Nearly two months after his landslide victory, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is beginning to refine his political persona, signal how he will govern, and shape the contours of presidential power.
With the public, he aims to be a servant of the people: charming, solicitous, and accessible. With bureaucrats, oligarchs, and politicians from the former ruling majority, the tone is closer to enemy of the people, as he rails at functionaries, threatens officials with jail, and demands their immediate resignations.
In terms of theatre and political messaging, both approaches have been a win for him, but in terms of execution and governance, it is entirely different. Thus far, there is little achievement of which to speak.
By railing at most of the old order, Zelenskyy has chosen the path of confrontation, and in doing so, he has isolated himself from the advice and wisdom of some effective ministers and functionaries who could help him learn his complex new job.
His presidential office is populated at the top by inexperienced friends and business partners, mainly from the worlds of show business and entertainment law.
The few experts he has hired are highly competent and well regarded, but their ranks are thin. Moreover, some of the best—Vadym Prystaiko and Ruslan Ryaboshapka, for example—are expected to take over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Prosecutor General’s Office respectively, as soon as the July 21 elections result in a working legislative majority.
With a leadership team thin on government experience (he still has no senior advisor with deep knowledge of military and national security affairs) and with the steep learning curve the inexperienced Zelenskyy has to climb, it is no wonder that the performance has been more theatre than execution. Draft laws from the presidential office are badly written and conceived and have drawn domestic and international fire; poorly thought-out ideas are bruited and then pulled back. Much of this is a bit chaotic, but thus far forgiven by a charmed and expectant public.
By attacking the former Poroshenko regime—excessively, it would seem, given the former president’s major accomplishments in rebuilding the military and securing Western support for strong sanctions against Russia—he scores political points with the public, but one hopes that beneath the fanfare, he has a realistic sense of which parts of his political inheritance are performing well.
Last week, Zelenskyy called for an expansion of Ukraine’s lustration law (introduced after mass killings during the last days of the Yanukovych administration as an exceptional measure) and proposed to apply it to all ministers, high-ranking officials, and parliamentarians. It would not only prevent them from ever holding a government post, but would even ban them from running for elected office. Such a sanction may be popular with segments of his electorate, but it brought down upon him the firm rebuke of the G-7.
As Sunday’s elections approach, his executive team is unlikely to be strengthened significantly with the arrival of the majority or near majority he appears likely to achieve in parliament.
Servant of the People’s candidates are mainly people with little record of civic activism, government experience, or analytic expertise. There is a smattering of well-regarded lawyers, anti-corruption activists, media hands, and successful entrepreneurs. But most lack legislative skills and experience in Ukraine’s sharp-elbowed political free-for-all.
Soon, Zelenskyy and his wide-eyed legislators will face a steep rhetorical challenge from several quarters—the Moscow-back Opposition Platform-For Life party and the patriotic European Solidarity Party of former President Petro Poroshenko. In such an environment, the inexperienced voices that will speak for Zelenskyy in the Rada will soon turn out to be a liability.
Zelenskyy’s quick rise to the top and his dismissiveness of most members of reform-oriented civil society and patriotic forces that made the Maidan revolution of 2014 also represents a problem. It means that he must earn their support. Nor is he well regarded by independent journalists. As was the case with Poroshenko, Zelenskyy is also unlikely to catch a break from oligarch-controlled media (with the possible short-term exception of Ihor Kolomoysky’s highly-rated 1+1 channel). All these influencers are likely to challenge his legislators and presidential team, pouncing mercilessly on mistakes, conflicts of interest, and competence. This is not a happy picture and requires addressing.
Fortunately for the president, Sunday’s elections are likely to present him with an opportunity to right and strengthen his ship of state. Whether with a clear majority, or in coalition with the other party of new faces and reform in the race, Slava Vakarchuk’s Voice, he can form a strong government that can both allow him the time and focus to master his presidential brief and competently advance reforms, economic growth, and national security.
His ideal path is to focus on his many constitutional competencies and to resist the temptation to try to manage the entire agenda of government, like Poroshenko did.
If Zelenskyy focuses largely on the president’s constitutional responsibilities, there will be plenty for him to accomplish, including the conduct of a vigorous pro-active foreign policy and promotion of foreign direct investment; strengthening national cohesiveness, national security, legal reform, anti-corruption, and coping with the ongoing war waged by Russia in the east.
The best way to achieve success in areas in which he and his team are weak is to summon a government of experts devoted to fundamental reform.
For the moment, Kyiv’s rumor mills point to several strong candidates for the top job of prime minister. They include Andrey Kobolyev, the head of Naftohaz and his partner in the reform and elimination of gross corruption inside the oil and gas giant, Yuriy Vitrenko. Another name under consideration is Vladyslav Rashkovan, a former private sector banker and National Bank of Ukraine official, who helped reorganize the central bank and is now an executive director at the International Monetary Fund.
Each of them is a competent manager and reformer who is well-regarded in Western capitals and has plusses that far outweigh any minuses. There is no question that all would be up to the job.
Undoubtedly, each would want to settle with the president on a team of reformers to be put forward to head key ministries. At the same time, the president would be well-served to select as defense minister, a well-regarded civilian with “hawkish” credentials, who is respected by patriotic activists and veterans. Such a nomination would take the sting out of attacks on his right about compromise with or “capitulation” to Russia.
There is, however, also a strong temptation to choose a political prime minister. Such a nomination would allow Zelenskyy to reward his early backers. But given his inner team’s administrative and political inexperience, such a choice carries significant risk. Were Zelenskyy to opt for a political prime minister, the most likely option would be the leader and voice for Servant of the People, Dmytro Razumkov, a smart, 35-year-old former political consultant, who has emerged as an articulate polemicist and keen communicator.
But Razumkov has several big minuses. First, he has never run a complex organization and has no expertise in management or economic matters. Second, he is regarded with intense suspicion by Ukrainian patriots, in part because of his past as a youth leader of the much-hated Party of Regions. Moreover, his recent penchant for speaking only in Russian while campaigning; his criticism of Ukraine’s new language law, which promotes the use of Ukrainian in state, business, culture, and media; his support for making Russian a second regional administrative state language; and his support of reversing decommunization and leaving to local communities the decision of which heroes or Communist-era villains to honor is causing considerable controversy.
Whatever path Zelenskyy chooses, it may well be the most fateful decision of his presidency. With the proper team of experts, he is likely to achieve measurable success. This is because he inherits a stable economy with projected growth of 3 percent. Moreover, he can squeeze new income into the budget by privatizing and selling Ukraine’s rich agricultural lands; ensuring that Ukraine’s massive tax evasion is reduced; enforcing customs duty collection; and reducing oligarchic rents. As importantly, he has the chance to press his main backer, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, to make good on an agreement to pay back the Ukrainian state for the $5.5 billion the state has charged him with stealing in a complex bank fraud.
We won’t have long to wait before we know what path Zelenskyy has chosen. He wants to put together a government by the time Ukraine celebrates its independence day on August 24.
If Zelenskyy musters a non-political government of experts in domestic policy and national security, they will significantly increase the chances that his term will have real impact on the living standards and security of the Ukrainian people.
If he chooses the path of revenge, politics as usual, and PR instead of policy, he will fail and see his support evaporate.
Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-director of its Ukraine in Europe program.