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Ukraine still backs Zelenskyy despite slow progress


BY Orysia Lutsevych, Head and Research Fellow, Ukraine Forum, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Expectations Volodymyr Zelenskyy would end the armed conflict with Russia or jail corrupt officials have faded, but so have fears he would sell out to oligarchs or the Kremlin.

Halfway through his presidential term, the popularity of Volodymyr Zelenskyy has substantially declined as, having won 70 per cent of the vote when elected, he now only commands 25 per cent support at the ballot box. But despite such dwindling numbers, he remains the most popular Ukrainian politician with support across Ukraine and a strong chance of re-election.

The main reasons behind such a decline in popularity are his unrealistic election promises mixed with voters’ equally unrealistic expectations, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. But in addition, deeply entrenched mistrust in central government has long been a key feature of Ukrainian political culture.

Almost all the country’s presidents fell quickly from voters’ favour – mistrust in Victor Yanukovych overtook trust just five months after he took office while, for Poroshenko, it was seven months. In fact, Zelenskyy’s positive trust rating for a whole year is a record.

COVID-19 and the subsequent economic hardship have taken a heavy toll on households, and Ukrainians have a negative view of Zelenskyy’s management of the pandemic as well as of his handling of the economy and struggles to curb corruption and oligarchs’ influence.

Ukrainians have a negative view of Zelenskyy’s management of the pandemic as well as of his handling of the economy and struggles to curb corruption and oligarchs’ influence

Slow vaccination rollout – only 18 per cent of the population is currently fully vaccinated – and lax self-isolation rules led to a spike in both infection and death rates recently and the World Health Organization (WHO) placed Ukraine third-highest in daily deaths after the US and Russia.

Zelenskyy’s leadership style is also viewed negatively with a majority of Ukrainians believing he lacks the skills required to be president such as professional experience, a moral compass, and strength of character. Officials are fired and hired frequently and for opaque reasons, leaving people confused as to how the country is being run. Concerns about poverty are growing with one-quarter of the population reporting worsening household finances.

Quiet revolution of gradual progress

Zelenskyy is clearly not the kind of revolutionary to introduce systemic changes required to really break the hold ‘crony capitalism’ has on Ukraine. A new law designed to fight oligarch power empowers individuals instead of building strong and independent institutions, and gives disproportionate powers to the security agency under direct presidential control.

Long-standing institutions such as the law courts are weak or actively sabotage reform while the new post-Euromaidan bodies, such as the National Anti-Corruption Agency (NABU), face threats warded off only by the efforts of Ukrainian civil society and international donors.

But Zelenskyy has delivered on some promises, which is why citizens have mixed views on his presidency. Parliament has abolished complete immunity for MPs and reinstated a law on illicit enrichment, and more than 20 million Ukrainians are registered for the ‘Diia’ mobile app, allowing them to generate COVID certificates, register a business, renew their driver’s license, and much more. This cuts red tape as well as limits petty corruption, and means Ukraine is the first country to recognize a fully digital ID card.

In addition, more than 80 per cent of Ukrainians report substantial improvements to the roads, and a new state-funded project aims to repair more than 6,000 km of roads in 2021 alone. In some regions more roads have been fixed in the past ten months than in the previous ten years.

As the war continues and tensions may escalate, Ukraine needs both the European Union (EU) and the US on its side

Ending the undeclared war with Russia was one of Zelenskyy’s promises, and he has tried adopting non-confrontational rhetoric towards Putin and making various concessions, such as holding elections in the occupied Donbas before reclaiming control of the Ukraine-Russian border – an extremely unpopular move in Ukraine.

The Normandy Meeting in Paris in December 2019 bore few results but, by demonstrating his willingness for constructive negotiations, Zelenskyy did succeed in swaying the support of Paris and Berlin towards Kyiv’s interpretation of the Minsk Agreements whereby security comes first and Ukraine’s sovereignty must not be further compromised by Russia and its proxies.

When Russia then rejected any amendments to the protocols, Zelenskyy moved to limit the influence of Kremlin-allied lawmaker Victor Medvedchuk by launching a treason investigation, sanctioning his businesses, and closing down his affiliated TV channels for spreading disinformation.

As the war continues and tensions may escalate, Ukraine needs both the European Union (EU) and the US on its side. The Zelenskyy-Biden meeting in September 2021 is a strong signal the US remains engaged and committed to Ukraine, and Zelenskyy’s foreign policy team gave new impetus to the relationship by reinvigorating the US-Ukraine Strategic Partnership Commission and signing a framework agreement with the Pentagon. As a warning to Russia about any new escalatory moves, Biden even sent CIA director William J. Burnsto Moscow.

Less show, more reality

Zelenskyy’s presidency has not been the revelation many hoped for but neither is it as bad as some feared and it is highly likely he will run for a second term so, if no new strong contender emerges, he would probably win. But he also risks causing his own downfall by underestimating Ukraine’s aversion to an excessive concentration of power in the presidential office so he must ensure he listens to voices outside his own party.

Many of his close advisors are showbusiness people who are adept at creating fictional realities, but politics is the real world where the struggle takes place daily and quick wins are rare. If this is ignored, Zelenskyy’s government could slide into self-interested rule, making decisions as responses to public emotions in the pursuit of popularity but resulting in defeat for Zelenskyy and weakening Ukraine’s democracy.

© Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2021