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15 May, 2019  ▪  Andriy Holub

Zelenskiy’s “We”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the election but he’s still being mysterious about his team, promising “new faces.” This is nothing new in Ukraine’s history, and new hasn’t always meant better

Ukraine’s newly-elected president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has already demonstrated one typical trait: in public speeches, he often refers to himself in the plural. “We will work in the Normandy Format...” or “We would like very much to reduce the Presidential Administration.” These are statements that he made the evening after the second round of voting. Of course, this mannerism could be simply a rhetorical flourish. After all, Zelenskiy has made it clear that he depends on a strong team. At the same time, when journalists have asked about his first appointments, he has so far remained silent and keeps moving the timeframe back. At first, he promise to name potential candidates prior to the second round. Now Zelenskiy has suggested that proposed a major press briefing where he will “answer everything.” However, he hasn’t specified a date for that, either. He is surrounded by many individuals, but their responsibilities and status are often vague, so his mysterious “we” has begun to take on an almost mystical meaning.

Way back in 2006, Leonid Chernovetskiy sensationally won the mayoral election in Kyiv. He outdid boxer-cum-politician Vitaliy Klitschko and the long-term previous boss of the capital, Oleksandr Omelchenko. At the time, the little-known Chernovetskiy won his campaign using an innovative approach. Instead of the kinds of promises that his opponents were offering, he organized the mass distribution of baskets of food. He was hardly the inventor of vote-buying politics, but no one had ever done it on a mass scale in a city of several million. His mayorship became memorable mainly for two memes—the “Chernovetskiy Grannies” and “My young team and I”—and ended in disgrace. Chernovetskiy ended up resigning from office when the Party of the Regions came to power. This ignominious end was preceded by years of abuse with the allocation of land parcels and land use on a scale not yet seen in the country’s capital.

Zelenskiy outdid the former mayor of Kyiv, jumping into the presidential seat right off the bat. However, they do seem to have a lot in common. Like Chernovetskiy, Zelenskiy won because voters were tired of old faces and because he ran a smart, untypical campaign. Where Chernovetskiy thought pensioners were behind his victory, Zelenskiy’s opponents blame his victory on young people. Obviously this is hardly the whole story in either of these victories. The second thing that they have in common is their announcements about their teams. “We will appoint new faces,” said the winner on April 21. He should take a good look at Chernovetskiy’s young team to make sure that his “new faces” don’t turn into just another meme. 

At the same time, there’s nothing to take offense at in the future president’s statements. Ukrainians really are ready for new faces in politics, so this kind of wish is understandable. The problem lies in the criteria that will be guiding the selection of candidates for various key posts. Based on the reactions in the candidate’s campaign headquarters to the many questions put forth by reporters, two conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, Zelenskiy will be guided by the reputation of potential appointees. In other words, any person who wants to work with the new president will have to be someone whose past deeds or misdeeds will not harm Zelenskiy’s ratings. Secondly, there is only one path to the first requirement in Ukraine: future appointees can never have held a Category A government post.

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For that reason, it’s unlikely that people from Viktor Yanukovych’s circles will return to power any time soon, although the press has already managed to scare plenty of voters with this possibility. During the campaign, some of these individuals expressed their personal support for Zelenskiy, with the most vocal of these being former Justice Minister Olena Lukash and former Chief-of-Staff Andriy Portnov. However, it’s hard to imagine that they might return to power, even from the point of practicality. The input of Yanukovych’s former minions is not worth the reputational losses they would bring Zelenskiy were they to join his team. What’s more, the impossibility of an overt collaboration was obvious in the swift reaction of the Ze-HQ to the congratulations of Viktor Yanukovych himself. They responded that they did not need the support of people from the inner circles of a fugitive president and hinted that this was inspired by their opponents.

Similarly, any open cooperation with current politicians is also unlikely, at least until the Verkhovna Rada election this fall. Zelenskiy absolutely needs to maintain his image as an anti-establishment politician. Any alliance he forms now will immediately reduce his chances of gaining the biggest possible parliamentary faction, especially as the field of anti-establishment players is likely to grow significantly more competitive. Nevertheless, Zelenskiy will have to communicate with both the Rada and the Government in order to make those policies that are necessary for him, as he most certainly cannot survive until the fall without making any policy decisions. And here is where the main risks lie—not so much for Zelenskiy as for the country itself.

The thing is that Ukraine could very well find itself with a presidential team “for show” and another operating in the shadows. The first one will include the advisers and appointees to key posts that belong to the president: the FM, the DM and the Chief-of-Staff. The second one will be those who have no official post but will be responsible for all the backroom horse-trading. This can easily be formulated as what matters is not the office but the influence, a situation that is very typical in a country like Ukraine where weak institutions are compensated for by force of verbal agreements. This was often the case with the current Head of State, Petro Poroshenko who, despite the limitations of his constitutional powers as president was able to influence nearly all political processes because of personal connections. Zelenskiy has neither the influence nor the necessary connections and so he may decide to depend on someone more experienced.

There was some indication of this kind of behavior even before the election. Zelenskiy stubbornly denied any relationship with Ihor Kolomoyskiy, other than business ones. But his HQ avoided mentioning the presence of Andriy Bohdan, a lawyer who once worked as a consultant for the oligarch and one-time Governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Bohdan insists that he and Zelenskiy have been friends for years and he himself is nothing more than a legal consultant. Still, his frequent presence at closed meetings of the staff and his constant support of Zelenskiy during key moments of the campaign testify to his substantial role. Journalists suspect that this means there is constant contact with Kolomoyskiy.

Yet another, similar story appeared just before the election. According to the publicationLiviy Bereh, an MP from the Vidrodzhenniagroup, Valeriy Pysarenko, announced among colleagues that he was going to be the future presidential representative in the Rada. Officially, neither his staff nor Zelenskiy himself have confirmed this, but neither have they directly denied it. Pysarenko is linked to Portnov and was considered the overseer of the court system under Yanukovych. Their purpose could be to collaborate to arrange a snap VR election. Immediately after the election, Pysarenko raised the question of dismissing Speaker Andriy Parubiy.

The issue of lawyers in Zelenskiy’s circle is another subject altogether. In addition to Bohdan, the law firm of Hillmont Partners seems to have considerable influence. It has seconded at least three individuals to the future president’s team: Serhiy Nyzhniy, who Ze-staff leader Ivan Bakanov says took part in writing the platform; Vadym Halaichuk, Zelenskiy’s proxy at the CEC; and Serhiy Kalchenko, an export on electoral law and European human rights standards in the public Zelenskiy team. Hillmont Partners are open about the fact that they are the 95 Kvartal law firm and supposedly there’s nothing wrong with that. Zelenskiy is surrounding himself with people whom he trust, and truthfully none of them have been known for graft or embezzlement.

The problem is with unforeseeable behavior after the election. Companies like Hillmont are closely affiliated with other businesses and that raises the temptation to primarily promote their clients’ interests. For instance, the third partner, together with Nyzhniy and Halaichuk is James Hart, whose clients include UK-based Farston Energy. Dnipro Mayor Borys Filatov said this company was a possible contractor to build a waste recycling plant in the city, although the company was established not that long ago. The director of the Ukrainian subsidiary, TOV Farston Energy, is the same James Hart. Of course, this could be some kind of legal strategy to protect the British investors. Hart is also connected to the business of two other British citizens Neil Smith and Jonathan Wale, the owner and the general manager of the Crimean Vodka Company, with assets on the occupied peninsula. The point is not these connections themselves, but the fact that lawyers who work for commercial entities will always be tempted to promote the interests of their clients through their access to the president. And this is the weakest link in the legal chainmail that Zelenskiy has securely wrapped himself in. 

The “façade” team of the future president looks a lot more attractive. They were named individually prior to the election on the show Pravo na vladu, on Kolomoyskiy’s 1+1 channel. Most of them are people who have earned a reputation as anti-corruption reformers, teachers and experts. Still, the likelihood is that most of them will end up being outside advisors to the president or headliners in the future party lists of Sluha Narody[Servant of the People] in the fall elections, which will also need a “façade.” The position of the highest-profile individual in the group, Oleksandr Danyliuk, testifies to this probability. The press was busy calling him the future Foreign Minister but the day of the election, Danyliuk himself denied that he was likely to be appointed.

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Another example is Mykhailo Fedorov, the declared digital expert. This is one of the key components of the Zelenskiy platform. The politician’s entire image was build around the idea of the “smartphone country.” However, Fedorov himself has not been able to clearly state what his role in the future team will be. “As Volodymyr said nothing has been decided about who will work where,” he told reporters on April 21. “That’s why it’s hard for me to talk about this. I know that I will do everything I can to make sure the digital strategy that we have developed becomes a reality. But whether I will do this somewhere in the civil service? Unlikely as that’s my business... We have people who are running major IT companies with thousands of employees. They are prepared to leave their operations component and begin to institute this at the national level. There are others who have been working on iGov for a long time already. We are launching social elevators and we have to think how we should do it so that it all works. More than likely, I will consult and assist.” 

Launching the social elevators that Fedorov talked about would be a real achievement for President Zelenskiy—with one caveat: potentially important. In his time, Chernovetskiy also used social lifts to raise up people who turned around and destroyed faith in the very idea of changing faces in government. So it’s time for Zelenskiy to establish this mechanism through concrete steps and properly weighed policies. While keeping mum helped him during the election campaign after April 21 the situation is the opposite. Every new day increases the number of rumors, problems deferred, and, most likely, jockeying for position among his partners. Time to start thinking a little more quickly, Mr. Zelenskiy.


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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