Can Ukraine afford to give Zelenskiy another blank cheque?

Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Marco Levytsky, Western Bureau Chief.

Since his inauguration two weeks ago, Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has wasted no time in setting out his agenda. His inaugural speech received positive comments from most pundits.

“He set the right priorities for the short term: early elections, the abolition of parliamentary immunity, new electoral law, and a new law on illicit enrichment. These issues must be on the immediate agenda to go through the Rada,” Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council told Melinda Haring, Editor of the Council’s Ukraine Alert blog.

“Zelenskyy left the gate galloping. He well knows that his extraordinarily large mandate has an expiration date – possibly even less than 100 days – and that he must deliver some key accomplishments while voter approval is still high. It’s a politically savvy move to go for the maximum while the election halo is still above him,” noted Michael Bociurkiw, international affairs expert and former spokesman to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine in that same blog.

Indeed, when Zelenskyy failed to get his electoral reform through parliament he called early elections, set for July 21, instead of October 27 as originally scheduled. The constitutional legitimacy of this call is questionable as the governing coalition had just fallen apart and under law the Rada needed 30 days to form a new one, during which period an election could not be called. However, deputies were in no mood to challenge this call, owing to his landslide victory in the presidential elections. And indeed. Zelenskyy’s new party “Servant of the People” named after the popular TV show which propelled him into power is also headed for a landslide victory. It is running at about 40% in opinion polls, but since only about four to five parties are likely to cross the 5% minimum threshold, that 40% may quite likely turn into a majority in the proportional vote. And while independents tend to dominate the single-mandate districts, they have historically joined whichever party is in power, so Zelenskyy is quite likely to attain an outright majority for his own party– something that has never happened before in the history of independent Ukraine. And herein lies the problem.

Voters still don’t know exactly where Zelenskyy stands on the issues. He avoided interviews during his campaign, in fact he avoided traditional campaigning altogether, relying almost totally on presenting the fictional character he portrayed in his television show as his real-life persona. Nevertheless, he was handed a blank cheque by Ukraine’s voters and is quite likely to be handed yet another blank cheque in the Rada elections. That’s a huge concentration of power for one individual.

Aside from his inaugural speech, Zelenskyy has also received kudos for deftly finessing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer of Russian citizenship to Ukrainians by his own offer of Ukrainian citizenship not only to Russians seeking freedom, but to all Ukrainians abroad who may wish to help the country develop into a prosperous and stable democracy. Ukrainians understand that Russian citizenship means “the right to be arrested for peaceful protests,” and “the right not to have free and competitive elections,” Zelenskyy wrote in a backhanded Facebook slap to Putin on April 27. “It’s the right to basically forget all rights and freedoms,” he added. “Ukraine’s difference, in particular, is in the fact that we, Ukrainians, have freedom of speech in our country, free media and Internet.”

But actions speak louder than words and some of his appointments have raised concerns. Topping this list is Zelenskyy’s choice for his chief of staff – Andriy Bohdan, the personal lawyer for oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. This immediately raised questions about Zelenskyy’s ties with Kolomoisky who runs the television channel that broadcasts Zelenskyy’s show, financed Zelenskyy’s campaign and is accused of defrauding Privatbank of C$7.3 billion before its nationalization in 2016. Kolomoisky, who spent the last three years in self-imposed exile in Switzerland and Israel, returned to Ukraine just before Zelenskyy’s inauguration.

What’s more, critics says Bohdan’s appointment was not just politically suspect but also illegal, as he had held government posts under the Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych ousted during the Revolution of Dignity. Those who served under Yanukovych are now banned by law from taking certain top positions.

“Zelenskyy violated the law,” said MP Yehor Sobolev, one of the authors of the legislation. The president “puts himself above the law and shows the whole country his true attitude to the rule of law,” added Tetyana Kozachenko, who was also behind the legislation.

Another suspect appointment is that of Dmytro Razumkov, whom Zelenskyy chose to head his parliamentary bloc. Razumkov too is a former member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

In calling for early elections, Zelenskyy takes his cue from French President Emmanuel Macron, who used the momentum of his 66 – 34% victory over far-right extremist Marine Le Pen in the second round of that country’s 2017 presidential election to gain an absolute majority in the parliamentary elections just a little over a month later. Like Zelenskyy, Macron was relatively unknown at the time, and like Zelenskyy he was the youngest person to assume the presidency of his country. In fact, both are the same age right now – 41.

But Macron’s honeymoon with French voters has ended very abruptly. Around 70% of French voters now disapprove of his performance and his policies have sparked a populist revolt called the yellow vests movement. The protests have involved demonstrations and the blocking of roads and fuel depots, some of which developed into major riots described as the most violent since those of May 1968.

Aside from the personal similarities between Zelenskyy and Macron, there are also some very notable political similarities between Ukraine and France. For one thing, both are presidential republics, in contrast to the rest of Europe where parliamentary systems, whether they fall under republics or constitutional monarchies, prevail. For another, both countries have a proud revolutionary tradition. Should Zelenskyy fail to live up to expectations, the citizens of Ukraine may yet initiate a third Maidan.

We hope not and we wish the president all the best. But Zelenskyy himself must be aware of the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It will be up to him to prove that he really is the servant of the people and not the servant of oligarch Kolomoisky.