How do Ukrainians assess the performance and prospects of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, now five months in office, as he tackles the country’s two largest challenges: resolving the war with Russia and implementing economic and anti-corruption reforms? In two words: cautious optimism. Many retain the optimism they felt when Zelenskiy swept into office this spring, elected with more than 70% of the vote. At the same time, they express caution about how his presidency will perform.
Almost everyone credits Zelenskiy with being open-minded and genuinely sincere in his desire to promote reform, make progress in ending the conflict with Russia in Donbas, and build a successful Ukrainian state. They see his young supporting team — the cabinet ministers’ average age is 39 — as energetic and pro-reform. They want to move quickly.
Zelenskiy has brought many new faces into his presidential office. Likewise, new faces populate the cabinet of ministers and his political party, Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People, which was also the name of his television show before he became president). These people went through their formative years in the mid 1990s and 2000s. Like Zelenskiy himself, they came of age after the collapse of the Soviet system.
Zelenskiy, moreover, has a position unique for Ukrainian presidents since the country regained independence in 1991. He has his own man as prime minister, and Sluha Narodu controls a solid majority of seats in the Rada (parliament). He thus is well positioned to press through reforms and other changes — and has every incentive to do so since, if things go badly, he will have no one to blame other than himself.
All of this generates optimism that, finally, Ukraine can make a definitive breakthrough and proceed quickly down the path to becoming a normal European state — what many joined the Maidan Revolution protests to achieve. However, cautions also arise.
CAPACITY TO MAKE DOMESTIC CHANGES?
Some question whether Zelenskiy’s team has the professional skills and intellectual capacity to manage the government and deliver real change. They have set some lofty ambitions. For example, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk has suggested the economy will grow by 40% in five years. Accomplishing that will prove a challenge. It will require a focused reform program and discipline among Sluha Narodu members in the Rada.
Whether Sluha Narodu can maintain the needed discipline is, for many, an open question. The party holds 252 of 423 seats in the Rada; another 27 seats that would represent Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, or parts of Donbas occupied by Russian and Russian proxy forces, remain unfilled. As it takes 226 votes to pass legislation, Sluha Narodu has real political power. But questions have arisen about differences within the party, with some already seeing factions aligning with particular oligarchs. Lack of party unity could bode ill for Zelenskiy’s legislative agenda.
Another question concerns the nature of Zelenskiy’s relationship with oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the television channel that broadcast Zelenskiy’s popular comedy show. A September Zelenskiy-Kolomoisky meeting in the presidential office undercut prior Zelenskiy assurances that Kolomoisky would have no influence over him.
The primary test case for that relationship remains Privatbank, in which Kolomoisky was a major shareholder. The National Bank of Ukraine nationalized Privatbank in 2016, after an audit revealed losses on the order of $5.5 billion. Kolomoisky has filed suit to reclaim his ownership share or wants $2 billion in compensation. He won a favorable ruling in a Ukrainian court earlier this year, though he lost a ruling in a parallel case in London.
Questions about Privatbank’s future have slowed consideration by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of a new program of credits for Ukraine. If Kolomoisky were to prevail, that would almost certainly kill the IMF program. However, the ministers of finance and economy oppose any compromise with Kolomoisky, and Zelenskiy supporters point to statements by the president and his office that Zelenskiy will not let Kolomoisky win. They express frustration that those statements have not satisfied IMF officials.
Another concern is that Zelenskiy follows opinion polls too closely and adjusts his positions if they appear unpopular. For example, Zelenskiy came out shortly after his election in favor of allowing the sale of agricultural land (a moratorium on such sales dating back to the 1990s has proven a major impediment to development of Ukraine’s agricultural sector). Apparently based on poll results, he subsequently decided to limit sales to Ukrainian citizens. While it might not be surprising that he follows polls, his approval rating in early October exceeded 70% — wildly high by Ukrainian standards. He has political space to take controversial decisions that might go against pollsters’ findings.