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23 June, 2019  ▪  Andriy Holub

Master of improvisation

The new President’s first steps create quite a few potential problems for himself first and foremost. Potential successes are harder to see

Intense activity. This phrase best describes Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s first steps. His first week started with the inauguration speech and ended with arguments about the smell of food in Kyiv on social media triggered by his greetings on the Day of Kyiv. News came plenty to fill both political and tabloid newsfeeds. What was far more difficult to see in this whirlwind of developments was the course of the new President, if there is any.

“My first draft law is about people’s power,” is the quote from his platform as candidate for presidency. “Together, we will record a mechanism in it with which only the people of Ukraine will shape the key tasks for the government through referenda and other forms of direct democracy.” His other first proposed draft laws mentioned in the platform and promises from his team include bills on impeachment, lifting of immunity from all those in power and revoking mandates from MPs. In fact, the first two bills sponsored under Zelenskiy’s signature were about the snap election he called. One was purely technical on public procurements for the election period. Another one was on the change of the election system to the proportional system with closed party lists. The President’s team presented this as a product of compromise with the rest of MPs. Eventually, this product of compromise gained 92 votes in favor out of 226 necessary for it to pass. 

Here are a few more quotes. “My key task is to bring to power patriotic specialists with integrity,” Zelenskiy wrote in his platform. “Don’t worry. We will have no nepotism,” he told the journalists of the Schemes: Corruption in Detail, an investigative show, still as candidate. 

“We have said this before and are saying this still – there is some risk for people between the first and the second round, and even after the second round. If we mention any of the current officers as future minister of defense or chief of headquarters now, they may not stay in service until the inauguration. You know this well. Special services and career diplomats know this too,” said Dmytro Razumkov, head of Zelenskiy’s election office, about why they have not yet disclosed their future key appointments. 

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In his first week in office, Zelenskiy broke one of his promises on the draft laws, and partly walked away from the second one on appointments. Two earlier broken promises from his team were to present candidates for the key appointments and publish the texts of the first draft laws by the second round. 

All this can be brushed off as insignificant. Firstly, Zelenskiy never quit the idea of people’s power or any of his other proposals. He only forgot to mention the impeachment law in his inauguration speech. The referendum idea gained a new significance after the newly-appointed Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan spoke about asking people about negotiations with Russia. Ruslan Stefanchuk, the President’s envoy to the Verkhovna Rada, claims that the text of the bill is ready. The problem is that he said the same thing before the second round, and it has not yet been submitted for public discussion.  

There is no nepotism in the appointments. At least nobody has found any public evidence to prove the opposite. What we have instead is appointments of a friend from childhood, many people from the Kvartal 95 show and the Chief of Staff appointed against the lustration law. It is difficult to criticize Zelenskiy for appointing his closest people in his Administration. The mere name of the entity implies that this is about the President’s personal apparatus and the organization of his work. But the Presidential Administration gained a shadow role during the years of independence. If it remains the platform for backdoor deals, the society will know about this very soon. Otherwise, these appointments will not really matter that much. But the arbitrary interpretation of the law in the appointment of Bohdan is a far more disturbing factor.  

In terms of its appointments, Zelenskiy’s team can be criticized for something else. Are there many “patriotic specialists with integrity” among the new officials who would have faced “repressions” by the predecessors if they had been disclosed as candidates for their positions during the election campaign? In fact, just two people can come under this category. One is Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to NATO until recently and Deputy Chief of Staff now, and Ruslan Khomchak, the new Chief of the General Staff and Chief of Staff with the Ground Forces before that. Another case is for Olena Zerkal, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs responsible for all international courts against Russia under Poroshenko’s presidency. She was first appointed Deputy Chief of Staff for Zelenskiy, only to publicly reject that proposal later.   

One appointment stands out of Zelenskiy’s first people: Ivan Bakanov for Deputy Chief of the Security Bureau of Ukraine (SBU). Bakanov is Zelenskiy’s business partner and childhood friend. But the SBU is not the Presidential Administration. Few remember this, but Zelenskiy sent two dozen people to the Right to Power talk show on 1+1 before the second round of the election. Nothing was mentioned about their future positions. Bakanov was among them, presented as a person “responsible for the President’s contacts with the Verkhovna Rada”. Nobody mentioned the SBU. Ruslan Riaboshapka and Denys Monastyrsky were then referred to as experts for law enforcement issues. Eventually, Riaboshapka was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff, and Stefanchuk represents the President in Parliament.  Monastyrsky has no portfolio yet. This move can be interpreted in two ways. Zelenskiy may have a grand plan for reconstructing the state and is keeping it secret. Then one can assume that Bakanov’s appointment was long planned but not announced for tactical reasons. The second assumption is much worse than any of Zelenskiy’s plans: he is simply improvising.  

The main signal of no plan so far is the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada announced in Zelenskiy’s inauguration speech. The decree on this was published late as Zelenskiy’s team decided to also change the election system. Initially, they proposed a switch to the proportional system with closed party lists and the threshold down to 3%, not the open-list proportional system promised during the campaign. “Clearly, the decision is not perfect, but this is a compromise. Of course, this is not our goal, our dream, but this is a lesser evil than the current first-past-the-post system where people buy votes with buckwheat and then resell them during the vote… We worked on the draft law all night,” Ruslan Stefanchuk shared on May 22, after the draft law failed to pass the Parliament. The new President’s blizkrieg failed. But it’s the process, not the result that matters here. The fact that the initiative of the newly-elected Head of State with the skyrocketing rating failed to secure a hundred votes only means that his team had not done any serious preparations for the vote.  

On June 3, Oleksandr Korniyenko, the head of the Sluha Narodu election office, said at the party presentation what could be applied to the entire work of the presidential team. His comment was on the news about libertarianism as the party’s ideology. The mention of a political ideology mostly familiar of internet-geeks triggered a storm of jokes. When journalists asked him about this, he said “Go 20km or 100km out of Kiyv and nobody will understand the issue of ideology there, who is right, left or center here. The party will have its manifest on its website, it will explain everything.” This phrase betrays the attitude towards the platform ideology and the understanding of politics and State as a whole. The result is the main thing while procedures are a mere burden. They feel like they can juggle ideologies, appoint Chief of Staff in violation of the law, abolish the decrees of the previous President – even if that, too, is against the law, and try to change the election system within one day, which is a violation as well. What Korniyenko is right about is that most of Ukraine’s population does not understand ideologies. In the same fashion, many of Zelenskiy’s supporters will come up with excuses for his reluctance to stick to procedures. Ukrainian politicians have too long used them as a cover-up for their own interests. The Verkhovna Rada is deeply unpopular, and so is the former President, so “they deserve what they have.” Yet, it is only successful countries in the world that have procedures, and outsiders don’t. 

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Barely visible so far, the problem is that Zelenskiy is determined at setting up mines for himself. The Parliament dissolution decree can be appealed in court. The decision will not come soon. But it could turn into a trigger for the crash of the President if the impeachment law is passed. If Zelenskiy’s popularity slips by then and the court rules the dissolution of Parliament unconstitutional, his friends and opponents will have a serious leverage against him. The officials appointed by Poroshenko and dismissed by Zelenskiycan, too, return to their portfolios through courts. 

It will be Ukrainian society, not President Zelenskiy that will have to deal with the legal debris currently produced by the Presidential Administration. With the current pace, Ukraine may find itself in the legal chaos and political crisis that will make the current time look like perfect stability. All this in a country that is still at war.   

 

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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