President Zelensky: sympathetic, but disapointing

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

In Ukraine, the epidemic of coronavirus erupted as president Zelensky was facing unfavourable media coverage for his first year in power. To put oil in the fire, he choose this moment to launch a clumsy invitation to Mikheil Saakashvili to join the government as deputy prime minister responsible for reforms. A measure reflecting his desperate search to start much-delayed reforms, but also that exposed his lack of political control, including on the ruling party Servant of the People.

On 30 April, after much internal discussions, the head of the party’s parliamentary faction, David Arakhamia, announced that Saakashvili would not be offered the post, but has agreed on a new format in which to work during regular consultations with the president. Arakhamia insisted heavily on the fact that it was “an initiative of the president”, making clear who would bear responsibility in case of failure and discord.

Finally, on 9 May, Zelensky announced that former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili has been appointed two days earlier as head of the executive committee of Ukraine’s National Reform Council. In this quality, the president said, the new appointee would fight corruption, modernise the customs’ services, deregulate business. Ukraine would also benefit from his “strong investment ties” with many countries, and of his experience to attract investors in Batumi and large chain hotels in Georgia.

Short memory

Zelensky seems to have forgotten how previous Ukrainian ventures of Saakashvili, when he was governor of Odessa turned, quickly sour. Yet Ukrainians remember how he invited “experienced Georgians” around him, hurting national pride by claiming openly that the locals were too corrupted and inefficient to be trusted. He quickly appeared for what he was, more showman than efficient reformist; he was sacked by President Poroshenko, lost Ukrainian citizenship – and oligarchs kept their power.

That he can still be seen as a reformist and a man with connections through the world is mystifying. Indeed, he reformed the corrupted police of Georgia (a huge task at the time), but corruption persisted around him, notably in the armed forces. The construction of many new touristic developments was tainted by accusations of corruption and nepotism, especially surrounding the port of Batumi whose main interest is for the American navy to find a deep-water port on the Black Sea, next to Russia.

Three facts

The decision is an illustration of the fact that:

– two Revolutions allowed a much-needed rotation of political personal, but did not stir up the deep structures of society.

– the election of Zelensky, against the incumbent, with 73% of the vote, was in itself another revolution. He is still perceived as a sympathetic man, but as a president suffering of poor judgment, lack of long-term strategy and a team of competent people. It hampers the implementation of three of his main electoral promises: ending the war in the East, easing lives of his people, fighting corruption, including by cutting the oligarchs to size. At least, contrary to his predecessor, he was not an oligarch himself.

– Ukraine is now structurally dependent on international aide. It means that the president is the object of pressure, and even blackmail, by the numerous “friends of Ukraine” who do care more about their vendetta with Russian president Putin than about the wellbeing of ordinary Ukrainians. Zelensky is discovering that one is not politically free when dependent on foreign aide. He needed to be under intense pressure to invite a non-Ukrainian to take over such a key job, when in the same time he was accused of being slow on reforms needed to “free” the economy.

In the meantime, Washington named its new ambassador in Kiev filling a post left empty since May 2019 – Keith W. Dayton, a retired US army lieutenant-general and the director of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

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