zelenskyy also announced increased fees for resource extraction as well as a personal “economic passport” for Ukrainians, which will accumulate revenues from using Ukraine’s mineral resources, which can be later used for education in Ukraine or homebuying. He lauded the fact that Ukraine’s minimal wage was raised to UAH 6500 ($238), that Ukraine’s average salary topped $500 a month, and a pension bonus program for citizens over 75 and 80. He praised the program “Accessible loans 5-7-9,” as a result of which small business received over $70 bn ($2.5 bn) in loans.

Energy

Zelenskyy said that a new “big” program that will start in Ukraine from 2022 wil allow the country to receive “real energy independence” for the first time. He claimed that for the first time Ukraine managed to achieve stability in the energy sphere, constrain energy tariffs and “even lower” energy prices.

However, this claim is untrue. Zn.ua writes that today, Ukraine and its energy market are held hostage by Rinat Akhmetov’s DTEK because the oligarch’s company owns 70% of the country’s energy coal and the state-owned Centerenergo has not purchased enough coal. Gas reserves in the country are also insufficient. In fact, Ukraine is on the verge of an energy crisis and is already importing electricity from Belarus.

COVID-19 and healthcare

Zelenskyy claimed that Ukraine is successfully battling COVID, starting out “nearly nothing” and now having “almost everyting,” i.e. hospitals, beds, oxygen, and vaccines. Zelenskyy claimed that 24 million Ukrainians had received COVID-19 vaccines.

However, ZN.ua draws attention to the fact of a failed vaccination campaign, as a result of which Ukraine was among the European leaders of deaths from COVID-19 in Europe. Some vaccine doses are approaching their expiration date as a result of Ukrainians’ reluctance to get the shot, and will have to be disposed of in December. As well, many hospitals are woefully unequipped with oxygen, the lack of which volunteers attempt to compensate with crowdfunded oxygen concentrators.

Zelenskyy claimed that the minimal salaries of Ukrainian healthcare workers rose twofold last year, up to UAH 20,000 ($733), and that Ukraine had fully renovated the car park of ambulances.

However, Zn.ua found that this announced salary hike cannot be implemented in practice, as the salaries are allocated from the local budgets of medical institutions. Therefore, the president’s initiative is no more than a recommendation which is unlikely to be implemented in practice everywhere. Moreover, in March 2021, 50% of Ukraine’s ambulance car park was worn out in March 2021. Although some new vehicles were purchased in October, this is far from 100%.

Education and science

Zelenskyy lauded new state presidential awards for winners of international pupils’ math, physics, computer science, and chemistry olympiads and their teachers, as well as school graduates with the highest graduation test cores. He said work on his new Presidential University are underway, and praised the renewal of Ukraine’s research fleet. Recent additions to the fleet include the ship “Boris Aleksandrov” which will conduct environmental research in the Black Sea and the icebreaker “Noosphere” for studying the world ocean and expeditions to Ukraine’s Antarctic station.

Digitalization

The Ukrainian president praised his Diia initiative, a state app in which citizens have electronic versions of their main documents such as their passport, tax number, driver’s licence, etc. He also announced plans to conduct an electronic census which would eventually lead to electronic voting.

In reality, however, using Diia is both convenient and dangerous at the same time. Stealing electronic documents is easier than paper ones, and there have been privacy concerns regarding Diia.

Regarding the courts

Zelenskyy said that so far, Ukraine has nothing to be proud of regarding the judicial reform, as “we are only at the start of this difficult path.” He noted that Ukraine has adopted the first two laws — on the High Council of Justice and High Qualification Commission of Judges.

On inclusion

Zelenskyy noted that people with disabilities, families raising severely disabled children, and shelters for family violence victims received state support as did children who suffered from explosives, and that Ukraine for the first time introduced the possibility of paternity leave.

International relations

Volodymyr Zelenskyy took pride in Ukraine retaining bipartisan support of the USA, fulfilling 60% of Ukraine’s obligations under the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, and announced he will submit a law to permit dual citizenship to the parliament. The issue of dual citizenship in Ukraine, a country with a great brain drain and where many work abroad as economic migrants, is particularly pertinent, and has been at the focus of the Ukrainian diaspora for years.

 

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