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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration took place just over 100 days ago, and it’s still too soon to assess any real change in the country. Changes in the new president’s style of ruling, however, are already clearly visible. Pre-election fears that the inexperienced Zelensky would be a weak leader—a puppet controlled by the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky—are rapidly giving way to alarm and expectations of a velvet dictatorship.
With his single-party majority in the Ukrainian parliament, the president will soon form a government that is loyal to him, and next year’s local elections could also give him control over the mayor’s offices of major cities and over regional councils. In these conditions, the only obstacle to the complete usurpation of power is the goodwill of the president himself. Hope remains that as a representative of a new generation, Zelensky will choose the path of democratic rule.
Yet during his fact-finding trips around the country, Zelensky has already willingly demonstrated the authoritarian attitude of a father of the nation, staging the public castigation of officials and firing security service officers live on air, while at the same time communicating with ordinary Ukrainians in a democratic manner, swimming in the sea in Odessa, and frolicking in fountains in Mariupol.
Unsurprisingly, the version of Zelensky the usurper is enthusiastically spread around by dismissed officials from former president Petro Poroshenko’s team. These fears can’t be dismissed as completely groundless. People familiar with Zelensky’s style of working from his TV company, Kvartal 95, characterize the former actor as a tough and autocratic boss.
It’s already clear that under Zelensky, the decisionmaking center will be dislodged to make way for the president himself and the circle of people close to him that is concentrated in the president’s office. The role of the government will be reduced to that of technical implementation of presidential decisions, while the new parliament, with its single-party majority and weak opposition, will also lose a large part of its former influence. This style of ruling is more akin to a super-presidential republic than the parliamentary-presidential model customary for Ukraine.
Of course, the system of checks and balances that existed until now in Ukrainian politics was merely a screen for the corrupt oligarchic deep state, and the power vertical Zelensky is building could become an effective instrument for destroying that system. But autocrats in the post-Soviet space rarely leave power voluntarily, even those with the best intentions. If, when the five-year term that Zelensky promised to limit his rule to is drawing to an end, Ukrainian democracy appears to be in danger, then he may well be seized by a desire to run for a second term.
Several points of conflict of Zelensky’s presidency are already visible, above all in his complicated relationship with the media. The overall reaction of the Ukrainian media community to Zelensky’s victory was negative, perceived as it was as a symptom of national degradation. For the intellectual elite, Poroshenko’s rule was a period that came closest to realizing the dream of a “Ukrainian Ukraine”: a time of dismantled Lenin statues and decommunization, and increased efforts to make the public space more Ukrainian, while official ideology became as far removed as possible from the country’s shared past with Russia, and as close as possible to European integration.
The elections of 2019 showed that these processes were not as deeply etched or popular as they had seemed, and that they remain the preserve of the minority. But the minority with whom Zelensky fell out has turned out to be very active, above all in terms of the media.
Foreseeing difficulties, Zelensky’s team staked everything from the very beginning on direct contact with voters via social media. “We communicate with the public without intermediaries, without journalists,” is how Andriy Bohdan, head of the presidential administration, formulated the new media policy.
In the first 100 days of his presidency, Zelensky’s mistrust of traditional media has only increased. A telling episode was a fake leak of Bohdan’s alleged resignation, which made leading publications that had published the news appear foolish when it turned out not to be true—though the resignation letter was reportedly released by the presidential administration itself, as some kind of elaborate prank at the media’s expense. Next, it was announced that Bohdan was suing journalists from an investigative TV program for libel.
In other respects, the work of Zelensky’s team has seen plenty of confusion and inconsistency. Representatives of the new authorities often make contradictory statements, and then retract them, or express uncoordinated proposals and positions. This is most noticeable in foreign policy: after yet another dovish announcement of talks with Moscow over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Zelensky suddenly comes out with a hawkish statement along the lines of “the occupiers won’t get an inch of our land!”
There is, of course, an element of political calculation in this inconsistency. Zelensky rode to the presidency on a wave of very contradictory public demands. Ukrainians wanted to see a president who would bring peace, yet without making any concessions; a president who would hand out harsh punishment to those who misappropriate public funds, yet who wouldn’t encroach on the law or liberty. Consequently, the stern bark heard at interdepartmental meetings gives way to the dulcet tones of the much-loved actor, and foreign policy statements are always made with two poles of opposition in mind: the pro-Russian Donbas and the national democratic Galicia (western Ukraine).
During his visits to European capitals, Zelensky tries to fit in and not overuse his image as a droll provincial. He is clearly flattered by comparisons with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has taken Zelensky under his wing in order to utilize a reset in Ukraine for his own foreign policy ambitions.
Zelensky intuitively senses that a new era is dawning in international politics in which he will have to work together with liberal populists like himself, and not with the outgoing breed of consensus-minded politicians. In this respect, his forthcoming visit to Trump will be particularly interesting.
In his relationship with Russia, Zelensky tries to make use of the fact that his election has put the Kremlin in an unfamiliar situation. Moscow cannot refuse to have dealings with a Ukrainian leader who has the support of more than 70 percent of his people. And so Zelensky actively exploits the issue of possible direct negotiations with the Russian president: he talks to Putin on the phone (the Kremlin ignored calls from his predecessor), and reaches agreements on prisoner exchanges, ceasefires, and troop withdrawals.
Zelensky is prepared to make symbolic concessions and maneuvers to engage his Russian counterpart: an example of this is his request that the Russian leader exercise influence on “the other side” during violations of the ceasefire by the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics. This indirect recognition of the separatists as “the other side,” rather than “Russian occupiers” as before, naturally prompted a storm of outrage in some quarters of the country, but it did create a platform for further talks between Moscow and Kiev.
The final results of those talks will not, however, depend on Zelensky alone.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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