The View From Here: Losing steam

Volodymyr Kish.

It has been a year since Volodymyr Zelenskyy took over as President of Ukraine amidst great hopes and expectations from his young supporters that finally Ukraine would turn the corner, shed itself of the corrupt, oligarchic system that had been stifling the country’s nationalist and economic aspirations, and finally join the European brotherhood of modern, prosperous and democratic nations. That dream, by and large, still remains a dream.

Last week, the major oligarch-controlled TV networks in Ukraine aired a “glowing” review of Zelenskyy’s accomplishments in his first year in office. Few people bought into this transparent piece of propaganda. Zelenskyy’s popularity is continuing to erode as the realization is beginning to sink in that Zelenskyy may talk a good game, but it seems that he does not know how to turn campaign promises into action and concrete results. His programs and action plans were a kilometre wide, but just a centimetre deep. To make things worse, he seems to be acquiring some of the bad habits and counterproductive tactics of his predecessors.

A case in point has been his efforts in the anti-corruption arena. Ukraine’s long-suffering electorate expected Zelenskyy and his government to aggressively go after the corrupt elite that has been holding Ukraine’s economy and political structures hostage for the past several decades. In the last few months, there have indeed been some high-profile investigations and police raids as the SBU and the Prosecutor’s office have gone after some high profile targets. Are they finally bringing some of the notorious oligarchs and corrupt high-level officials to justice?

I am afraid not. Instead they have been going after the likes of Tetyana Chornovol, Sofia Fedyna and Petro Poroshenko. Tetyana Chornovol was a hero of the Maidan and has been a dogged anti-corruption activist in the years since. Sofia Fedyna is a deputy in Ukraine’s Parliament from Western Ukraine, and a prominent critic of Zelenskyy and his government. Petro Poroshenko is, as we know, the former President and Zelenskyy’s chief rival. Zelenskyy is using the state’s prosecutorial and judicial system not to root out crime and corruption, but to undermine his political critics and rivals. It would seem that his sense of political ethics and justice is no better than that of disgraced former President Yanukovych.

The other area of major disappointment has been in the conspicuous lack of basic competence in running the machinery of government. During his campaign, Zelenskyy promised to appoint a new, younger generation of competent technocrats, who would focus on efficiency, transparency and results. No more political appointments based on nepotism or dubious credentials. In fact, although there were some questionable choices in his first appointments to cabinet, there was some indication that he was indeed following through on his intentions. That, too, did not last. His first cabinet lasted barely six months, before many of the promising new “talents” were either summarily dismissed or quit in frustration. The common feedback seemed to be that Zelenskyy did not really understand the complexities of government and was in over his head. Even members of his own ruling party in the Verkhovna Rada are beginning to voice their discontent, and cracks are appearing in his political support base.

A sure sign that Zelenskyy is struggling comes from latest news out of Ukraine this past week that the President intends to appoint Mikheil Saakashvili to the post of Deputy Prime Minister responsible for reform. This smacks of desperation and I am sure will go down in the annals of history as a glorified PR stunt.

Saakashvili earned his spurs as a reformist in his native country of Georgia after the demise of the Soviet Union. One cannot deny that he did clean up on a lot of corruption in Georgia, though his methodology and obdurate persona led to no shortage of criticism before he was deposed and exiled by his fellow countrymen. Former Ukrainian President and one-time friend Petro Poroshenko, made Saakashvili Governor of Odesa in an attempt to clean out that notorious den of corruption, but although Saakashvili was quite good at garnering a lot of media attention, he was singularly unsuccessful in his efforts to clean up Odesa. Saakashvili is undoubtedly a strong personality, but he is a one-man show and I do not see him fitting in very comfortably into the rest of Zelenskyy’s “team” in the Cabinet. I see a lot of sound and fury and media attention in the coming months, punctuated eventually with another inglorious exit from the public scene.

In my view, the Zelenskyy experiment is currently in deep trouble, with the health of his government and his political programs on “life support.” After a year in office, there is no real sense that the President is in control or knows what he is doing. Although a number of commendable initiatives were launched, few have reached a positive conclusion, and his regime is now showing some of the same sins and bad habits as those of his predecessors. He still has several years left in his mandate, and could still turn things around, but there is growing and justifiable fear that he has no idea of how to do just that.