When Ukrainians went to the polls in April 2019 to elect Volodymyr Zelensky as president, it was a collective shot in the dark. His previous political experience amounted to playing the role of the president in the popular Ukrainian TV series, Servant of the People. But in a country where politics, as usual, had failed to address endemic corruption or bring an end to the war in eastern Ukraine, people were hungry for change, and the comedian won by a landslide.
On Wednesday, Zelensky celebrated the first anniversary of his inauguration: Perhaps one of the strangest presidential debuts anywhere in the world, as the new and untried Ukrainian leader found himself unexpectedly at center stage in the impeachment drama over in Washington, with questions being raised about his relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Ironically, although the impeachment imbroglio by itself did little to affect Zelensky’s ambitious if faltering reform agenda, it may have raised his stature among Ukrainians in the past year. Kyiv’s elites, who have long tried to stay away from U.S. partisan turf wars, have rallied around the political neophyte, and he remains hugely popular based on recent polls.
“Even the enemies of Zelensky looked at him with sympathy, because he turned out to be in the center of the storm,” Mikhail Minakov, a senior advisor at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told Foreign Policy.
Domestically, Zelensky got off to a promising start, appointing a “dream team” of respected reformers to key positions in government, restarting peace talks with Russia, and passing a flurry of new legislation in the fall. But the dream team was disbanded in a government reshuffle in March, leaving many to wonder which course he could chart as he begins his second year in office.
Zelensky was elected with “great expectations, great ambitions, great intentions,” said former U.S. Ambassador Bill Taylor, who led the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv in an acting capacity until January of this year. Zelensky had promised to stamp out corruption, reform the economy, and bring peace to the Donbass, so it was almost inevitable that his shine would wear off, as he was unable to deliver on these pledges overnight.
“The popularity factor wears off over time, it’s almost inevitable,” said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special envoy for Ukraine peace negotiations, adding that Zelensky was still Ukraine’s best hope for change since the country gained its independence in 1991.
Even so, 68 percent of Ukrainians approve of the former actor’s first year in office, just a few percentage points below his margin of victory in 2019, when he swept into power with nearly three-quarters of the vote. While his campaign promises were bold, they were light on detail, which may help to explain the public has cut Zelensky some slack. “Zelensky created such a program during this presidential campaign where presidential promises were very vaguely phrased,” Minakov told Foreign Policy. “So you cannot catch him.”
U.S.-Ukraine relations remain somewhat strained in the aftermath of resistance by the Zelensky government to pressure from the Trump administration to investigate the family of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s 2020 presidential election challenger. Former U.S. officials and Ukraine experts told Foreign Policy that while the impeachment controversy did not change longstanding bipartisan support for Ukraine—even as weapons shipments got snagged last year amid Trump’s push for an investigation of Biden and his family—it has prompted some in Kyiv to question the reliability and sincerity of the United States, the biggest backer of Ukraine’s sovereignty. “I have to admit that perception of the U.S. as Ukraine’s reliable ally has deteriorated because of this story,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the New Europe think tank in Kyiv.
Since Volker stepped down early in the impeachment investigation after getting caught up in efforts by Trump’s allies to pressure Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials to open corruption investigations that could aid Trump’s reelection, the State Department has not appointed another special envoy to Ukraine. That has left Kyiv without a dedicated point person for the peace process as Zelensky seeks to reinvigorate talks with Russia.
“They’re looking for a stronger U.S. voice, and they feel the absence of that,” Volker said.
And if Zelensky’s reform agenda wasn’t ambitious enough for a novice politician who was caught in a pressure vise by a superpower that was also Ukraine’s No. 1 aid donor, he has faced other challenges this year, including the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet in Iran and a global pandemic. The government ordered a strict lockdown on March 12, when the country had just a handful of confirmed cases of the coronavirus. That decision appears to have spared Ukraine from the mass outbreaks seen in Western Europe and the United States. At the time of publication, Ukraine has reported close to 20,000 known cases, compared to 280,000 in similarly sized Spain.
But there is one issue where Zelensky is likely to face increasing scrutiny from critics and the public: Ending the war in eastern Ukraine, where fighting between the Ukrainian military and Kremlin-backed forces has killed over 13,000 people, is a top priority for voters. Since he was sworn in, Zelensky has overseen three prisoner exchanges with Russia. Among those released were 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia in November 2018 and the film director Oleg Sentsov, who had been held for over five years. The decision didn’t come without a cost for Kyiv, though—in return it released a key witness to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and five former members of the Ukrainian Berkut riot police charged with killing unarmed protesters during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.
Explaining what he described as a “hard decision,” Zelensky said, “I respect parents and relatives of those killed at the Maidan [epicenter of the 2014 uprisings]. Unfortunately, we cannot return those who passed away. … But we could return those alive.”
In the fall, Zelensky reached an agreement with separatist forces to a mutual withdrawal of forces along the front line, a move that was seen as a precondition to restarting peace talks. The Normandy contact group, which included the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany, met in December 2019 for the first time in three years.
“Zelensky and his team don’t want to see a frozen conflict,” said Taylor, the former U.S. ambassador. “They don’t want to cede part of their sovereign territory to Russia without doing everything they can to avoid it, and they’ve made some progress.”
Yet Ukraine may be gaining leverage with Russia at the negotiating table even as the country remains in lockdown. Taylor said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resolve might be crumbling to keep bankrolling the costly Donbass war, now in its seventh year. “I know that there are people around [Putin] in the Kremlin who have been saying, ‘Donbass is a loser, we should get out of Donbass,’” he said.
The pressure on the long-serving Russian president to pull up sticks in Donbass comes as Russia has been beset by the coronavirus pandemic, with the second-highest caseload in the world behind the United States. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin are among the country’s 325,000 reported cases.
Still, while Zelensky has made efforts to end the stalemate with Russia and its proxies, his push for peace can only go so far. “Zelensky showed clear political will to end the war, Putin unfortunately [did] not,” said Getmanchuk of the New Europe think tank.
Ukraine has relied heavily on support from Western allies in the war against Russia, including U.S. military aid, which Trump’s allies used as leverage as they sought to pressure Ukrainian officials to open investigations into the business activities of Biden’s son, which could have aided the U.S. president’s reelection campaign. The U.S. Department of Defense has provided a range of nonlethal aid and defensive weapons to the tune of $1.1 billion over the past four fiscal years, such as body armor, night-vision goggles, sniper rifles, and grenade launchers, as well as selling Javelin anti-tank missiles meant to halt a Russian advance from separatist-controlled territory in the east.
While the impeachment probe into Trump may have entrenched divides among U.S. lawmakers, support for Kyiv on Capitol Hill and among U.S. policymakers remains strong. The United States has long been a vocal advocate for reform in Ukraine, but some now fear that its standing may have been diminished by the impeachment investigation. “It undermined the leverage that the U.S. has over Ukraine, especially on rule of law and in the justice sectors,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center.
Zelensky opted to keep a low profile during the impeachment investigation and at every turn sought to refocus attention to Ukraine’s war with Russia. In an op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday, he said the investigation “took American and international attention away from the issues that mattered most to Ukraine and turned our country into a story about President Trump.”
On Tuesday it became clear that Ukraine would continue to be a battleground for those looking to take swipes at presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker with past links to Russian intelligence services, released recordings of a private phone conversation between Biden and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that linked fresh U.S. loans for Ukraine with the firing of the country’s prosecutor general. The recordings don’t reveal anything new about Biden’s activities in Ukraine, but they have been seized upon by Trump’s defenders. “Yikes!!!! This is not a ‘perfect conversation,’” his son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted on Tuesday.
But the bulk of public criticism of Zelensky has focused on his challenges pushing reforms through Ukraine’s corruption-laden bureaucracy and bringing a new generation of inexperienced politicians into power. A number of Ukrainian political observers told Foreign Policy that they saw two distinct periods during Zelensky’s first year in office. “It was a great start in autumn 2019, a lot of good laws were adopted ensuring the independence of institutions,” said Andrii Borovyk, the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine. In July 2019, Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, named after the television show that made him famous, won a commanding majority in the parliament. Most of the new lawmakers had no political experience whatsoever—a deliberate effort designed to sweep out the old guard—and had to be sent on remedial courses to teach them the fundamentals of economic policy, ideology, and communication, with some classes taught in spartan settings in western Ukraine.
After the new parliament was sworn in this past August, they passed a number of significant bills in the fall that criminalized illicit enrichment by state officials, stripped lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity, and improved protections for anti-corruption whistleblowers. By 2020, this legislative zeal began to falter, Borovyk said.
Kaleniuk of the Anti-Corruption Action Center pointed to the government reshuffle in March as the moment things began to veer off course.
Among the reform-minded ministers and agency heads who were removed from their posts was Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who was well respected by anti-corruption activists for his efforts to reform and streamline the country’s unwieldy court system. He was replaced by Irina Venediktova, a member of Zelensky’s party who previously served as acting head of the State Bureau of Investigations. Kaleniuk described her as “incompetent” and “loyal to the authorities.”
While the pace of legislative reforms may have slowed, it has not stopped altogether, with the parliament passing two landmark pieces of legislation that would reform the banking sector and sale of farmland. The parliament’s actions were praised by the International Monetary Fund and could see Ukraine unlock access to $5 billion in loans.
The banking bill, which prevents nationalized banks from being returned to their previous owners, took direct aim at the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, once a close ally of Zelensky. Kolomoisky and another former owner of Privatbank have been accused of pushing Ukraine’s largest bank to the brink of collapse, siphoning off $5.5 billion, and forcing the Ukrainian government to step in with a bailout.
A reform-minded leader who falls from grace is an all-too-familiar story in Ukraine. Having not yet fully shown his hand as to what type of president he will be, Zelensky will likely be as closely scrutinized in his second year in office as in his first. But despite the freshman hiccups and getting caught in the political crossfire of the historic U.S. impeachment proceedings, former administration officials still think Washington should keep faith in the young leader if he keeps up pursuing his anti-corruption agenda.
“I do think he wants to succeed, I do think he wants to make Ukraine a better place and make Ukraine a normal European country,” Taylor said. “As long as he stays on that course, we should help him.”
Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch
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