Assessing Zelenskyy’s first 100 days

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyyy

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

It has become customary to assess any new leader after the first 100 days of his or her term. Thus, it would be most appropriate to do so in the case of Ukraine’s newly-elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – especially as he has won an unprecedented landslide for the Presidency, then followed it up with yet another unprecedented landslide in the Parliamentary elections.

Looking back at his first 100 days, our assessment of Zelenskyy is generally positive, although there are some things about which we have misgivings.

Among the positive aspects are Zelenskyy’s new Cabinet of Ministers. Led by Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, a graduate of the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, this cabinet is the youngest in Ukraine’s history and consists mostly of reform-minded technocrats. Along with Honcharuk, four other members are graduates of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a university that follows western academic standards, has received strong support from the Ukrainian Canadian diaspora and maintains partnership agreements with three Canadian universities – the University of Toronto, the University of Manitoba and the University of Western Ontario. Among these are Education Minister Anna Novosad, an alumnus of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program who served as an intern to former Burlington Conservative MP Mike Wallace in 2013, as well as Minister of Health Zoriana Chernenko, Minister of Finance Oksana Markarova, and Minister of Economy, Trade and Agriculture Tymofiy Mylovanov. Honcharuk himself ran the EU-funded nongovernmental organization BRDO that focused on reforms and advised Stepan Kubiv, the first deputy prime minister during ex-President Petro Poroshenko’s administration.

The Foreign Affairs portfolio goes to Vadym Prystaiko, who served as Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister under former Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin, as well as Ukraine’s Ambassador to NATO. He is also a former ambassador to Canada. Before his confirmation, Prystaiko told parliament that Ukraine’s path toward EU and NATO integration would remain unchanged. The new Defense Minister is Andriy Zahorodniuk, an expert on defense reform.

In another welcome move, Zelenskyy succeeded in getting the new Parliament to lift deputies’ immunity from prosecution. Initially intended to protect members of parliament from arbitrary arrest based on political motives, it has instead degenerated into a refuge that allows politicians to engage in corruption and other criminal acts without fear of reprisals. Many presidents have promised to lift this immunity in the past, but Zelenskyy has been the first to deliver.

While lifting immunity is a welcome first step, it is not enough if it doesn’t come with reforms that will guarantee the independence of prosecutors and courts, which has historically been a problem in Ukraine. What is also needed are key reforms to tackle problems like the country’s rickety gas and electricity infrastructure, the nascent state of anti-corruption laws and agencies, and an oligarchic system that has all but dictated policymaking for years.

Zelenskyy’s most recent success was arranging the exchange of 35 Ukrainian prisoners held by the Russian Federation for 35 held by Ukraine. However this too was controversial as the Ukrainian hostages include Oleh Sentsov, a prisoner of conscience who has languished in prison for five years for opposing the Russian annexation of Crimea and 24 sailors arrested when their ship was illegally seized by Russian forces, while the lawfully detained Russians were mostly terrorists including one who is wanted as a “person of interest” in the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 shoot-down that killed 298 people in 2014.

The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) in charge of the MH17 probe, as well as 40 members of the European Parliament, urged Ukraine not to hand over Volodymyr Tsemakh, a 58-year-old former pro-Russian separatist who formerly commanded an air-defense unit in eastern Ukraine, over to Russia, saying they saw him as being a potentially important figure to have in custody.

While Ukrainian authorities did allow Dutch investigators to interrogate Tsemakh prior to the exchange, Zelenskyy says the deal would have fallen through had he not been included. This does present a moral dilemma as to whether the humanitarian considerations of freeing prisoners of conscience and innocent victims from torture and possible death outweigh the consequences of releasing a possible mass murderer.

One aspect that is disturbing is what appears to be a vendetta against members of the former administration. This first surfaced with Zelenskyy’s proposal to expand Ukraine’s lustration law, which was initially passed to exclude members of the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime, to now include members of Poroshenko’s government. This seems to have been dropped after unanimous condemnation by the ambassadors of all G-7 countries to Ukraine, but events since then indicate that some form of retribution is still in the works. One of these is the decision to strip Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko of his powers at the head of the capital city’s state administration. While the citizens of Kyiv elect the mayor, the president appoints and dismisses the head of the Kyiv city administration at the behest of the government. However, the mayor has traditionally held both positions to allow smoother governing of the capital region. Thus, this decision appears to be politically motivated.

Another disturbing development was a court order for Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau to launch a probe against Poroshenko and Klimkin on charges of abuse of power. The case was initiated by an unidentified individual, but suspicion falls on Andriy Portnov, a former deputy head in the administration of Yanukovych, who has returned to Ukraine from self-imposed exile and filed several lawsuits against Poroshenko, accusing him of economic crimes and illegal attempts to retain power, among other things.

If true, the fact that Portnov can not only return to Ukraine without facing any consequences, but actually succeed in initiating a probe against Poroshenko and Klimkin, stands out as a travesty of justice.

One cannot compare the Poroshenko administration which, while not perfect, defended Ukraine against Russia’s military invasion, rescued the economy from near-collapse, put Ukraine on a clear path to reform and pro-western orientation, and achieved recognition of the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with the Yanukovych regime, which was responsible for defrauding the Ukrainian state, human rights abuses and crimes against the people of Ukraine, including mass shootings of peaceful protestors which resulted in the murder of 100 Ukrainian citizens that are today revered as the “Heavenly Hundred”.

Those are the criminals that need to be brought to justice. But arbitrarily settling scores with legitimate political opponents will only create chaos and derail any serious attempts at reform.