Veronika Sušová-Salminen argues that the Ukrainian president has in many ways returned to the policies of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko.
Ukraine and its political development have long been just a marginal issue for the mainstream media. Information about Ukraine appears sporadically, although most of Ukraine’s problems since 2014 have not been resolved. Crimea remains under the de facto control of the Russian Federation. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has not been settled and the Minsk protocol of 2014 and 2015 is not being implemented in practice. There has been no economic boom in the country and Ukraine remains dependent on Western donors, which severely limits its sovereignty. Endemic corruption has not been eliminated and the oligarchs have not left Ukrainian politics but instead continue to distort the Ukrainian political system.
‘Normal service’ has also resumed for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. An actor by profession, he was chosen as an alternative to Petro Poroshenko, who moved from being a politician of peace to the exact opposite. In office, Poroshenko, a European ‘liberal’, became a Ukrainian nationalist and conservative who ended up only impressing voters in the country’s west and relying on the mechanisms of conflict to ‘solve’ the country’s internal political problems. Zelensky now seems to be following in the footsteps of his predecessor, whom he defeated in the 2019 presidential election with a promise to change relations with Russia, and with Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the south and east of the country, and to tackle the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Zelensky united the otherwise often regionally fragmented Ukraine and enjoyed high support for a relatively long time. But two years as president of a country with protracted problems that cannot be solved without radical systemic change have taken their toll.
Walking in circles
Zelensky’s current rut has three causes. The first is, of course, the protracted crisis of the Ukrainian state and economy, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The second is the situation in Ukrainian politics, where a more pragmatic policy towards Russia, which would align more closely to the security and economic interests of the country, has failed to materialise. The third factor is change in the White House, which Ukraine plans to take advantage of. All this is compounded by Zelensky’s political inexperience and lack of ideological anchorage (as is usual for political projects).
Zelensky’s problems at home are hardly surprising. His relatively strong popularity fell to about 22%, while his political party(-slash-project), Servant of the People, came fourth in January polls, a major slump for a party that won a parliamentary majority in the last election. Zelensky would thus face a potential scenario that we have known since the days of President Viktor Yushchenko. Even in Yushchenko, people had huge hopes that the country, i.e. the existing status quo, would undergo reform so that he would eventually gain something close to 5% of voter support in the next presidential election. The first Orange Revolution in Ukraine turned out to be not all that famous. The second resulted in a war.
Zelensky has recently bet on a policy of highlighting internal/external enemies in the hope of boosting his flagging support (and April polls suggest that he has so far been relatively successful). In terms of domestic politics, in addition to further raising fees for communal services, his policy focuses on weakening political opponents by further strengthening the current conflict. In other words, it seeks to eliminate the "pro-Russian forces" that are in political opposition today and enjoy considerable support among voters. In January polls, the Opposition Platform — For Life political party ranked ahead of the Servant of the People party. As is customary in Ukraine, the party is associated with a Ukrainian oligarch, in this case Viktor Medvedchuk, a politician with very good connections to the Kremlin.
Also targeted at the beginning of February were three opposition television channels connected with Medvedchuk, which belonged to the Opposition Platform’s media portfolio and were owned by Medvedchuk’s ally Taras Kozak. Sanctions were imposed on both Medvedchuk and Kozak. Television stations were labelled "pro-Russian" and were accused of broadcasting "propaganda", before being simply turned off with the move justified by the need to fight Russian influence over information in Ukraine. Furthermore, journalist and blogger Anatoliy Shariy and his Shariy Party (which, however, has only between 2% and 3% of support according to polls) found themselves in the crosshairs of the Zelensky authorities, probably preventively. Shariy, a journalist who successfully claimed political asylum in the EU prior to the Euromaidan protests, has openly criticised developments in Ukraine since 2014 (which seems to be a taboo act) and today he is wanted by the Ukrainian Security Service on the charge of treason for his alleged involvement in Russian disinformation campaigns against Ukraine. However, the internal political struggle waged through the very slippery notions of ‘propaganda’ and ‘pro-Russian influence’, i.e. the de facto narrowing of freedom of speech, is only one aspect of Zelensky’s recent political shift.
Zelensky apparently wants to strengthen political ties by throwing his lot in with the new incumbent of the White House, Joe Biden. The tactics he has chosen also come straight from the playbook of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. Recently, there have been increasing calls from the Ukrainian side for the need to reform the ‘Normandy format‘ and the Minsk process. This is because, as Leonid Kravchuk, a Ukrainian representative who is part of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, said, it is necessary to start with "security" in Donbas and then continue with a political solution. Kravchuk repeatedly blamed the Russian side for the failure of the Donbas talks. There has recently been renewed shelling on the Donbas front, which Ukraine has claimed is the sole responsibility of Russia or local "terrorists". Furthermore, Russia has organised a large-scale deployment of troops towards its borders with Ukraine, sparking suspicions of invasion (which were not confirmed). Most recently, Zelensky hoped that the United States would join the ‘Normandy format’ and the Minsk process so that the EU, the United States and Ukraine could fight together "for democracy and freedom against an authoritarian regime". In addition, the Ukrainian president would like to receive a "clear signal" from Biden regarding Ukraine’s membership of NATO.
The ‘Crimean Platform’, a new Ukrainian initiative that aims to return Crimea to Ukraine, is also part of these efforts. Here, Ukraine is not only counting on the support of the West but from Erdoğan’s Turkey too. The Zelensky government continues to support the ongoing militarisation of the Black Sea and is preparing another military exercise in this area with NATO in the second half of the year. As part of the government’s recent courting of the Biden administration, there have also been some moves against China in relation to the takeover of the Ukrainian firm Motor Sich by Chinese investors. The Ukrainian Security Service interrupted the meeting and the handover did not take place.
Pressure surrounding the language issue has not eased either: in multilingual Ukraine, developments following the Euromaidan protests are moving towards repressive Ukrainianisation. This was one of the promises made by Zelensky, especially to his constituents in the eastern and southern parts of the country where Russian (although slightly different to the Russian spoken in Russia) is the mother tongue of a large part of the population. In Ukraine, Russian is now declared not as the language of Gogol but as the "language of the aggressor" and its public use is punishable. For example, a Kharkov Regional Council member who spoke Russian during a meeting because, in a moment of frustration, he "couldn’t find the words in Ukrainian", was expelled from Poroshenko’s European Solidarity Party. The MP subsequently "apologised to the whole society" for speaking Russian in public. Incidentally, the situation in Ukraine contrasts with the policy of the new ‘revolutionary’ president of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Zhaparov, who in fact became president as a result of another (the third) revolution in the Central Asian state. According to Slovak expert Peter Juza, new president Zhaparov, as reported in an article called ‘The Allied Ties’ published just before his trip to Moscow, "… opposed the change in the Russian language status in the country (a fine reference to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan), which is not only an instrument and a means of interethnic communications within Kyrgyzstan. In the broader post-Soviet context, it is also a (quite clear and unambiguous) reference to the President of Ukraine, who (as well as the whole country) is consumed by blunt nationalism, which has (so far) aimed at violent Ukrainianisation of the Russian-speaking population, which – quite rightly – resists it."
The risks of and an end to alternatives
There are, of course, risks to the ‘new’ Zelensky policy. These include a further continuation of the conflict in Donbas, with potentially dangerous consequences for peace in Europe. But there are other major risks, although they are less serious than war. One of the main potential problems is that Zelensky’s change of tack threatens the power and influence of another Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky. Sanctions on Kozak and Medvedchuk and the suspension of three TV channels are a precedent, especially when Zelensky commented that the influence of the oligarchs in Ukraine could be eliminated by "confiscating the television", i.e. limiting their influence in the media. However, for Kolomoisky, problems have also arisen from the election of Joe Biden as President of the USA as he was involved in the campaign against Biden’s son Hunter, i.e. against Biden and his election. The first shot from the White House has already been fired: American sanctions have been imposed on Kolomoisky and he is not allowed to enter the USA. However, Kolomoisky still exercises substantial influence via the parliamentary faction of the Servant of the People (with between 20 and 30 deputies), which potentially poses a significant problem for the president and his control over the Ukrainian parliament.
Along with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine also been walking in circles. If developments continue in this direction, a large proportion of Ukrainian voters will reaffirm that whoever is elected today will turn out the same way tomorrow, i.e. just as bad.
This article was originally published in Czech on March 10, 2021, on Časopis !Argument.