Big changes took place in the Ukrainian government last week. President Zelenskyy replaced his Prime Minister and many of his cabinet ministers in dramatic and some say questionable fashion.
Now cabinet shuffles are not uncommon in practicing parliamentary democracies, and mid-term course corrections are a standard practice when results fall short of voter expectations. What is notable in this case is that this is happening not mid-term, but barely six months after this new government was formed. Six months is barely enough time for a newly appointed cabinet minister to get introduced to his staff and learn where the office washroom is. In terms of developing new laws, policies and strategies or implementing significant structural changes in government and the economy, it is but the blink of an eyelash in time. So, what in blazes is going on?
There are two possible explanations, and which one is true depends a lot on whether you are a detractor or supporter of Zelenskyy. The prevalent popular thesis being posited by those who were greatly disappointed when he ascended to power, is that Zelenskyy is and remains a dilettante who understands nothing about how governments and economies function. He appointed a bunch of amateurs to positions of power, expected instant results, and when those did not come about after a mere six months, he gave vent to his impatience and fired them. He has now replaced most of his key ministers with supposedly more experienced ones, although by “experienced” you should read people that have served in previous governments and are therefore of dubious or questionable provenance. The fact that he would appoint politicos from discredited previous governments is therefore further proof of his inexperience and incompetence.
For those of his critics that are conspiratorially inclined, there is also the suggestion that Zelenskyy has finally succumbed to the insidious pressure of the oligarchs that really hold the power in Ukraine, and they are re-inserting their proxies into positions of power so that they can re-establish control once more over the political structures of this country. There are some that take this a step further and are claiming that was the plan all along, and that Zelenskyy was a political Trojan horse planted by Kolomoisky and the other oligarchs in a massive deception inflicted upon the Ukrainian voting public.
On the other side of the political divide, Zelenskyy’s supporters are framing the changes as necessary and timely corrections. Zelenskyy had made a lot of promises during the election to accelerate reform and implement significant changes quickly and decisively. His supporters would now have you believe that six months into these efforts, when he saw that some of these were not unfolding according to his and the electorate’s expectations, he did not hesitate, but made bold corrective changes and put new appointees in place that hopefully would be more effective than their predecessors. He presumably also made sure that the replacements were more experienced and knowledgeable about legislative and governmental processes.
Further, his supporters claim that significant progress has been made in a number of key areas such as privatizing many state industries, passing legislation to enable agricultural land sales, cleaning up the prosecutorial system, and stabilizing the economy. Events of the past few months have identified some bumps on the road to change, but the direction remains unchanged.
So, what is fact and what is spin-mastering? Is the Ukrainian cup half full or half empty? I wish I had the wisdom to render knowledgeable judgment on this, but I must admit I don’t. I still have more questions than answers, and Ukrainian politics remains as murky as ever to not only me, but many experts who are following what is going on in Ukraine. I have in the past too readily joined the bandwagon when a “saviour” like Yushchenko or Poroshenko appeared, and was disappointed in the end when the hope and promise they raised fell far short of expectations when it came to executing their mandates. I have become far more sceptical and cautious in analyzing political developments in Ukraine.
One thing I am sure of is that Zelenskyy is now on a short leash as far as Ukrainians are concerned. His popular support is starting to erode as his efforts are falling short of people’s expectations, be they unrealistic or not. This cabinet reshuffle will buy him a little more time, but it comes with the expenditure of a lot of his political capital and goodwill both domestically and internationally. If six months down the road there is still not sufficient tangible progress, particularly on the anti-corruption front, the slide in popularity could easily turn into a plunge, and his ability to even complete his term in office will be in serious jeopardy.