Zelensky And The Delicate Task Of Tackling Corruption In Wartime
On the eve of Vladimir Putin's invasion, Volodymyr Zelensky was not a particularly popular figure in Ukraine. In the year since, he has achieved virtually universal support at home, and hero status abroad. What will the onetime anti-corruption crusader do with this political capital?
KYIV — To understand Volodymyr Zelensky's spectacular rise, it's worth going back to his arrival on the political scene in Ukraine.
In the first round of the 2019 presidential elections, the well-known actor and comedian, and political novice, got 30% of the ballots, before rallying the entire protest vote in the second round to win with a sensational 73%. In May 2020, about 40% of Ukrainians supported Zelensky’s presidency. By 2021, that support had dropped by 10 percentage points, and by the beginning of Feb. 2022, he could claim on 24.6% support.
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Zelensky’s rating was affected by the inevitable disappointment of inflated expectations, as well as personnel failures, unpopular land reforms, rising utility bills and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of his key promises — peace in the Donbas — remained unfulfilled. Despite a short détente in the summer and autumn of 2019, the Kremlin demonstrated that it did not intend to give in to Kyiv’s demands. Similarly, the Ukrainian public made clear that they were not ready to make concessions to the aggressor.
The Russian invasion of Feb. 24 changed everything. Zelensky went from fading president to supreme commander, leading a nation at war.
In the first days of the war, support for the Ukrainian president shot up to 91%. Zelensky refusal of offers from Western allies to move abroad for safety, and instead remain in Kyiv, then under attack by Russia, played a key role.
As a result of his courageous behavior, the president has created moral capital for himself, and left all political competitors far behind.
(Nearly) second to none
Polls in February 2022 show the main rival of the fading Zelensky was his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. The ex-president, who did not resign but was defeated by the younger Zelensky, sharply criticized the new president. Media outlets and activists associated with Poroshenko accused Zelensky of capitulating to Moscow and having ties to oligarchs.
The outbreak of the war nullified those arguments. Pro-Russian politicians were the first to drop out of the game, and any remaining pro-Kremlin parties, including the parliamentary ‘Opposition Platform for Life,' were banned by a court decision.
But even opponents of the pro-European camp, like Poroshenko, are struggling to challenge the president. In wartime conditions, there are few opportunities for criticism of presidential decision: parliamentary sessions are held behind closed doors, the broadcasting of the ex-president’s TV channels is limited and the rhetoric of “sharing responsibility” isn't popular in wartime. The image of the ex-president has faded significantly against the backdrop of Zelensky’s popularity.
Zelensky's only serious competitors will come from the military. The press often writes about alleged political tensions between the President and Ukraine's military commander-in-chief, Valery Zaluzhny, whose popularity is comparable to the President's. Russian propaganda likes to speculate on this topic, pushing the narrative of a split among Kyiv elites.
Now, however, the survival of the country depends on the cooperation of civil and military authorities, and if there is political competition between Zelensky and Zaluzhny, it has been postponed until better times. But there is no doubt that in post-war Ukraine, regardless of the outcome of the conflict, the military will play a huge role.
Zelensky answers reporters' questions after submitting documents necessary for the registration as a presidential candidate in 2019
Skepticism of institutions
After coming to power, Volodymyr Zelensky made a bet on the centralization of state administration. Although according to the country's constitution Ukraine is a parliamentary-presidential republic, Zelensky built a system closer to the presidential model.
The key decision-making center has become the presidential administration. The presidential office is run by Andriy Yermak, the most trusted official in Zelensky’s team today. Yermak has been widely criticized for being awarded too much power, despite not having constitutional status.
Ukraine was in a condition of what commentators call ‘state capture’
As a politician, Zelensky is characterized by a lack of faith in institutions. There are grounds for this skepticism: for many years, Ukraine was in a condition of what commentators call ‘state capture’ — a state run by mafia-oligarchic clans, whose shadow power the democratic revolutions of 2004 and 2014 revealed in all their murkiness.
Zelensky came to power on a wave of anti-elite rhetoric, with a mandate to update the system. But his distrust of parliamentary institutions and propensity for emergency, which manifested itself even before the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, led to strengthening presidential powers.
With the landslide victory of his Servant of the People Party in the 2019 elections, Zelensky sought to use this leverage to speed up reforms, which in the past have often been thwarted by oligarchic lobbies and party squabbles. For the first months, the parliament worked at turbo speed, passing batches of laws sent down from the president's office. But the shortcomings of such a model quickly became apparent: laws adopted quickly were not always of high quality and many deputies did not have the proper qualifications.
Outstripping the Oligarchs
By February 2022, the one-party majority no longer worked so effectively. Unanimous votes were a thing of the past, and private interest factions and lobbying fraternities formed within the party. Some deputies were poached by speaker Dmitry Razumkov, who left the Servant of the People party, dissatisfied with the declining importance of parliament in the system of power.
In wartime, a centralized model of government with strong presidential power has thus far proved successful. Even the president's opponents recognize the effectiveness of the vertical structure. But it also has the potential to slide into authoritarianism. Under this system, the president gathers a huge amount of power in his hands.
Zelensky has no serious political opponents left. Even the oligarchs, who had served as a limiter to the omnipotence of Ukrainian leaders, like under Poroshenko or former president Viktor Yanukovych, are losing influence. Most are concerned about saving their capital against the background of military destruction, economic collapse and the policy of deoligarchization, which Zelensky initiated prior to Russia’s invasion.
Strengthening the centralization of the country's administration is also in conflict with a number of previously implemented reforms, like the local self-government reform, which expanded the powers of regional authorities. The office of the president is also increasingly in conflict with the mayors of major cities, in some cases seeking their removal. At the same time, 76.5% of Ukrainians believe that decentralization reforms should be continued.
Zelensky in Bucha following the retreat of the Russian army.
Cleanup at the top
The next parliamentary elections are expected in Oct. 2023, and the presidential elections in March 2024 — but this is if the active phase of the war ends. Under martial law, elections are impossible. In Feb. 2023, parliament extended martial law for another 90 days. Even in the event of its complete abolition, a transitional period of four to five months to prepare for elections would be needed.
We don’t think about anything other than bringing victory closer. We will win and then think about politics.
Many legal and technical problems remain: clarification of voter lists, organization of voting for a mass of refugees who can't or don't want to return, as well as the legal regime in territories that have been outside Ukrainian legislation for many years and may be liberated by that time, like Luhansk and Donetsk. Elections will likely be postponed.
“I’ll tell you honestly, today we don’t think about anything other than bringing victory closer. We will win and then think about politics,” says Andriy Yermak, head of the presidential office. An understandable position, but at the same time, a cunning one.
The war creates opportunities for politicians that they could not even dream of in peacetime. For example, within the framework of information security, leading TV channels broadcast a marathon of "unified news," the content of which is influenced by the office of the president. Still, Ukrainian society isn't falling asleep — on the contrary, there's an increasing desire to hold officials to account.
In recent months, an anti-corruption campaign has been gaining momentum in Ukraine. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office, bodies whose independence was one of the conditions for Ukraine to obtain a visa-free status with the EU and financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund, play a key role here in ousting corrupt and unlawful politicians. Independent media and specialized non-governmental organizations are also vital.
Zelensky must respond quickly to public demand, to prevent radicalization at the front and rear, where corruption at the top in wartime is unequivocally interpreted as looting — and at the same time, must sacrifice figures close to him.
Commentators in Kyiv assess the outcome of the purge at the top in different ways: some believe it will strengthen the authority of the president and his team, while others predict chaos and destabilization of government (an incredibly dangerous thing in wartime).
An important incentive for Zelensky to restore order is not only the internal agenda, but also the external image of Ukraine, upon which the military and economic assistance from the West depends, with allies regularly auditing the aid they provide. The image of a corrupt country formed by post-Soviet elites would almost certainly damage the much needed support of Western allies.
The official status of a candidate for EU membership, obtained by Ukraine in June 2022, is an additional incentive to clean up the political system and rid it of the mafia deep state that controlled the country in the 1990s and 2000s.
Under these conditions, this lack of alternatives to Zelensky as a political leader is largely balanced by both external influence from the Western allies and internal social forces ready to resist the decay or usurpation of power.
Ukraine, despite martial law, remains a state governed by law and a constitution — although the increased centralization of government and growing influence of the security forces may complicate the return to the norms of peaceful life. But first, we must make it to peacetime. Today, the fate of Ukraine is decided on the frontline.
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