President Zelensky’s difficult succession

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Volodymyr Zelensky is the youngest president of Ukraine, the least experienced, but also the first who had to fight with parliament to decide the date of his inauguration. Elected on 21 April, Zelensky was finally inaugurated on 20 May after a long fight with a hostile parliament where he has no party and even no deputies. The present members of parliament have been fighting for their survival as much as they wanted to teach a lesson to the new president who wished the ceremony to be held on early May, then on 19th.

His opponents wanted to postpone the inauguration to 27 May, in which case the new president would have been unable to call snap elections, and would have had to wait up to the normal date, in October, to create his own “party of power” in parliament. They were hoping that by that time, he should have lost his popularity (his party is now credited with 40% of support in parliamentary elections), and disappointed Ukrainians, leaving enough time to Poroshenko’s allies to regroup and form a solid opposition bloc in parliament, using the peculiarities of the Ukrainian presidential-parliamentary system.

In his address following the oath, Zelensky announced to parliament and foreign representatives he was dissolving parliament. He added that he wanted to reach a cease-fire un Donbass, an electoral promise meeting popular demands that was received with applauds by the deputies. That was in line with earlier declarations, notably by his adviser Oleksandr Danylyuk, that “Resumption and stepping up of work in the Normandy format is a key priority for us”.

He cannot ignore that, during his first steps as president, his main adversary will be his predecessor. In April, immediately after his defeat, Poroshenko declared that he was not leaving politics, and he had spent his last weeks as president signing an avalanche of laws, decrees and nominations that will take time for Zelensky to undo the knot. He also used all international opportunities to deter any Western rapprochement with Russia, noting that “political flirting with the aggressor and the successor to the regime that shed blood” is “inadmissible”. In short, even dialogue with Putin is paving the way to nothing less that “the return and revanche of totalitarian regimes”. Only a “powerful global coalition to support Ukraine” can hold back a Russian invasion of Europe’s Eastern borders”.

Drunk with his own lyricism, Poroshenko was showing why he was not trusted any more by the voters, and demonstrated how he had identified himself with his role of commander in chief more than anything else. But the man who liked to parade in camouflage, and promised in his final speech to “save Ukraine”, will be dangerous and is not ready to accept that Zelensky should take distance from Poroshenko’s motto and electoral slogan “one army, one faith, one language”.

Already the new president met representatives of all the religious communities, including those of the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate; reassured minorities that the restrictive law on Ukrainian language signed by Poroshenko in early May will be watered down; and took distance from the chest-beating military rhetoric of his predecessors. He wants peace- albeit not at any cost because he presents himself as a real patriot – and wants to translate into action his promise to restore national unity.

In a most commented part of his first presidential speech, Zelensky said “Our first task in to end the conflict in the Donbass”, switching to Russian language to add “I believe that the first step to begin this dialogue will be the return of all Ukrainian prisoners”. His conditional appeal for dialogue with the Kremlin is partly a way to guard himself against accusations of treason and capitulation. But the importance of a cease-fire and the return of peace seem such an important goal of his presidential action that he added that he was ready to make tough decisions, at a cost to his reputation — “and, if need be, even my job” — to achieve peace.

Alongside with Poroshenko, Zelensky will have to deal with the Ukrainian diaspora which has gained a huge influence since the first Maidan, lobbying NATO, EU and international financial institutions to help Ukraine. Its members convinced the West to integrate in their psyche and their doctrines the notion that Ukraine was defending European security and democracy. And that any failure to back it would oblige Ukraine to “look East”.

All that line of thoughts is identified with Poroshenko, the past and future savior of Ukraine, including from Zelensky’s temptation to discuss with Russia. That raises the question of whom to support, especially if Poroshenko adopts a disruptive role, up to the point of threatening national stability.

On 8 May, in Kiev, Zelensky met the Canadian foreign minister Chrysta Freeland, a fierce Ukrainian-Canadian who has been banned from entry in Russia, to discuss among others the Minsk process and prepare the work of a strong delegation to the Ukraine Reform Conference, which will take place in Toronto in July.


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