September 3, 2021

Zelenskyy returns to Kyiv to continue the political struggle at home


As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy returns home after a successful working visit to the United States, his attention will now have to switch to pressing domestic issues. The Ukrainian parliament is shortly due to reconvene after its summer recess, and the political battles over critical issues will be reconvened with vigor.

In light of this, and bearing in mind that Ukraine has just celebrated the 30th anniversary of it’s breaking free from the Soviet empire, it is worth recalling what the main current political conflicts are and seeing what the mood of the country is three decades after it affirmed its renewed independence.

Essentially, the battle lines established after Mr. Zelenskyy’s unexpected landslide victory in the presidential election of 2019 and, subsequently, the victory of his hastily cobbled together Servant of the People party majority have become even more accentuated. The party has refused to enter into a coalition with other parties and it has pursued its own purportedly reformist agenda as understood by the presidential team and in response to situational factors.

On the right, the president and his parliamentary faction are bitterly opposed by former president Petro Poroshenko and his followers who have yet to come to terms with their humiliating defeat. The owner of two TV channels, Mr. Poroshen­ko has so far managed to evade charges of corruption levelled against him.

The pro-Russian forces left over from the Party of the Regions, which was in control under ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, are grouped together in the Opposition Platform – For Life. They are also staunch adversaries. They have been hamstrung by the house arrest of one of their key figures – tycoon and close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Viktor Medvechuk, who faces charges of treason. Three of his pro-Russian TV channels have been shut down.

Another veteran of Ukrainian politics, Yulia Tymoshenko, and her Fatherland party, are also in opposition to Mr. Zelenskyy and in a tacit alliance with his other adversaries. She has increasingly relied on populist rhetoric to preserve her base of support.

The main issues of contention in recent months have been Mr. Zelenskyy’s attempts to rein in the oligarchs who for long have dominated political and economic life, reform the legal system, curb corruption and create conditions that will generate confidence from foreign investors.

The Ukrainian leader is facing strong pressure from Ukraine’s supporters and allies to deliver on reforms. Delivering on those badly needed reforms is seen as a precondition for the country before it can join Euro-Atlantic structures.

The Biden Administration made it very clear to Mr. Zelenskyy during his during his visit to Washington that, in return for the continued and even enhanced support of the U.S. for Ukraine, Washington expects Mr. Zelenskyy to press ahead with reforms, especially in the legal sphere and in security and law enforcement agencies. It is striking to see the amount of financial support Washington is currently offering Ukraine to move decisively in this direction.  This support surpasses what the U.S. has offered Ukraine in total assistance for defense purposes.

Mr. Zelenskyy has managed temporarily to find a way around the restraints imposed by a corrupt judiciary and flawed democratic institutions by using executive power to endorse decisions made by the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC). It in turn, he has argued that Ukraine is in a state of war with Russia and it is acting in the interests of national security. The president has also said that he will not hesitate to turn directly to the people, if necessary, through the use of referenda.

This tactic caught his opponents off guard, but they have regrouped and are accusing him of violating democratic and constitutional norms. They appear to have secured a valuable asset in the speaker of the parliament, Dmytro Razumkov, the president’s former close political associate who during the last year has distanced himself from the Ukrainian president and indicated that he has political ambitions of his own.

Mr. Zelenskyy’s adversaries have also succeeded in persuading respected external democratic watchdogs to voice concern. For instance, on the eve of Mr. Zelenskyy’s visit to the U.S., Freedom House sent a letter to the president regarding developments in Ukraine that touch on issues of freedom of expression, as well as violence against journalists, activists and vulnerable groups. It accused the Ukrainian leader of using executive power, “without judicial review, to sanction media outlets, tech platforms, journalists and websites under the pretext of fighting disinformation.”

In short, Mr. Zelenskyy faces strong opposition at home in his effort to transform a deeply entrenched political system. The crucial question is whether Mr. Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People faction will hold together and find enough votes from independent lawmakers to allow the Ukrainian president to push ahead with reforms.  Or, will parliament become paralyzed by gridlock and infighting, necessitating early elections.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Ukrainian Sociological Group and published on August 20, if parliamentary elections were to be held now, five parties would overcome the five percent threshold need to have seats in the parliament. The Servant of the People would receive 22.9 percent of the vote, the Opposition Platform – For Life would get 18.4 percent, Mr. Poroshenko’s European Solidarity would receive 16.5 percent, Fatherland would get 11.6 percent and Strength and Honor, led by former security service chief Ihor Smeshko, would receive 6.4 percent of the vote.

The most recent polls also show that Mr. Zelenskyy’s approval rating, though it has fallen, still puts him comfortably ahead of all his potential rivals. After receiving assurances from the Biden Administration that, far from abandoning Ukraine, it wants to renew an enhanced strategic partnership with the country, Mr. Zelenskyy and his supporters are likely to be encouraged and ready for the tough political battles ahead.