The View From Here: Election hangovers

Volodymyr Kish.

As we all know, Petro Poroshenko lost the Presidential election in Ukraine last year by an overwhelming majority to newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The reasons for his loss are also fairly clear. Despite having done many commendable and progressive things during his term in office, he failed to address the issue that was most painful to the Ukrainian electorate, namely the endemic corruption brought about by an oligarchic controlled state. Though he himself might have been a relatively altruistic oligarch, nonetheless, he was seen as helping perpetuate a state of affairs in Ukraine that the people were not prepared to condone any longer. Voters were willing to take the risk of electing a neophyte rather than endure the same old, same old.

Although Zelenskyy won a clear-cut victory, one of the consequences of the campaign and its aftermath, is that Ukraine has become increasingly polarized politically. If you were a Poroshenko supporter, then likely you will see Zelenskyy as an incompetent clown at best, or a traitor and/or Russian stooge at worst. There seems to be no middle ground and little desire on the part of those that did not vote for him to consider “let’s wait and see what he does before we judge him too harshly.”

As for Poroshenko, he seems to be behaving as if the election has not ended. The media and the internet in particular are rife with pro-Poroshenko promotional PR, portraying him as an “ideal” President, a hero, the saviour of Ukraine, a consummate and extremely competent professional (in contrast to Zelenskyy being a “buffoon”), etc. etc. Poroshenko has not gone quietly into honourable retirement, but appears to be making an early start for the next run at the Presidency. Of course, as one of Ukraine’s wealthiest men, he can afford to finance a large scale, professionally managed political campaign anytime he wants to.

I should make it clear that I am neither a Zelenskyy supporter nor Poroshenko critic, but am trying to view what is going on in Ukraine from as impartial and fair a perspective as possible. It is true that Poroshenko was more competent, professional and progressive than any of his predecessors. One could argue that Yushchenko was a more honest and true reformer, but regrettably, he was lacking in key political skills and shrewdness, and was outmaneuvered by his more ruthless opponents. In any case, Poroshenko badly misread the priorities and issues that were most troubling to Ukrainians in 2019, and he paid the price for it, though he is now having a difficult time accepting the outcome.

As for what Zelenskyy has done since taking office, the picture continues to remain somewhat murky. There have been some real positives. He did stand up to Putin at the Minsk Accord talks in Paris, refusing to make any concessions and standing firm on the return of seized lands before agreeing to anything. His government’s handling of the economy has been fairly impressive. GDP has grown 3.75% over the past year, the Hryvnia has increased in value by almost 20% against the US$, inflation has been reduced to around 5%, average salaries have gone up about 10% and government debt has decreased substantially. There has been significant progress in several government sectors, including the National Bank, the Prosecutor General’s Office, government decentralization, and the privatization of certain government owned enterprises.

Offsetting this has been a disappointing lack of progress in reforming the law enforcement, legal and court systems, the SBU and the implementation of land sales. A corollary to this is that, despite the fact that fighting corruption was a major plank in Zelenskyy’s campaign, his efforts in this area have been particularly disappointing. Not a single high-level government official, politician or oligarch has been brought to justice since he took office. Doing so is obviously proving to be much harder than Zelenskyy may have believed. The crooks are so deeply entrenched and have so much wealth and power, that it will take far more determination and effort than what Zelenskyy and his crew have shown thus far. According to many knowledgeable observers, a major contributing factor to this is the continued presence of a very shady Arsen Avakov in the key post of Interior Minister.

I would guess that a lot of the lack of progress in implementing needed reforms is due in large part to Zelnskyy and his team being slow in coming up the learning curve on how governing works. We know that most of his supporters elected to Parliament last year were political newcomers, with no experience in governance. He does however, have access to a lot of expertise, both within Ukraine as well as internationally. He should use it, as well as accelerating the pace of making badly needed changes. Theoretically, he has all the political power he needs. He must now show the discipline, willpower and spine to use it.