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14 October, 2019  ▪  Dmytro Krapyvenko

“I hear you”

How Zelenskiy is likened to Yanukovych

Plenty of theories about the cyclical nature of social development and culture claim that a certain heritage can be observe from the vantage point of several generations. While conflicts between parents and kids are a natural thing, a certain affinity of values between grandparents and their grandkids is also common. The theories aren’t flawless, but they sometimes make sense. If we take as an example Ukrainian presidents, Petro Poroshenko was largely the heir of Viktor Yushchenko: a Maidan, Euroatlantic progress, even “dear friends” as an inherited disease. Volodymyr Zelenskiy promised not to be his predecessor, and so far has succeeded, but along with that he is, despite his best efforts one would like to believe, beginning to take on some of the features of his political “grandfather,” Viktor Yanukovych.

The first steps of the fourth president’s administration were also accompanied by the slogans “I’ll listen to each of you” and “Ukraine for the people.” This is certainly echoed in Zelenskiy’s rhetoric, especially in his inaugural speech, where he said, “Each of us is president,” and more recently when he stated that the law on the special status of the Donbas would be written “by all of us together.” Of course, Yanukovych was the butt of many jokes as a politician with considerable prison experience and the words “people” and “human” was more likely to be understood by him in the context of the fenyaprison jargon, where these terms did not extend to all homo sapiens, but only to the privileged criminal caste. In this context, the Yanukovych regime was very consistent: the government machine was completely subordinated to the interests of the ruling mafia clan and external control was gradually handed over to Russian “overseers.” The analogy with the Ze Team is not that obvious: while the clannishness of its politics is evident, it’s too soon to call it truly “octopoidal.”

But there are considerable similarities in other ways. Firstly, in the disregard for the press: “Mustafa, I don’t envy you,” said Yanukovych to Mustafa Nayem, a top journalist at the time. Zelenskiy, his Chief-of-Staff Andriy Bohdan, and his spokesperson Yulia Mendel have in a very short time orchestrated an entire series of incidents against the press, which the current administration apparently considers completely extraneous and unnecessary. All of them in gross violation of proper protocol. Nor is this just about dress codes and the current president’s dislike of ties, but in such situations as the procedure for honoring the victims of Baby Yar.

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In a certain primitiveness in his communication policy. In his time, Yanukovych refused to visit Wroclaw in Poland, ostensibly because of bad weather, but when it was obvious that the weather wasn’t about to get in the way of a flight, the trip to Poland went ahead, after all. Something similar was seen in the signing of the Steinmeier formula at Minsk, when Zelenskiy permitted himself an awfully long, theatrical pause. But the most noticeable “genetic similarity” was when mass protests against capitulation suddenly erupted in Kyiv. Although Zelenskiy did not resort to the stale cliché of “radical nationalist elements” – there was no noticeable presence of radicals on the streets of the capital – in his supposedly reassuring speech in the “I hear each of you” mode he made sure to mention that protests were convenient to certain politicians who wanted to “regain the opportunity to steal.”

This may be some distance to the memic “Stop that!” but the message is the same: somebody has to be behind the protests and manipulating everybody because the people, of course, aren’t capable of organizing themselves and making demands. Unless they’re paid to do so, adds the president’s chief-of-staff Bohdan. Yet another melody that is anything but new, even if he didn’t mention drug-laced tea and spiked oranges, because the repertoire has to be updated over time, as those who grew up in show business know very well.

In contrast to the situation that Viktor Yanukovych found himself in in November 2013, today’s president has plenty of room to maneuver. The worst that he might do right now is to try to keep appealing to everybody by reassuring them that everything will be just fine and that he will take care of everyone. Because there’s one huge contradiction: you can’t please both Putin and the Ukrainian people at the same time. Indeed, the most active portion of Ukrainian society has made it pretty clear that peace through capitulation will not pass, while any other terms, as Russian officials have made clear, are of no interest to the Russian Federation.

What’s more, we can see that the situation was taken in hand by members of the veterans’ movement, who are people of action. Despite all the lack of respect to Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s predecessor, this is a factor that should be kept in mind. In his time, Poroshenko and his team were in no hurry to establish an economic blockade of occupied Crimea and Donbas, but then, too, activists from patriotic organizations and veterans joined forces strong enough to persuade the government to do this. There were plenty of misunderstandings with the West over it, never mind Russia. But peace within the country is always more valuable than the reproaches of the “concerned” and the “worried.” Since the new president called himself a “servant,” he should know that serving two masters is not the best choice, and the lives of Ukrainians have little in common with an Italian comedy.

The temptation may be to repeat Yanukovych by getting all the angry Ukrainians who support the presidential course together and demand peace based on the Steinmeier formula. But however popular he may be, his electorate is not prepared for this, leaving Zelenskiy with the tried-and-true tools of administrative leverage, titushky from fight clubs, paid flag-bearers, and an Anti-Maidan. It’s not a pretty script and Ukrainians can only hope that Bankova will decide not to go there.

Still, the new administration continues to push the envelope. The case of Serhiy Pashynskiy is not like the Tymoshenko case, true. And the issue is not the nature of the accusations but the image of the politicians. Pashynskiy was never the favorite of millions and his reputation was always on the shady side. Still, the ominous shadow of Andriy Portnov, yet another servant to two masters, in the Pashynskiy story makes it clear that the comeback of the Yanukovych crowd wasn’t just a horror story invented by the Poroshenko campaign. Under the cover of establishing justice and fighting corruption, the political “granddaddies” like Yanukovych, Azarov and so on, could, through the notorious Pechersk District Court, take their vengeance on many in the Maidan government. In fact, Portnov has made his intentions in this regard very clear. It’s easy enough to interpret Zelenskiy’s responses to the situation: “I’m not the prosecutor or the judge. Let competent bodies figure it out.” That was exactly what Yanukovych said when Yulia Tymoshenko was put on trial.

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Notably – and possibly orchestrated by the captains of online skirmishes – there has been a wave of comments online insisting that the Steinmeier formula and the Minsk accords are the burdensome inheritance of the Poroshenko administration. Even if this judgment were taken seriously, it still doesn’t make sense that the new president should take on all these commitments that are so burdensome for Ukraine and reassure everyone that “it’s going to be alright.” A “great leader” ought to be doing the exact opposite.

Instead, Ukrainians get protracted theatrical pauses and a stalemate on withdrawing from Zolote. Coming up is October 14, the Feast of Pokrova – the Intercession of the Mother of God and patroness of the army – and a planned mass march against capitulation to which the response can easily be in the style of Bohdan, Portnov and Yanukovych, but that won’t remove the most urgent issues from the agenda. Shooting a video, reassuring everybody and promising to listen to each one of them are no longer a solution. Viewers are already shouting, “I don’t buy it!”


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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