Zelensky’s Do-or-Die Moment8 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Editorial, Politics
The last few weeks show that Volodymyr Zelensky is losing his grip on power. What went wrong for Ukraine’s charismatic president?

On 26 November, Zelensky held a 5-hour press conference in which he claimed that the Kremlin was preparing to stage a coup in Ukraine on December 1st and 2nd, supported by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov and led by “an FSB officer and three Ukrainian defectors.” He also downplayed the Russian military buildup around Ukraine’s borders and tried to deflect criticism on ‘Wagnergate’, the botched intelligence operation to capture 33 mercenaries of the Wagner Private Military Company in 2020. The press conference was only announced the day before it happened, and instead of the usual press accreditation process, the presidential office invited 32 handpicked journalists. Uninvited reporters held a small protest outside of the venue, but those inside questioned Zelensky to the point of irritation.

How did Zelensky go from a charismatic and media-savvy presidential candidate to an unpopular president trying to save face by holding an exclusive press conference? Recent events highlight how Zelensky has been under pressure for a long time and cannot cope with the current multitude of crises facing his presidency.

During his election campaign, Zelensky’s two biggest selling points were his emphasis on national unity and his claim to be a political outsider, despite having ties to Ihor Kolomoysky, one of the country’s most powerful oligarchs. Using his TV-series Servant of the People, he crafted an image that set himself apart from then-President Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch and political veteran who had become increasingly engaged in polarising discourse about Ukrainian national identity. Zelensky represented a fresh face and won an unprecedented 73% of the votes in the 2019 presidential election. His party then went on to win 254 out of 450 seats in the subsequent parliamentary election. Never before has a president had such a strong mandate to push for change and fulfil the ideals of Euromaidan.

He immediately announced ambitious reform plans. A High Anti-Corruption Court (established shortly before Zelensky’s election) began its work and the National Agency on Corruption Prevention was relaunched. In June 2020, a law was passed that prevented the return of the Privatbank to its former owner Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who backed Zelensky’s election with positive coverage on his TV channel 1+1. More recently, Zelensky signed an anti-oligarch law which created a legal definition for an oligarch as well as a register of them, and requires government officials to publicly declare their contacts with oligarchs. Upon signing the law, Zelensky stated that “There can be no other option but to dismantle the oligarchic system. Without this, it is simply impossible to overcome poverty in Ukraine and fully join the European community.”

Regarding the war in Donbas, the situation also looked hopeful at first as Zelensky reignited dialogue about the future status of the region and brokered several prisoner exchanges. While this meant the homecoming of people like filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and journalist Stanyslav Aseyev, critics pointed to the exchange of several riot police officers suspected of shooting at a protest during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. At any rate, the lines of communication between Russia and Ukraine picked up again.

Two years later, Zelensky faces public disillusionment. He is dealing with – and failing to solve – many of the same problems of his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, from the omnipresent influence of oligarchs to Russian disrespect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and the need to balance several national crises at once. Despite his initial enthusiasm for reform, much has also gone wrong, especially in the fight against corruption. To name a few major failures, unqualified judges are frequently nominated as much-needed judicial reforms stall and important corruption cases are disrupted, and the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office has failed to appoint a head for over a year because members of the selection committee failed to turn up. As a consequence of such developments, key pillars of Ukraine’s relationship with the West are under pressure. In late 2020 and early 2021, the IMF refused to give its large financial disbursements to Ukraine, citing a lack of structural reforms. Around the same time, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on its Association Agreement with Ukraine, criticising a lack of political will for reforms.

In Donbas, Zelensky faces the same reality as Poroshenko – it is impossible to negotiate a peaceful resolution with Putin if he refuses to accept Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and denies any Russian involvement in the war. Instead of moving toward a resolution of the conflict, the last few weeks have seen an increasing number of concerning reports about a Russian military buildup near the Ukrainian border. This is not the first time such alarms have been raised, but there are now concrete fears that Russian forces are ready to respond to any ‘Ukrainian provocation’. The threat is significant enough that Joe Biden met with Vladimir Putin to warn about the consequences of a Russian offensive against Ukraine. The American President announced that he “would respond with strong economic and other measures” if a Russian military offensive took place. Meanwhile, around 125,000 Ukrainian troops are now deployed in Donbas, ready to defend their country.

More recent crises, such as the fight against COVID, painfully lay bare the shortcomings of Ukrainian healthcare and the social benefit systems: many Ukrainians simply cannot afford to stay home or maintain social distance, and the country initially lagged far behind its neighbours in terms of access to vaccines. Although vaccines are now more widely available, vaccine scepticism and public attacks by politicians on the quality of available vaccines led Zelensky to offer a cash incentive of 1,000 hryvnias (around 37 US dollars) for vaccination. The extent of the current crisis can be partly attributed to a lack of investment in healthcare over the past decades, something Zelensky is not directly responsible for but now has to deal with.

A range of scandals over the past months places Zelensky under more criticism than ever. Protests erupted when Bellingcat reported that a special operation to capture members of the Wagner PMC was halted by Andriy Yermak, the Head of the Presidential Administration and a former business partner of Zelensky’s in the film industry. More recently, Zelensky and Yermak made headlines when they reportedly used a State Emergency Services helicopter to fly to Yermak’s 50th birthday party, held in a state-owned dacha in Ivano-Frankivsk. Allies of oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi were also reportedly in attendance.

Zelensky’s choice

Where does all this pressure leave Zelensky? Now that his power and image are being questioned, he can either try to show that he can be a strong leader in times of crisis, or turn his critics into scapegoats to distract from his own failures. His announcement of a Russian-backed coup appears to fall into the latter category, as Zelensky may be trying to link his most prominent enemies to a dangerous-sounding coup attempt. By name-dropping Rinat Akhmetov as a possible ally of the defectors, Zelensky is also continuing his war on oligarchs. This war has already seen the television channels of Putin-ally Viktor Medvedchuk blocked, court cases launched against former president Petro Poroshenko, and a recent public statement from Zelensky’s party against Rinat Akhmetov’s television channels, but Zelensky does not treat all oligarchs equally. The Pandora Papers show that Zelensky and some of his key allies received around 40  million US dollars from companies associated with Ihor Kolomoysky since 2012. Zelensky’s selective treatment of oligarchs diminishes the legitimacy of his anti-oligarch and pro-reform rhetoric and suggests that the power of oligarchs will only be challenged if they are a direct threat to Zelensky’s interests. One of the major obstacles to a more equal treatment of oligarchs is their control of media channels: if Zelensky wages war on an oligarch, that oligarch’s media channels quickly launch a media offensive against the President and cause his public support to decline.

In his efforts to manage the ongoing crisis and create an image of progress, Zelensky has also reshuffled a great deal of his political staff: Dmytro Razumkov, the speaker of the parliament and ally of Zelensky, was removed from his post in October after a falling out with the President, and two Deputy Prime Ministers were replaced in November. By reshuffling posts, Zelensky may be hoping to keep a firm grip on power, but these moves also reinforce the sentiment that if he does not manage to positively resolve at least some of the currently ongoing crises, the remainder of his term may be remembered very unfavourably. With his initial momentum almost gone, Zelensky is increasingly forced to fight uphill political battles.

Zelensky’s inexperience and inability to adequately tackle the multitude of ongoing crises translates into a weak position for Ukraine on the international stage. It will test the patience of Ukraine’s partners as they support the country in the fight against a Russian military threat, COVID, and endemic corruption. As opinion polls and an increasing number of protests are showing, the electorate’s patience is also wearing very thin.

With the threat of war looming overhead and public discontent rising, this is a decisive moment for Zelensky to put his words into action and show that he has transformed from a comedian and businessman into a strong leader and politician. Despite the enormity of the tasks ahead of him, his actions so far have not been convincing.

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