The head of state, a political outsider who had promised to fight corruption, must contend with the powerful oligarchs in his own entourage at the risk of disappointing his voters.
KIEV — At the appointed hour, a crowd of fur hats and coats gathers in front of the town hall. The thermometer reads -17°C on this January Sunday in Kryvyi Rih, located in central Ukraine. Demonstrators take turns speaking in front of the austere building. "We are very poor, the charges are increasing and the nation is under threat; we have to oppose the rates," a woman says. "Zelensky sold our city to the oligarchs!" says another.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, grew up here, in this industrial city of 630,000 inhabitants that is bristling with waste mountains and factory chimneys, the sky hidden by a veil of pollution.
There are many among the 300 or so people that came to protest against the increase in rates who had voted for Zelensky in the April 2019 presidential election. They had been won over by the anti-elitist speeches of this former actor, a political novice, who was only famous before then for playing the role of president in a television series.
A year and a half later, his voters feel disillusioned. "We've been betrayed! We thought he would be close to the people and rid us of corruption, but he has done nothing," says Irina Oumanska, a 33-year-old worker. "I want him to leave!"
Zelensky was convinced he could change everything quickly.
Zelensky is already showing signs he's running out of steam. His flagship promise – the eradication of corruption – may now never come to fruition, which would jeopardize not only the vital support of international donors but also the efforts undertaken in the aftermath of the 2014 pro-European revolution in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).
The first few months of Zelensky's tenure looked promising. Parliamentary immunity was relaxed, the public investigation office was created, the High Anti-Corruption Court was established and dozens of reforms were carried out to great fanfare. The government even earned the nickname "turbo regime."
Buoyed by his historic win in the presidential election (73% of the vote) and the absolute majority won in Parliament by his party Servant of the People, Volodymyr Zelensky was convinced that he could change everything quickly. Alas, he now faces a system bigger than himself.
The all-powerful Constitutional Court is putting up fierce resistance. The most spectacular episode took place in October 2020. Led by about 50 pro-Russian deputies, it invalidated a series of anti-corruption measures that had been in force for several years, deeming them too severe. In particular, it removed criminal liability for public officials found guilty of filing false tax returns.
The scale of corruption is immense in Ukraine.
The decision caused a major scandal inside the country and raised much concern amongst international donors. A new, less severe law was subsequently passed, but a whole section of the anti-corruption edifice had already collapsed.
"This crisis demonstrated that judges, some of whom are themselves accused of corruption, are not ready to change the system," says politician Volodymyr Fesenko. "The scale of corruption is immense in Ukraine, it's not just a matter of a few bribes. Zelensky arrived with the will to act, but without a concrete program. Simply replacing the old elites is not enough."
Cleaning up the notoriously corrupt judicial system is a conundrum. In December 2020, the president proposed replacing the judges of the Constitutional Court, but the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's body of constitutional law experts, opposed the proposal in the name of the judiciary's independence, which is largely non-existent in Ukraine.
Threats to the fight against corruption now also come from the president's entourage. Less than a year into his term, Zelensky reshuffled his government in March 2020, judging its performance disappointing. All reformers were dismissed. It was a turning point.
We understood that there were no more illusions."
Two controversial figures from the clan of the former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, were given key positions at almost the same time: Andrii Yermak, appointed head of the Presidential Administration, and Oleg Tatarov, his deputy. The latter's name is well known to former demonstrators in Kiev. He was previously the police spokesperson and labelled these dissidents "criminals."
"When we saw the first government leave and Yermak and Tatarov arrive, we understood that there were no more illusions to be made," says Roman Maselko, lawyer and board member of the DEJURE Foundation, which specializes in the study of justice reforms.
People are now asking questions about the president's behavior. For example, in December 2020, he blocked the investigation into a corruption case against Tatarov.
The first few months of Zelensky's tenure looked promising — Photo: Markiian Lyseiko/Ukrinform via ZUMA Wire
"Zelensky is not clear about all this," says Daria Kaleniuk, co-founder and executive director of the Anti-corruption Action Centre (AntAC). "He works with corrupt people whose interests run counter to those of Ukraine. Why does he tolerate this?"
It is not so much the will of the president that is at issue as his inexperience. "He's a good guy, but he just doesn't get it," says Oleksandr Danylyuk, his former director of the National Security and Defense Council, who resigned after four months. Those who knew him point out another weakness: "He likes to be loved." A popular actor used to praise, Zelensky is likely to have reacted badly to the first criticisms he received as president. To that point, according to his former colleagues, he now lives in a "bubble" and only makes decisions based on polls.
In his entourage, the most seasoned know how to exploit these shortcomings: "There are courtiers and others, more influential, who represent oligarchic clans. They are organized and know how to provide him with arguments for abandoning any reforms that are unfavorable to them," says Ioulia Morozov, co-founder of Kryvyi Rih's largest cultural and social center and representative of the independent Syla Ludei (Power to the People) party.
Faced with the influence of oligarchs who control entire sectors of the Ukrainian economy, Zelensky tries to find a balance between the interests of one side and the other. Once elected, he distanced himself from the billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, owner of the channel 1 + 1, which broadcast his series. Anxious to prove that he was not his puppet, he did not give him PrivatBank, the largest bank in Ukraine, which the oligarch hoped to recover after its nationalization in 2016. A law dubbed "anti-Kolomoisky" was even passed to prevent the return of insolvent and nationalized banks to their former owners.
Zelensky no longer controls his party.
The head of state has also maintained his land reform, despite opposition from other oligarchs. He remains cautious, however.
"He can't wage war on all of them," says Fesenko. "It would be too risky because they control all the television channels. He would lose a lot."
For their part, the oligarchs have already extended their empire inside Parliament. These games of influence, coupled with growing political differences within the majority, have led to the fragmentation of the presidential party.
"Zelensky no longer controls his party," says Kaleniuk. At least 80 deputies are now affiliated with Kolomoisky and other oligarchs. "They have been developing a pro-Russian rhetoric inside the government."
How do you explain this turnaround? "They have been bought," says Kaleniuk. "It's very easy to buy a deputy. The rate is around $2,000 (1,650 euros) a month," she says, which is twice their salary.
Many observers are convinced that Russia, which is at war with Ukraine in the Donbas region, is behind these attempts at sabotage. "Moscow is trying to defeat Ukraine's anti-corruption system to prevent it from becoming entrenched in Europe," says lawyer Roman Maselko. "They know that credits from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union depend on this alliance. If they stop, Ukraine will have to turn to Russia."
For the time being, the miracle that Zelensky's voters were hoping for has not happened. Neither has the catastrophe predicted by his opponents, but the fear of a backlash is growing stronger and stronger. The former prosecutor-general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, respected by anti-corruption activists but fired during the reshuffle, is pessimistic.
"The situation is close to that which prevailed in 2013 when Viktor Yanukovych ridirected Ukraine's destiny from Europe to Russia. He had betrayed his promise to sign the association agreement with the EU, triggering the revolution in Kiev. I hope that Zelensky will not do the same. It would be very dangerous for society. People will not be ready to accept it."