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16 March, 2020  ▪  Roman Malko

Catching up with reality

How might the president interpret bad news better?

Not that long ago, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was a successful man. Everything in life seemed to go his way. He found his vocation, he make a huge career out of it, became famous, made millions, and even managed to be elected president. In a classic example of the Peter Principle, this seems to have marked the end of his rise to success. It now looks like Zelenskiy really was not prepared for such a heavy role. His original profession has left too much of a mark on him, allowing him to reach unprecedented heights of power, but now proving to be a serious handicap.

Nor is it just a matter of lack of political experience. Lack of experience can always be fixed. Learning to take reality for what it is, unadorned and with no illusions – this is the challenge that Zelenskiy seems unable to face up to.

Everything will be fine. Just call Vladimir Putin, just have a chat, just look him in the eyes. We just have to stop shooting. After all, there’s no real war, it’s just a bunch of guys shooting at each other. We should just apologize to the people of the Donbas. Let’s just get the water going to Crimea again, because it’s our people there. Everything’s really very simple.

This is the tune Ukraine’s president and his “servants of the people” have been singing, so certain they are that everything is negotiable and everything can be worked out if you want it enough – just have a positive attitude and apply a little creativity. After all, that’s what carried them to power and they figure that the same principle will keep working. Possibly this is something they learned at courses in the art of positive thinking. Don’t give the public negative information, but transform everything into something positive – or into a joke if positive doesn’t work. In fact, for a time this kind of approach can and does work. You can even win elections this way. But running a country on this basis just doesn’t work.

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Reality is a cruel mistress. You can’t prettify it, cover it in make-up, fool her, or make it look the way you want it to. You can’t kid it away or buy it off by playing the upbeat guy who’s saving the country and bringing peace. Reality has to simply be recognized, accepted and taken into account. Yet no one, not Zelenskiy, not his team, nor even his new premier, is ready for this. They haven’t been taught how to react to negative signals. Unexpected challenges that haven’t been written into their scripts lead to shock, panic, the suspension of all processes, to chaotic hunts for a way out, and then to senseless attempts to fix the situation. And then either the situation exacerbated or everything just goes to hell.

What else might one call the response of the Commander-in-Chief to the last serious round of artillery fire on the front in February? At the time, Russia’s proxies attempted to break the defense of Ukraine’s armed forces, just a day before Zelenskiy’s “in-house peacekeeper” Serhiy Syvokho was preparing to present his “National Platform for a True and Unity...” A long silence, and then something irrelevant posted on Facebook.

Then came brief explanations at a press conference: “We’re certain that this provocation will not change our course, because only with a strong army can we sit at the negotiations table. The course we have taken to our goal, we’re determined to move closer to an end to this war, to peace.” After which came a non-sequitur to the subject of the coronavirus and a threat that Ukrainian citizens evacuated from China would be delivered to Koncha-Zaspa, the state-owned R&R preserve with sanatoria just outside Kyiv...

This kind of reaction to an unexpected challenge and confusing plans hardly come across as appropriate. But this is very much in line with Zelenskiy’s normal style of behavior. How about the announcement of the new PM, Denys Shmyhal his first day on the job, that potable water might be supplied to Crimea again – and then his clumsy walk-back: “You must have misunderstood me.”

Was this an innocent mix-up, without malice, in response to a confusing situation and a typical desire of the “servants” to make a positive impression with their hypertrophic love of peace and humaneness? Or is it really the latest well-prepped Kremlin-oriented attempt to test the waters? It’s really anybody’s guess. Many in Ukraine are certain it is the latter. And that in this way public opinion is being prepared for concessions that have already been secretly agreed to.

In either case, Zelenskiy and his team are now the hostages and victims of their own illusions. After all, having swallowed Russian propaganda about how Moscow was ready to talk to anyone but Poroshenko, they were 100% confident that they could sit and cut a deal with the very devil himself. Somewhere in the middle...

Of course, a deal can always be cut – but only on the devil’s terms. Any attempts to be clever or to demand control over the border or the withdrawal of forces results in only one response: escalation on the front and more provocations, which Moscow is successfully demonstrating now and will continue to do so in the future. The problem is not that you can be screwed over at the age of 42. Things happen. The problem is when you aren’t able to draw the right conclusions and find a better approach.

Zelenskiy’s interview in The Guardian brilliantly illustrated the essence of the entire presidential team. His efforts to please foreign journalists and to offer them some kind of idyllic image of a peace-loving dude came across as foolish. In the West, everyone understands perfectly well what’s going on. “His future success will depend on whether he can use it to good effect on the European leaders who are his best hope of escaping his unenviable position, stuck between Trump and Putin,” British journalists wrote about Zelenskiy. These words are more than irony: they are a diagnosis. Running a country and resolving a conflict on the domestic or international level with the help of such idiosyncratic instruments as personal charm and engagingness is, to say the least, counterproductive.

Sooner or later, Volodymyr Zelenskiy will have to climb down from the clouds of his fantasies, stand on sinful soil, and accept reality for what it is. He’s understood for a long time now that the role of president in a TV serial and actually being one in reality are not the same thing. “It’s true there are more problems. They are catastrophic. They appear, I’m sorry to say, like pimples on an 18-year-old kid. You don’t know where they will pop up, or when,” the greatest leader today admitted to The Guardian’s journalists. Only he’s not prepared in any way to step away from his familiar style of behavior. Or he can’t. Or he doesn’t want to.

Whatever the case, if he wants to stay in power for his full five years, he will have deal with the negatives, today or tomorrow. Moreover, he will have to do it personally, call a spade a spade and admit his mistakes rather then turning them into some kind of joke. Passing the buck to others, as he did with the Honcharuk Cabinet, works from time to time. But his ratings show that Ukrainians nevertheless associate this administration with the president. He’s in charge and so, if anything is not working out, it means that the president is doing something wrong. Nobody really cares about the premier, the speaker or the prosecutor general – especially in a situation when their names don’t mean anything because they all sound like “Zelenskiy.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Feeling good

What’s more, the moment of truth is approaching, which will require clear, professional answers, and not clowning around. With a global economic crisis looming, hiding his head in the sand won’t work any more, nor will bragging about the strong hryvnia, the modest rise in incomes, digitization, and so on. There’s an epidemic racing around the globe that telling jokes, assuring people that everything’s under control, and forcing the minister of health to go into quarantine for the sake of PR will not forestall.

Just like ending the war. To simply withdraw fighting forces from the front means that every day there are more of them killed and wounded. To simply enact the Stein Meier formula means trying to do something that cannot be done. Peace at this price means the full and inevitable capitulation of the entire country.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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