10 July 2019

Volodymyr Zelensky took his oath in front of the people. Where is Ukraine heading?

Cristian Eremia

Volodymyr Zelensky took the official loyalty oath in front of the people and the Ukrainian state, during a ceremony organized by Ukraine’s Supreme Rada (SR, Parliament), on 20th May. He won an important political battle, but time will prove if he will be able to win the war for its new Ukraine to become a successful story.

Image source: Mediafax

It is noteworthy remarking new president's huge score within Ukraine recent presidential elections. Servant of the People’s candidate, Zelensky won the election in the second round of April 21 with over 73% of electorate’s votes, which gives him the right to implement any bold political program. This vote, however, created huge expectations for most of the Ukrainian society, precisely because Zelensky came forward and was perceived as a new political man, having no strong political skills or preconceptions. That is why some more realistic Ukrainian analytical circles believe that they will hardly not be disappointed, as it happened with citizens' expectations after 2014’s Euro-Maidan Revolution.

A vigorous political mandate start

After his official ordainment, Zelensky has clearly asked for the resignations of senior Ukrainian officials, namely Ukraine’s Security Service’s Chief, V.Gritsak, the Attorney General, Y.Lutzenko and the Minister of Defence, S.Poltorak. The latter has already followed the order. In fact, the new president has stated that he will do everything necessary for the Army to have the necessary funds to get stronger and forceful ("We do not have to talk about NATO standards, but create them!"), respectively to be respected by its own governors.

At new president's remark that the government should change as soon as possible, Ukrainian Prime Minister, Vladimir Groysman, said he would resign on 22th of May, but that government's powers would be handed over to the newly-elected Council and not the President. Obviously, Zelensky's vigorous political debut no longer leaves an opened new president - the current government collaboration door.

However, president’s first major decision and first important political move was Verkhovna Rada’s dissolution, for an early elections organization. He did so for his party to use the strong sympathy and excitement wave created by Zelensky to promote himself within the parliament - this party is new and it is not represented in the Parliament. The idea is not that naïve, because lacking from strong parliamentary support, state’s new chief state will not successfully promote a new political project.
Anyway, Zelensky, who has to prove he is a new generation politician, will not get associated with such old parties or personalities, especially those coordinated by Poroshenko or the former-president, Yanukovych. Otherwise, it would quickly lose popularity. Parliament’s dissolution is good only for Zelensky, because he does not have his own parliamentary party, nor a loyal coalition. Consequently, he will not be able to appoint loyal people within the government. And these are tools he needs in order to implement important political decisions, to have an impact and guaranteed results. Zelensky's only chance is organizing and winning the anticipated elections, as long as his popularity rate will be high enough.

Zelensky also urged the Verkhovna Rada to adopt the Law on Parliamentary Immunity’s Abolition and the Law on Illegal Enrichment’s Criminal Penalty (also requited by IMF), granting only two months to do so. Personally, he gave a statement about his wealth[1], at the end of 2018.

When Zelensky announced Verkhovna Rada’s dissolution, he came up against MPs constraint- especially Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc (BPP). That is why they hastened new president’s official ordainment date for 28th of May, so the president could not dissolve the Parliament anymore.

It is noteworthy the intervention of G7’s group member states’ ambassadors, who called on ex-President Poroshenko to speed up the power transition to the new elected president, insisting on a "smooth" power transfer, so that Ukraine can go on with the "reform path".

We should clarify some constitutional aspects. BPP appealed to Constitution’s Article 90, which foresees that the president cannot dissolve the RS less than in six months before the general elections, planned for October 27 a.c. Zelensky's team insisted, however, for the official installation day to be 19th of May, so that it could be invoked Constitution’s Art. 76 and 79[2]. Through such interesting ambiguity, these articles successively state two different dates in terms of the six-month estimation: Rada’s official start from 16th of December, 2014 - which would give Zelensky time, until 16th of June, to dissolve RS, respectively the moment of deputies’ official authority legitimation, the oath, 27th of November – meaning that Zelensky could have dissolved the Parliament until 27th of May 2019. The latter would be, according to some assessments in Kiev, also the term Ukraine’s Constitutional Court accepted.

Everyone already knows that the current government does not support new president’s visions and political interests. Concretely, the political visions revealed during the electoral campaign. Consequently, Zelensky will have his "hands tied", as long as no new political coalition, to support him, would be formed in parliament (it would be great to be "loyal" as well). The about-face would be creating a majority to highlight parliamentary republic’s character, which would turn Zelensky into a "decorative political figure".

For a better understanding of the reasons why Zelensky needs a loyal parliamentary coalition, we need to clarify some aspects. Ukraine is a unitary presidential parliamentary-presidential republic[3] since 2014, when the presidential-parliamentary system has changed with the current one. It is a more complicated system, as country’s executive power is in Ukraine’s President hands (the head of state) and the Cabinet Ministers (the Government) as established by the political power that controls the Parliament. On the one hand, the parliament has the right to cast a vote of mistrust on a government formed by the president. On the other hand, the president has the right to dissolve the parliament and establish anticipated elections, which means that a politically unfavorable majority for the president may lose the governance. If president's party gets new parliament’s majority, the "bicephalous" executive power will be formal, but the president will create government's policy, the prime minister becoming a powerless figure. However, in a republic with such a mixed system, a government can only work effectively when it is supported by a parliamentary majority. Complications come as someone can actually subordinate their government and a governmental political crisis condition can easily be extended by the president.

Kiev’s current political changes are complex and things are slowly starting to favor president Zelensky. Thus, People's Front Party voted (17th of May, 2019) the withdrawal from the coalition, which leads to government's loss of majority, easing Zelensky's approach. Serious problems are just beginning, as young president's team has to develop a favorable domestic political climate for the "Zelensky Era" to be a success for the new personal president and (why not?) for Ukraine as well.

Ancestor’s traps

Poroshenko’s last moves were nothing but attempts to "mine" Zelensky's decisional field. Besides trying to stop the new president from dissolving Parliament, a few days before leaving the presidential office, Poroshenko interfered around Rada for "Law on State Official Language in Ukraine" adoption, which it was actually set really quickly.

Concretely, the law sets Ukrainian language’s regime functioning as official state language, which will make all civil servants speak and write exclusively in Ukrainian language, like all Ukrainian citizens, regardless of ethnicity, and use it in all public places. The law also foresees that Ukrainian language’s use is "unique and exclusive" and shall be used in almost all environments- in educational and educational institutions, medical institutions, as well as in restaurants, cafes, etc. Furthermore, the law includes a penalties and sanctions package for possible breaches of this legislative act, postponed, however, to be applied for three years.

All in all, the Law is actually a victory for the Ukrainian nationalism, a "new weapon" to be used against Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens, against the political circles in southeastern Ukraine and, of course, against separatist territories’ citizens in eastern Ukraine. And probably not only against these minorities and entities. Hence, the first major effect would be the excessive antagonism of eastern Ukraine’s separatists.

This may be Poroshenko's last major political issue created on his successor’s agenda, the former president ignoring even EU's insistences on stopping a dangerous process of total "ukrainization". Basically, the law affects not only the Russian minority - specifically targeted, but also other minorities such as Hungarian, Polish, Slovak or Romanian.

Moscow is waiting for new president's concrete reaction, as everyone already knows that Zelensky is attached to the Russian community in country’s East and the idea of ​​unrestricted use of Russian language in Ukraine. Hungary is another state that closely tracks and strongly reacts against the impossibility of Hungarian minority’s use of the first language in Transcarpathia. It is enough to recall also the political and diplomatic scandal related to this situation, which Budapest started last year. Alike Kiev’s arrogant approach on foreign reactions, though, ultimately, it was all about indignation and dissatisfaction of several neighboring states in the Euro-Atlantic community. They expect severe reactions in neighboring capitals also.

Ukraine’s newly elected president promised to "make a thorough analysis on this law" because he believes that it was adopted without asking Ukrainian society’s opinion. Zelensky wants to "make sure that all Ukrainian citizens’ human rights and constitutional interests are respected." New Ukrainian leader’s team stated that Poroshenko regime’s "odious decisions" will be reviewed. In fact, some well-informed domestic expertise consider that the law does not reflect provisions’ normal application of Ukraine’s Constitution and world’s human rights and does not correspond to Europe’s Map of National Minorities.

If we also think that Poroshenko's Ukraine has recently further antagonized Moscow with new sanctions, seen as unnecessary by the Kiev opposition, we can say that Poroshenko was really aware when “mining” Zelensky’s first political actions. And this includes also extremely delicate and complex foreign policy issues.

Decisive elements for a successful mandate

The Ukrainians clearly want a functional democracy, economy’s easement and prosperity, namely war’s end and of all the large confrontations and all sorts of with Russia. After all, confrontations with Russia are far from overcoming the active phase in order to enter into negotiations of a lasting peace. It is, however, important for the new president, Zelensky, to secure previous regime’s few achievements and create a proper way for progress in all areas Ukrainians want.

Zelensky’s first and most urgent problem is filling up his campaign team with "unspoken" political figures and genuine technocrats, to create his own team, to support him in making state decisions in extremely complicated areas. For now, he only has one personal counselor that has a remarkable political experience, Oleksander Danyliuk (former finance minister), who is also responsible with recruiting trustable and genuine people, and he is optimistic that he will complete the team soon.

Secondly, President Zelensky must provide, as soon as possible, a modernization agenda that will allow his voters feel the political and economic president change and reforms’ advantages. Rule of law is the main reform that has just started in Ukraine. If Zelensky can restore the new agencies and institutions, dedicated to anti-corruption fight in Ukraine and to reform Prosecutor General's Office, he could create a new qualitative judicial system. And with a better property rights protection, better business law and a fair legal framework, investors will increase their stakes in Ukraine.

 However, some factors and other preconditions that can determine the success of President Zelensky's policies are, somehow, predictable:

- Cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is important for Ukraine, both on the economic-financial and political dimensions. Ukraine in a quite reduced economic growth, so it should be created the necessary conditions for the foreign factor to contribute to Ukrainians’ economic increase and prosperity. The IMF did not have the patience for new president’s comfortably ordainment and has already pressured on Kiev. Constitutional Court’s decision to repeal Criminal Code’s article on "illegal enrichment" could be the biggest obstacle for Ukraine receiving the next IMF credit line. Hence, Zelensky urged Parliament to quickly adopt a new law to sanction illicit enrichment.

- It is still unclear the importance Zelensky give cooperation resources’ exploitation with Ukraine’s international partners. Although there is no political reason, nor is it possible for Ukraine to afford giving up foreign partnerships (see Hungary or Poland’s case). Therefore, one of Zelensky's most important challenges is maintaining at least the current level and to further develop Ukraine’s international support, to increase the pressure on those internal political environments made the foreign political fora that provides support to deal with internal conflicts, reform processes and socio-economic processes, a bit tired. It is very likely that Zelensky has already become aware that fundamental political and economic interests’ protection is impossible without establishing a "pro-Ukraine international coalition" on a bilateral basis, or in cooperation with favorable international organizations (such as the EU, IMF, US). EU officials have already called on the new president to continue reforms path, Association Agreement’s implementation, to forcefully fight against corruption.

- The Ukrainian society and all foreign partners favoring Kiev are asking Zelensky to release the state “Oligarchs” captured. Zelensky gets reminded on the legitimacy of a huge electoral score. Here, however, slogans’ absence on Ukraine’s de-oligarchization, in Zelensky's electoral program, suggests that, given the current internal economic context, oligarchs simply cannot be eliminated all of a sudden. Because "Oligarchs" are, in fact, the ones holding large commercial companies[4]. A reasonable political method would be President’s intervention to be focused on innovative regulations through unambiguous laws that obstruct oligarchs’ and business people’s interference (the law on lobbying, interference’s transparency in politics and civil control over these phenomena, etc.), quite difficult to be done in nowadays Ukraine, although far from being impossible.

- Zelensky's team must quickly and properly understand what previous regime did not do well in bringing (i) necessary corrections and (ii) resetting some key Ukrainian institutions. All well-informed people are claiming that Zelensky should not go take hastened measures, make-up maneuvers for important institutions, nor allowing the emergence of so-called institutions, organizations, platform or state-owned or private "new-old" mechanisms (a phrase often used in Slavic jargon), corrupt and adjusted only to answer to others’ interests.


In his initial address, President Zelensky said he is willing to dialogue to end the Donbas war - as his first term priority task, and promised Ukrainians Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula’s return. The statements was rather confusing and did not clarify who or which court manifests openness to dialogue, but he probably considers the separatists and Moscow. Moscow's reaction came immediately, President Putin (who obviously was not invited at the inauguration ceremony) arguing that he does not have any contacts with the new Ukrainian leader on the agenda. Kremlin reiterated that Crimea’s issue is forever closed. Putin has not yet wanted to establish a dialogue with Zelensky, which he did not even congratulate him for the victory.

However, it is usual that solving any of Ukraine’s serious problems implies, now and in the near future, many of Russia’s unknown interferences, which complicates any domestic political effort for solving those problems. Recent developments suggest that, with Zelensky at the helm, Ukraine will soon have no political solution for East’s clashes with separatists, or with Russia. Ukraine has no choice and will have to act mostly on its own, and the Russian forces will, most likely, block external civilian or military intervention’s attempts in the Azov Sea, while also producing severe limitations for US forces, NATO or EU to support Ukraine in the Black Sea.

In the following period, Zelensky will be forced to think of a defence strategy and exercising its sovereign rights in the occupied territories, the Azov Sea and the Black Sea, so as to give any mixed signals and interpretations to "legitimize" further Russian actions. It will be a difficult task for the new president, for the politicians to be elected and for the Ukrainian military strategies, but a binding move to meet Kremlin’s new challenges posed. This is because confrontations’ escalation risk, between Kiev and Moscow, is already high enough for the rest of the 2019 electoral year.

With all mentioned above, we can only imagine Zelensky’s difficult tests, whether he will get pass marks or not. There will be battles within Ukraine’s war, which Zelensky will also have to win, if he wants his campaign promises to turn Ukraine’s story into a successful one and be his author.

[1] His property statement includes several apartments in Kiev, a villa in Italy and another one in Cyprus, one apartment in UK and one in Crimea, five hotel rooms in Georgia, financial accounts worth of $190 thousand, 107 thousand Euros and 150 thousand hryvnia , cars, watches and jewelry.

[2] According to Constitution’s Article 76 (Part 5), Verkhovna Rada gets elected for five years, and Article 79 (Part 6) states that People's Deputies authority starts from the moment they take the oath. In the first case, the current Parliament may work until a new Parliament is elected, ex. until 16 December 2019, and the President may dissolve it until 16 June. In the latter case, the Head of State may decree Council’s dissolution until 27 May 2019, at least six months after 27 November, whereat the members took the oath, in 2014.

[3] Ukraine’s prime minister is ultimately the highest player in the executive power, as long as he has a comfortable parliamentary majority in opposition to the president. According to the amendments to the 2006 Constitution, the power of the president is limited, some of the prerogatives being divided between the Government and Parliament - the Verkhovna Rada. If president's party gets the majority in the new parliament, the president will generate government policy. If president's opponents wins, then, as a rule, the latter will be forced to transfer authority to create the new government to party’s leader that won the parliament. Hereof, the president can no longer influence government’s policy significantly, and the prime minister becomes the main political figure. But if in a parliamentary regime a president only officially appoints a government formed by a parliamentary party or coalition, in a republic with a mixed regime, like Ukraine, the president elected by the people has the opportunity to form his own government, or he can look for a way to dissolve the parliament. This formal power "dualism" is likely to complicate state’s leadership, a complex formula otherwise criticized even in the last year by the governors. The reason is that the mixed formula allows political crises’ perpetuation, political group’ number increase and the "hot heads" that mutually attack each other. Now, most politicians are directed towards the parliamentary form of political power.

[4] Ukrainian political and analytical circles revealed that there are about 900 private commercial companies that produce more than half of industrial production, which provides employment and brings a certain income amount to state’s budget. These circles are expressing the need to adopt improved and uniform legislation for the whole business sphere, including in terms of internally and externally business interests, which should be protected by the state. Significant problems in adopting a legislation to counteract oligarchs’ interests will be related not only to large enterprises owners’ intervention in politics, but also the intervention of those affiliated with the respective owners.

Translated by Andreea Soare