March 12, 2021

A political spring for Ukraine?


There’s hardly a dull moment in Ukrainian politics, whether domestic or international. And, so far, this month has been no exception. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seems to have been politically reinvigorated, some are even saying “re-born,” and for the moment his opponents seem at a loss over how to respond.

Mr. Zelenskyy has kept up his offensive against those perceived as Moscow’s “fifth columnists.” He has fought not only against them, but also against corrupt officials and oligarchs, especially the notorious Ihor Kolomoisky, who has recently been sanctioned, together with his family, by the U.S. State Department. The president’s representatives have let it be known that more is to come.

In addition to this, while simultaneously continuing to grapple with the grave challenge of combating the COVID-19 pandemic, President Zelenskyy has launched a new ambitious plan to deliver desperately needed legal reform.

On the international front, in response to Moscow’s apparent decision to punish Kyiv for its firmness and actions against the Kremlin’s de facto agents of influence by terminating the precarious ceasefire in the Donbas, the Ukrainian leader has also sought to seize the initiative. He is trying to revitalize the stalled Normandy Four peace negotiations involving Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine by carrying the diplomatic fight to Moscow.

It has just been announced that Kyiv, Berlin and Paris want to break the continuing deadlock in the Normandy Four peace process created by Moscow’s intransigence and will be preparing a “peace plan” that they will offer to the Kremlin. We await to see what they have come up with and what the response will be.

All this has been happening against the background of recent changes in both the tone and practice of politics in Kyiv. The unexpected debilitating blows delivered by Mr. Zelenskyy’s team against tycoon Viktor Medvedchuk, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s point man in Ukraine, and the closure of three TV channels he controlled caught the pro-Russian forces off guard and, despite their protests, has left them at a loss regarding how to counter-attack.

But the “patriotic” forces opposed to President Zelenskyy – those following former president Petro Poroshenko – are also in a quandary. The current president, initially accused by his detractors of being ready to “capitulate” to Russia and of being indifferent to Ukrainian national interests, has effectively outshone them and is doing things that Mr. Poroshenko failed to do, like close down Mr. Medvedchuk’s TV channels and take on other oligarchs so resolutely.

Moreover, new embarrassing evidence has been emerging about dubious behind-the-scenes business and political interactions between Messrs. Poroshenko and Medvedchuk during the former’s presidency. Observers have noted that the former president has sought to divert attention away from himself and seems to be forming a tacit alliance with his supposed ideological adversaries against Mr. Zelenskyy.

Mr. Poroshenko has called into question the reliability of the COVID-19 vaccines the Ukrainian government has acquired for the population, developed in Britain but produced in India, prompting the British ambassador to publicly rebuke him.

Furthermore, representatives of the pro-Russian camp have been seen appearing on the two TV channels Mr. Poroshenko, who is both an oligarch and politician, owns.

Amidst this intensified political struggle, President Zelenskyy and his team appear to have found new ways to both circumvent obstacles created by the corrupt legal system to wage war against corruption and those suspected of subversive activities, and he has done so while boosting his flagging ratings in the polls.

Locked in conflict with the allegedly corrupt head of the Constitutional Court and having declared the need to dissolve other courts regarded as corrupt that have blocked reforms, President Zelensky has skillfully utilized the potential of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) to cut corners, avoid delays and implement sanctions in the name of safeguarding national security.

The secretary of the NSDC, Oleksiy Danilov, a former official in Luhansk who has been announcing and explaining its decisions, is emerging as an increasingly influential and respected political figure. The NSDC meets as required on Fridays and this day has now become the one on which the latest political sensations – moves against politically unsavory figures or entities – are expected to be announced and then discussed on the popular TV political show hosted by Savik Shuster.

In connection with the forthcoming 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, President Zelenskyy has launched another important initiative – the Ukraine 30 Forum. It provides a platform for regular high-level discussions on important topics of current concern for the country. For instance, at the beginning of March it was devoted to the “development of justice” and speakers included European Council president Charles Michel who was visiting Ukraine at the time.

The latest forum held on March 9 focused on “culture, media and tourism.” President Zelenskyy used it to convey several important messages. He stressed that Ukraine was currently at the forefront of the fight against propaganda and disinformation. “Media literacy lessons should appear in our school curriculum,” he said. “We should also teach those who finished school long ago – our parents, our grandparents – what information hygiene is, what fakes are, what propaganda is, and how someone, in just a few sentences or even words, can control their minds and their hearts.”

Mr. Zelenskyy reminded the audience that he was establishing a Center for Countering Disinformation in Ukraine which he hoped would become an “international hub” to counter disinformation and propaganda around the world.

The Ukrainian president made other noteworthy points at the forum. First, he said that Ukrainian media, particularly TV, need to do more to help project a positive image of Ukraine to the outside world. Second, he said that the Ukrainian language is fully protected in the Constitution and legislation and there is no need to revisit this issue at this stage with so many other pressing issues. Doing so, Mr. Zelenskyy said, would risk dividing society.

The NSDC secretary, Mr. Danilov, was more forthcoming on this topic. For Ukraine to protect itself more effectively from the “linguistic war” waged by the Russian Federation, it needs to introduce the English language more actively. He told the forum: “Young people’s knowledge of English is the key to the independence of our state. English should be used from kindergarten at school.”

And this has come at a time when the Zelenskyy administration has reopened the issue of dual citizenship for those eligible and who are from countries not hostile to Ukraine.
Sending a clear and strong signal about Mr. Zelenskyy’s intentions, earlier this month his spokesperson Iuliia Mendel published an article in the Atlantic Council noting that “Mr. Zelensky is prepared to challenge the power of Ukraine’s oligarchs everywhere from the energy and banking sectors to politics and the media.”

“Less than two years have passed, and we have hit three very well-known people who represent huge financial groups and who have made their fortunes on the state budget and taxes – on what Ukrainians have to live. Nobody did that before,” Ms. Mendel said. She clarified that these people are Mr. Medvedchuk, fugitive oligarch Dmytro Firtash and Mr. Kolomoisky. This is only the beginning, she stressed.

So as winter recedes, Ukraine may indeed be witnessing the beginnings of a political spring. But predicting the weather, especially when the seasons change, is a risky business and we await to see how things will unfold.