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The Presidential Administration of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky at his presidential inauguration‎. Photo source: Mykhaylo Markiv

Zelensky’s options: ‘Mythical Ukrainian roads’

Ukraine's newly elected president Vladimir Zelensky delivered an ambiguous and populist inauguration speech. Will he be the man of words or the man of actions?

Published: May 30, 2019, 1:52 pm

    On May 20, the elected president of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky was inaugurated. This event means that he now officially occupies the presidential chair. Despite all the controversy and bickering in Ukrainian media about a possible disruption of the inauguration ceremony, Vladimir Zelensky was sworn in as the president of Ukraine, and the whole country is looking forward to observing his first steps.

    How will he conduct his activities, what promises will he keep and what are the things he is ready to sacrifice? Answers to some of these questions can be predicted by analyzing his inaugural speech.

    First of all, Zelensky stated that he sees his main task as bringing the war in Donbass to an end: “Our first priority is reaching a cease-fire in Donbass. I was often asked what I am ready to do for a cease-fire. Weird question. And what are you, Ukrainians, ready to do for the life of your close people? I can assure you that I am ready for everything just to save lives of our heroes. I’m definitely not afraid to make difficult decisions. I am ready to lose my popularity, and if I need to, I will not hesitate to lose my position so that peace will come. We did not start this war, but we must end it. And we are ready for dialogue. I am sure that the first step to start this dialogue will be returning of all Ukrainian prisoners”.

    His statement about how keen he is to achieve a cease-fire in Donbass sounded proud and loud indeed. The only problem is that Zelensky presented no working mechanisms for that – neither recently nor during his election campaign.

    So it is unclear whether he is going to open a direct dialogue with Russia or with the representatives of the breakaway republics, or whether he intends to implement Minsk agreements which prescribe autonomy for Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

    All these questions are fair but still remain unanswered. Before the elections, Zelensky did not support radical measures. So, for the moment, one can only guess what – from a new Ukrainian president’s perspective – the words “I will do everything to stop the war in Donbass” might actually mean.

    Significantly, Zelensky devoted at least twice as much time to the topic of the war than to any of the other problems which the Ukrainian state is facing.

    “Certainly, besides the war, there are still a lot of misfortunes that make Ukrainians miserable. These shocking tariffs, degrading salaries and pensions, painfully high prices, non-existent jobs. The healthcare system calls for improvement but this is mainly promised by those who have never been with a child in a regular hospital. These are the mythical Ukrainian roads, which are built and repaired only in someone’s hectic imagination”.

    These words were pronounced by Zelensky with a fair amount of outrage in his voice. Millions of average Ukrainians heard his outrage. But many now want to know: Since Zelensky is now the president, shouldn’t he be spending more time on improving life of Ukrainians instead of complaining about it?

    But he took a definitive step during his inaugural speech. He announced that he would be dismissing the eighth convocation of the Verkhovna Rada – the Ukrainian parliament – standing at the podium of the same Rada where his inauguration took place.

    The words Zelensky chose in order tell the Ukrainian people’s deputies to their faces that they would soon be dismissed, are worth quoting: “You can take a piece of paper, take a pen, and leave your positions to make space for those who will think about the next generations, and not about the next elections. I think people will appreciate it. And my election proves that citizens are tired of experienced, inflated systemic politicians who for 28 years have created a country of opportunities – opportunities of kickbacks and corruption. We will build a country of other possibilities, where everyone is equal in front of the law, where there are fair and transparent rules of a game, one for all. And for this, politicians who will serve the people must come to power.

    “I really do not want you to have my photo in your offices. Please, there should be no portraits of mine. The president is not a portrait, not an icon, not an idol. Hang photos of your children on your office walls and look into their eyes before each decision. […] Therefore, I ask you to adopt a law on the abolition of parliamentary immunity, the law on criminal liability for illegal enrichment, the long-suffering Electoral Code. […] And also I ask you to dismiss the head of the Security Service of Ukraine, the General Prosecutor of Ukraine, the Minister of Defense of Ukraine. And that’s not all you can do. But enough for a start. You will have two months for this. Do it and hang the medals yourself.

    “Good points for early parliamentary elections. I dissolve the Verkhovna Rada of the eighth convocation.”

    With these lofty proposals Vladimir Zelensky concluded his first speech as the new Ukrainian president. Certainly, he sounded very pathetic – after all, as an experienced showman he is a true professional in everything concerned with impressing people with verbal art. More than a week has passed after the inauguration, and it is about time to observe first real steps taken by Zelensky.

    On May 21, the day after the inauguration, the Ukrainian president officially dissolved the parliament and called for early parliamentary elections on July 21, 2019. That essentially means that those who would like to run for the mandate of Ukrainian deputy, will have less than two months for an election campaign.

    It leaves very little time to persuade Ukrainian people “to make a right choice”. Ukrainian political parties are nevertheless trying to use every opportunity in this fight for votes.

    According to the latest opinion polls conducted by the Ukrainian “Rating Group” in mid-May, four parties have chances to obtain seats at the parliament: “Servant of the People” (the party of Vladimir Zelensky) – 43,8 percent, “Opposition Platform – For Life” (the party which unites political figures from the “Party of Regions” – main political force of the Ukrainian ex-president Victor Yanukovich) – 10,5 percent, Petro Poroshenko’s block “Solidarity” – 8,8 percent and “Batkivshchyna” (the party of Julia Timoshenko) – 7,3 percent.

    A director of the Ukrainian analytical center Politika Nikolay Davidyuk considers that an election campaign has just begun, therefore all opinion indicators will be quite volatile. “After the inauguration Zelensky’s popularity among people had slightly decreased. Nevertheless, his candidates from the “Servant of the People” party can easily win in majoritarian districts. Some people jokingly say that in the east of Ukraine Zelensky can even bring a horse to the parliament,” Nikolay Davidyuk reckons.

    But obviously, success of the “Servant of the People” party in the parliamentary elections will hugely depend on Zelensky actions – precisely, on his ability to keep the promises he has made.

    Meanwhile, it is not an easy thing to gauge the ability of the new Ukrainian leader. Revisiting the topic of the war in Donbass – the most critical issue facing Ukraine – the head of the Ukrainian presidential administration Andrey Bogdan loudly raised more questions than answers with his latest pronouncements. He stated that the Ukrainian authorities were considering the question of concluding a national referendum on a peace agreement with the Russian Federation.

    “Vladimir Zelensky declared in his speeches that we are considering the issue of drawing up some agreements and submitting them on a referendum. Because not only politicians should speak, but people should speak as well. We consider putting the issue of reaching a peaceful agreement with Russia on a nationwide referendum, so that not only deputies can vote and not only the president can make a decision – but so that Ukrainian people can make this decision,” Bogdan underlined.

    At first sight, the idea with a referendum does not seem like a bad one and generally aligns with the spirit of democracy. But after a more thorough look into the issue, there are dozens of very valid arguments against such a step.

    First of all – there are already signed agreements on settling the Donbass conflict which are called the Minsk agreements. These documents were signed more than three years ago by Ukraine, representatives of Donbass republics and Russia and they were even adopted by the UN Security Council resolution.

    Although the signature of former President Petro Poroshenko appears on these agreements, there is neither international no national legislation prohibiting Vladimir Zelensky from implementing these agreements just because they were signed by another president.

    The conclusion is simple – he must implement them without asking the Ukrainian people for a referendum. Any other way around this, would constitute a clear violation of current legislation.

    Another contradiction in his statement about a referendum on peace agreements was revealed in details of a phone conversation between Vladimir Zelensky and German Chancellor Angel Merkel. Official representative of the German government Steffen Seibert stated that both Ukrainian and German leaders confirmed the importance of the so-called Minsk process (the process of implementing Minsk agreements).

    “Both sides underlined the necessity for full implementation of the Minsk agreements and underlined their interest in continuing close cooperation in the “Norman format,” Seibert’s statement read.

    But an interesting point noted in this conversation is in a fact that Russia is also a member of so called “Norman format” of negotiations on the ongoing Donbass conflict as well as Germany, France and Ukraine. So here is an obvious hypocrisy – Zelensky is ready for the “Norman format” of the Minsk process when he speaks about that with a German Chancellor but when it comes to Russian participation he first needs “to ask the Ukrainian people”.

    One more result of Zelensky entering the presidential office, was the launch of criminal proceedings against ex-President Petro Poroshenko. At the moment, there are already two such criminal cases. One of the cases was opened by the Specialized Anti-corruption Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine regarding the unlawful actions of the Ukrainian ex-president in preferential employment offers at the state-owned company Centrenergo.

    The second case was opened by the State Bureau of Investigation regarding high treason. In this case, Poroshenko is charged with an illegal attempt to impose martial law in the country through the staging of a conscious provocation, when the ships of the Ukrainian Navy Forces, violating passage through the Kerch Strait, tried to break through from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea.

    Russian political analyst Denis Denisov considers that these are so far not the last criminal cases which will be opened against the Ukrainian ex-President. “The logic of early parliamentary elections implies that there will be a huge number of politicians who would like to run a full PR campaign precisely due to the initiation of cases against their ex-leader. Moreover, during his presidency Poroshenko issued a huge number of decrees relating to the Donbass conflict. And they are more than doubtful in terms of their constitutionality and legality.”

    But whether these cases will be construed on the basis of real evidence or only on slogans and ambiguous facts which in the end will exclude meting out equatable justice against the crimes committed by Poroshenko, is another matter entirely.

    Therefore, the first week of Zelensky’s presidency was delivered in his populist pitch – everything sounds nice and inspirational but one more detailed glance at his statements provokes increscent fluster.

    Certainly, it is much more fair and efficient to judge someone not by words but by actions. Observers therefore expect Vladimir Zelensky to actively stick to the “Acta non verba” principle during his new presidential term, although the “measure thrice and cut once” principle would indeed be most helpful for a president whose political career only started half a year ago.

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