By Nazar Zabolotnyi, for Ukrayinska Pravda
After two years since the inauguration of Volodymyr Zelensky, a fastidious analysis of his decisions as the head of state clearly demonstrates that the sixth President of Ukraine is focused on polishing his positive image rather than on real achievements.
During the two years at Bankova Zelensky’s team learned to act without losing points in the eyes of key beneficiaries of its power — the voters. Over time, however, the country looks more and more like a dog-and-pony show where behind the beautiful façade there is no room for the capacity for sustainability or development.
Unlike his predecessors, Zelensky became the president without previous experience of political competition or even any position of power. However, he surprisingly easily and candidly managed to turn from the actor who played the president in a TV series into the real President of Ukraine.
After such quick success, many expected that his downfall would be no less drastic. Despite all expectations, Volodymyr Oleksandrovych has managed to maintain his high level of support through the first two years in office and despite everything to stay the most popular politician in the country. Although two years ago he promised not to run for the second time, currently Zelensky has a fair chance to be reelected.
Father of popular decisions
Any discussion about how Zelensky managed to maintain his high level of support is futile since any argument in such a discussion will be to some extent grounded in reality. However, several factors of his popularity are crucial for understanding the long-term trends that are now apparent.
The steps and actions that Zelensky has already made as president had a significant impact and will define our social and political landscape for years.
Let us start with external circumstances.
Volodymyr Oleksandrovych rules in a country where the society deeply mistrusts representatives of old political elites that are trying to compete with the President.
His main opponent Petro Poroshenko is mistrusted by roughly the same 73% of Ukrainians that elected Zelensky two years ago. Not much higher figures have Yulia Tymoshenko and the most popular pro-Russian politician Yurii Boiko. Both of them are mistrusted by near 60% of our fellow citizens.
On the other hand, during the last two years, no serious pretenders for the role of a national leader for the new generation appeared on the political horizon of Ukraine. In the end, Zelensky’s high figures are stable because there are still no alternative candidates to voters liking. Social research companies, though, continue to throw in their surveys one or two relatively new names from time to time.
The second reason of his high ratings is the absence of accusations that he abuses his power for personal enrichment — a vice that is routinely present for decades in Ukrainian politics.
Although media from time to time uncover corruption schemes where President’s associates are involved, no corruption scandals were ever associated with the President himself.
Simply put, Ukrainians put their trust in Zelensky for a much longer period than in his predecessors because they do not think him to be a corrupted politician.
Third and, probably, the most important factor is that while making decisions the President and his whole team pick alternatives that are the best not from a good governance perspective or even just compliant with formal logic but the ones that suit best the layman audience.
A prominent example of such a decision is the abolishment of MP’s immunity at the beginning of the term in office of the new Verkhovna Rada.
The same is true about decrees dismissing the judges of the Constitutional Court, imposing sanctions against smugglers, and shutting down the pro-Russian channels of Medvedchuk and Kozak. All these decisions are hardly within the framework of law or compliant with the Constitution. According to the polls, though, they were highly appreciated by people.
Abolition of the MP’s immunity was met with applause not only by MPs in the hall of the Verkhovna Rada but also by millions of citizens throughout Ukraine. The real result of this decision, however, is the environment where MPs, and especially MPs from the opposition, are defenseless against the pressure from law enforcement bodies.
For now, the abolishment of the immunity had no bearing on the situation with MPs been charged with criminal offenses. During almost a year and a half without the immunity, no MP was convicted although corruption scandals flared even in the ranks of the pro-presidential “monomajority”.
But why is it the President’s folly if the decision was made by the Verkhovna Rada? The answer is that as the guarantor of the Constitution he should have defended the parliamentarism but instead decided to sit idle and not to risk losing people’s love.
Although the results of this decision are insignificant now, in the long run, it presents a threat to democracy. Over 90% of Ukrainians, however, supported the idea and perceived its implementation as an achievement of the President and his team.
Unfortunately, many decisions of the last two years are either populist, emotional or unreasonable. Other prominent examples were when the President announced the national poll with “hyped” questions, ordered the Cabinet to lower prices on natural gas for households and to develop the national vaccination plan, and submitted a draft bill liquidating the District Administrative Court of Kyiv.
Of the decisions that were necessary but unpopular, we managed to find only one: the launch of the land market. This radical change in the agricultural sector, though, happened not so much because the President and his team wanted to push it, but because of a mix of economic problems, IFM requirements, and the fact that issue should have been addressed long ago.
All other decisions, though, are totally in line with the logic of “popular over necessary”. That is why global objectives the Ukrainian government has to achieve — in particular, fighting off the Russian aggression, reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories, and establishment of the effective system of governance — are postponed for better times. Meanwhile, when the President and his political party do address some important issues, their policies are inconsistent and sometimes even harmful.
No quick end to a war
As newly-elected president, Zelensky announced his first priority in office to be the issue most important for the majority of Ukrainians: to quickly end the war.
To his credit, he partially succeeded in this task. He arranged a deal to free many prisoners of war and unjustly convicted that were held on the occupied territories and in Russia. In addition, he had achieved a tentative ceasefire that held until the beginning of this year and for a long time minimized losses of the Armed Forces.
From the long-term perspective, however, these tactical successes could even turn out to be harmful in the future.
For example, in the so-called “big prisoners exchange” at the end of 2019 Ukraine freed and surrendered Russia several Ukrainian citizens — former Berkut riot police members suspected of murdering the participants of the Revolution of Dignity. As a result, one of the last direct executors of the crimes against the Maidan became unreachable and society was deprived of even a remote chance to restore justice.
It appears that the most dangerous idea of the President is that the war can be won quickly, without cost, and to the benefit of Ukraine. The idea creates a delusion of safety and attitude that the war is happening somewhere far, although it continues on the Ukrainian land for the seventh year now.
Also, a belief that peace can be quickly settled via negotiations creates a delusion that we are almost safe and weakens people’s preparedness to defend themselves. It also demotivates soldiers who for over seven years have to ask themselves why the war is worth fighting while the state is paying them for keeping ceasefire and not for freeing lands occupied by the enemy, and the high command values the ceasefire more than victory.
Instead, the concentration of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border and in the occupied Crimea in spring once more proved that Moscow needs this war and at any time can escalate the situation in Donbas, prepare a full-scale invasion into Ukraine, or use either of these scenarios to pressure Ukraine or solve Russian international or internal problems.
To conclude, in the foreseeable future there are no reasons to expect that Russia will stop its aggression let alone free the Ukrainian territories it has occupied. This should be the idea that the President and the High Commander are communicating to people instead of idle talks of peace via negotiations.
The establishment has to clearly explain to Ukrainians what are our closes perspectives and objectives: there will be no quick peace, our first priority is to become capable to defend ourselves and minimize the risk of a full-scale Russian invasion or Russian occupation of more of our territories. To do that, we need consistent and sustainable state policies on the development of the Ukrainian army and understanding between the authorities and society.
This, of course, does not mean we should abandon our political and diplomatic efforts to become a member of NATO and the EU. However, every Ukrainian has also to understand from childhood that the safety of Ukraine and its survival mainly depend on him or her, on their compatriots, and their readiness to defend Ukraine with arms in their hands.
People’s readiness to defend themselves is no less important than proper development of the Armed Forced when it comes to diminishing risks of losing statehood or increasing chances to deoccupy the territories and end the war. The President, however, is silent about the matter and does not address the issue by proposing proper state policies.
System of governance
With a personal parliamentary majority, the President got a de facto total power over the country. Zelensky is the first president that does not have to negotiate with other political parties to approve the composition of parliamentary committees and the Cabinet. Thanks to the monomajority, he controls both the legislative and executive branches.
It is one thing, though, to have the power and quite another to be able to use it. In this respect, Zelensky’s team has problems.
Ministers and other top officials of Zelensky’s time can be described as “people that make no real difference”.
The President has managed to assemble his party from people that were new to politics. So new, in fact, that of 254 MPs from Servant of the People no one was able to lead the Cabinet. As a result, both appointed Prime Ministers of the last two years were outsiders.
The same applies to ministers. In the Honcharuk Cabinet, only 4 out of 15 ministers were MPs from Servant of the People, in the Shmyhal Cabinet — only 3 out of 15.
The absence of a strong consolidated team was and is an obstacle to the effective work of the Cabinet. A modern state is a complex system where all spheres of economy and social life are tightly interconnected.
On the other hand, by hastily appointing ministers and conducting job interviews personally, Zelensky implicitly made loyalty, not professionalism, to be the key criterion for selecting top officials of the executive branch. As a result, more than once ministers were dismissed after just several weeks after been appointed. Important examples were the Minister of Healthcare and the Minister of Finance.
Because of this HR policy, we have a weak Cabinet that works not as much on how to develop and implement state policies as on how to demonstrate the loyalty of each bureaucrat to the head of state.
Rule of the President substitutes the rule of law. On top of this, President’s control over the Cabinet in no way means that he personally does not try to play the Cabinet’s role.
During the last two years, Zelensky issued dozens of decrees regulating issues that are an exclusive domain of the Government and on many occasions gave orders to the Cabinet on what to do and how to do it. Analysts of the Centre of United Actions registered such facts almost daily and highlighted them in the results of their monitoring.
It is plain that no decision by Zelensky outside his authority is not constitutional. The Constitution defines a comprehensive list of presidential powers in Article 106 and only issues defined in the list can be addressed by Zelensky.
It includes international politics, national security and defense, and initiative in introducing special legal regimes like emergency state or martial law.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the President has not fulfilled his duty to declare the emergency state and instead shifted his responsibility on the shoulders of the Cabinet.
The Cabinet was forced to introduce restrictions on human rights and freedoms by governmental decrees. As a result, it violated the Constitution, and lockdown measures were much less effective because of their doubtful legality.
Because President refused to take responsibility for his duties, lockdown restrictions were ignored even on the Pechersk Hills, and the situation in thousands of communities throughout Ukraine was even worse.
But the Cabinet is not the only victim of the President’s expansion. Another body that was used to push fishy decisions and simultaneously benefit from political dividends from their implementation was the National Security and Defense Council. Recently it became the body with unlimited powers and key newsmaker for evening political news.
Zelensky left behind all his predecessors in expanding his power with help of the NSDC acting far outside the limits defined for it in the Constitution.
The first President to open that door was Viktor Yushchenko. With help of the secretary of the NSDC Petro Poroshenko, he tried to create an alternative pro-presidential Cabinet. Later Poroshenko also used the same strategy when he became the head of state.
However, only Volodymyr Zelensky managed to push the art of abusing NSDC’s decisions to a new level.
Today the body that should have been just an intermediary for coordination between the President and the Prime Minister on issues of defense and security not just assumes the Cabinet’s authority by regulating policies on decentralization but also plays at being a court by imposing sanctions against smugglers and Kremlin puppets without proper investigations and punishments.
Also, thanks to the decentralization that transferred many state powers to the local level, the authority of the central government in regions became weak as never before and it is often unable to implement its policies.
A prominent example of this trend is that many mayors ignore lockdown restrictions imposed by the Cabinet.
Two years of Zelensky’s presidency were a period of contrasts. On the one hand, he and his team made many popular decisions. On the other hand — these decisions had not produced the promised results.
Abolition of MP’s immunity had no bearing on whether MPs are actually prosecuted for their crimes. Negotiations with Putin and ceasefire have not made peace or deoccupation any closer.
The absolute power in the hands of one person has not brought order but instead contributed to creating chaos in the work of state apparatus by creating a weak and indecisive government. The Parliament does not perform its function of controlling the executive branch and the National Security and Defense Council. The NSDC is turning into a state within the state unrestricted by any written or unwritten rules.
Obviously, there will be no development and prosperity for the country in chaos, so both political elites and ordinary Ukrainians should start thinking about how to create an effective system of governance.
In particular, on how to design a system where the executive branch is led by the most popular politician supported by voters and not the person who was the first choice of Bankova after the job interview, where the Parliament controls the executive branch and ensures transparent decision-making.
At the very least, a system of governance where people will understand what are the duties of their officials and who is responsible for what.
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