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The mounting internal and external pressures on Ukrainian President Zelensky

With an anti-corruption agenda, vowing to fight against the influence of oligarchs, Zelensky became president of Ukraine in 2019. His recently established Servant of the People (SoP) party gained an absolute majority in parliament in the following parliamentary elections. So far little promises of Zelensky have come true, as the lack of unity of his party hinders political progress. His perception as an outsider to politics has quickly eroded once he started surrounded himself with many familiar faces to Ukrainian politics. As a consequence his approval ratings have drastically decreased, marked by an disappointing result in the October 2020 local elections. In an effort to rally support Zelensky has been taking a tougher stance against Russia and several oligarchs. It remains unclear whether Zelenksy has finally started implementing his ambitious agenda, or that he is simply hoping to recover his popularity.

Zelensky has come back from heaven after disappointing local elections

The expectations were high when the former actor, playing the leading role in the tv-series Servant of the People and founder of the political party with the same name, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected as president of Ukraine with 73% of the votes. Shortly after his April 2019 win, he called early elections. After the parliamentary elections in June of the same year his party did not even need to engage in coalition-negotiations, as it received an absolute majority in parliament. When founding the SoP and during his presidential elections campaign Zelensky promised to combat corruption, fight the influence of oligarchs and move closer to the West. However, little seems to have changed over the last few years.

Amid a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic his support steadily declined, with a disappointing result for the SoP in the local elections in October of 2020 as a consequence. The SoP was not able to gain control of any of the major Ukrainian cities Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Dnipro and Lviv. Considering that local administrations hold on to much power, it was a major disappointment for the SoP. It does seem to have shaken up Zelensky and the SoP members of parliament though. Something needs to be done, otherwise pro-Western former president Petro Poroshenko or pro-Rusian Viktor Medvedchuk might pose a serious challenge to the SoP’s political dominance in the near future. The SoP recently polled at around 16%, while the parties of Poroshenko and Medvedchuk polled at 18% and 17% respectfully.

Failure of Zelensky to combat corruption and oligarch influence

The declining support for Zelensky and the SoP is not surprising, considering how little it seemed has come true of Zelensky’s promises. Up until March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Zelensky had implemented some minor reforms to combat corruption but still enjoyed broad support. The few policies he implemented were far from the change that Zelensky claimed to be in his 2019 presidential campaign though. Since March 2020 Zelensky has had more important matters at hand with handling the COVID-19 pandemic, with little to no progress made with regards to fighting corruption and the influence of oligarchs. His decline in approval ratings seems to coincide with the backsliding on such political and economic changes.

Moreover, the positive attitude towards him, much based on his role as an outsider to Ukrainian politics, has turned around since he started to surround himself with “familiar faces”. His new chief of staff Andriy Yermak is rumored to have business connections with Russia and Denys Shmyhal was appointed by Zelensky as the new prime minister. Shmyhal has ties to one of the country’s most influential oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. These are just two examples of the many “old figures”, who have ties with former president Viktor Yanukovych or pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, appointed by Zelensky. In his 2019 presidential campaign, Zelensky presented himself as refreshing, promising to challenge the oligarchs who continue to control much of Ukraine’s politics. Little remains of his reputation as such a changemaker now. 

Internal pressures grow and Zelensky is losing his support in parliament

Zelensky has been losing support within his party since the fall of 2019 and it has become clear that one cannot speak of a majority rule by the SoP. Internal dissent has grown and the party has fragmented is several informal groups. Each of those groups is influenced by competing politicians or several of Ukraine’s influential oligarchs. These informal groups have drifted more and more apart leading up to the spring of 2020, putting the unity of the party at risk. Situational collation building is the result of such fragmentation. Zelensky has been looking for ways to increase its control over the SoP MPs so he can govern more effectively. However, this has yielded little results so far. The president has consistently needed support from other factions to get bills approved, which explains Zelensky’s inability to live to the promises he made.

Decreasing support and increased US pressure have led to more anti-Russian rhetoric

As a consequence of the ineffective rule of Zelenksy and his failure to live up to the high expectations he set, his approval ratings have steadily been declining since his election in 2019. Whereas in 2019 70% of voters supported Zelensky as president, this number has dropped to 23% in January of 2021. Given this, Zelensky has been looking for ways to increase his popularity again. One of his recent strategies has been to take a much tougher stance against Russia and Russian influence in Ukraine. Out of the blue, the administrations announced it would impose sanctions on individuals and corporations that have close ties to Russia. No incidents had occurred beforehand, making you wonder why Zelenksy chose to impose those sanctions so suddenly.  

Most importantly, Zelensky closed-down three pro-Russian media outlets and freezed the Ukrainian assets of political opponent Medvedchuk. Medvedchuk is the alleged owner of the pro-Russian media outlets, a longtime friend of Vladimir Putin and one of Ukraine’s richest and most powerful figures. The closed down media outlets were accused of spreading Russian propaganda, which Zelensky realized was seriously undermining his popularity. Furthermore, Zelensky has made the parliament ban the approval of the Russian-made Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccination, or any Russian-made vaccinations for that matter. With the backing a Biden-led United States (US), as opposed to the Trump-led US, he feels more secure to speak out against Russia and challenge Russian influence in his country.

Recent anti-corruption policies might be promising

It remains unclear whether such actions prove that Zelensky is finally making progress with regards to his ambitions of fighting corruption and decreasing the influence in politics of Ukraine’s oligarchs, or that he is merely bolstering his support with a tougher stance against Russia. In the last years, Zelensky has also been working on getting the Rada to approve his bills to combat corruption within the judiciary, where judges are largely controlled by influential oligarchs. However, such judicial reforms did not seem to be Zelensky’s highest priority up until last months. He has increasingly been pressing for judiciary reforms in the Rada over the last month though, which is a promising sign. Yet, it also seems as the disputes within his party continue and he is unable to increase his control over his party’s MPs, seriously compromising the chance of him succeeding. 

All of this should be seen in the context of increasing pressure from the US on Ukraine. With the instalment of President Joe Biden, the US has been pushing for more measures to combat Ukraine’s systemic problems with corruption and the recovery of its economy, which is hard-hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This in combination with declining support for Zelensky and his SoP party, has triggered some change. However, given the internal party differences and powerful positions of the Ukrainian oligarchs, it remains to be seen to what extent Zelensky will be able to implement his revolutionary agenda that he promised in his 2019 presidential campaign. His anti-Russian rhetoric seems to be working for him, as the decline in his approval ratings has stalled and there seem to be some signs of recovery in recent weeks. 

Sources: FinancialTimes, Intellinews, KyivPost1, KyivPost2, NewEurope1, NewEurope2, Rferl1, UkrWeekly, WashingtonPost, WilsonCenter1, WilsonCenter2

Image: Wikimedia (Volodymyr Zelensky)