Last week, the head of the National Bank of Ukraine, Yakiv Smolii, resigned, citing systemic political pressure that made it impossible for him to do his job properly. In itself, the resignation was nothing new. He was but the latest in a long line of young reformist politicians that have quit President Zelenskiy’s government over the past year, disillusioned and disappointed with the lack of leadership, support and commitment to the reformist, anti-corruption agenda that was so highly touted by Zelenskiy when he was first elected. Methinks though, that this may be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and will mark the beginning of the end of what was once such a hopeful dream that Ukraine might finally escape from the sordid, post-Soviet, oligarchic system that has plagued it since independence. Events of the past six to nine months have shown that whether it be by design or incompetence, the Zelenskiy dream is, if not dead, then terminally ill.
When Zelenskiy first came to power, I too was swept up with hope and enthusiasm that finally a new generation of Ukrainians might finally be able to escape the homo sovieticus mindset, and create the civil and just society that Ukrainians have craved for centuries. I did have some reservations about Zelenskiy’s previous business connections, his lack of political experience and a very hastily thrown together party structure and ideology. Nonetheless, considering Ukraine’s recent past, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. His overwhelming electoral victory, large majority in Parliament and strong public popularity certainly endowed him with all the power and support that he would need to make rapid and significant changes to the corruption infested administrative and economic structures that have kept Ukraine from realizing its true potential.
Alas, after more than a year, Ukraine is very little further ahead than it was when he came into power. Corruption still rules in the courts of Ukraine, all the unresolved injustices of the past remain unresolved, the prosecutorial system is focused on political persecution of political opponents rather than going after the criminal elements, the government is still full of Yanukovich era pilfercrats, competent government officials are being replaced on the basis of cronyism rather than talent, the oligarchs are still running amok, and both Ukraine’s citizenry as well as its foreign supporters and creditors are losing their trust in Zelenskiy and questioning his ability to govern.
On this last point, Smolii’s departure will likely have significant negative consequences. Smolii and his predecessor at the national bank, Valeria Hontareva, had been highly effective in cleaning up Ukraine’s banking system from the predations of the oligarchs, and were instrumental in stabilizing the strength of Ukraine’s currency, the Hryvnia, as well as securing IMF financial support. Both were highly respected within the international financial community. The departure of both of them was likely the result of political machinations on the part of some powerful oligarchs, and in particular, Zelenskiy’s former boss Ihor Kolomoisky.
It is highly unlikely that Zelenskiy will be able to replace Smolii with a credible alternative. Anyone capable would have second thoughts about accepting such a demanding a challenging role with such little guarantee of the independence, transparency and political support that the job requires. Zelenskii has pretty well used up nearly all his political capital and credibility, and really does not appear to know what he is doing.
No doubt, this will renew a lot of the debate as to whether he was just a Trojan horse or puppet with oligarchic masters, or alternatively, that his naivete and lack of political knowledge and experience have been exposed in the incompetent and amateurish way he has governed since his election. Whichever proves to be true, the end result is the same – another failed dream.
This reinforces the reality that building a fair and just society and nation, is not an easy or rapid process. As we know, the American Revolution of 1776 did not immediately lead to America’s success as a democratic nation. It took more than a century and a Civil War for significant equality, human rights and justice to be implemented. After the French Revolution, it took almost a century as well until a functioning and stable democratic republic was established. More than a century after the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia is still a failed state run by a dictator.
How long will it take Ukraine to become a successful, independent nation? Hopefully, with the intelligence, talent and determination that exists in the country, it will not take a century, but will happen in my lifetime.