UkraineAlert

On May 20, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was sworn in as Ukraine’s sixth president. His inauguration speech was ambitious: he called for early elections, urged parliament to end parliamentary immunity, pass electoral reform and the law on illegal enrichment. He also wants parliament to sack the head of the SBU, the prosecutor general, and the minister of defense. What did you think of Zelenskiy’s speech? Did he strike the right tone? Are his priorities correct? 

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Ukraine’s President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy waded into the bloodstained waters of the country’s memory wars during WWII memorial events in early May, posting a picture of himself alongside a Soviet veteran and a former member of Ukraine’s Insurgent Army with the message: “The key to peace today is unity among all Ukrainians.” This was something of a departure for Zelenskiy, who largely steered clear of sensitive historical issues during his presidential campaign while promising to move beyond the conflicting interpretations of the past that have plagued Ukrainian society since the Soviet collapse.

Zelenskiy’s recent WWII photo-op indicates that as the new head of state, he recognizes he will no longer be able to afford himself the luxury of remaining above the fray. Instead, he must now take a lead in Ukraine’s memory wars while choosing his battles carefully, seeking positions that can make sense of the troubled past while mindful of the fact that any potential missteps could reopen old wounds and undermine his calls for national unity.

Finding historical issues that a majority of Ukrainians can agree on is no easy matter.

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On April 21, TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy won a landslide victory over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election. By winning an impressive 73 percent of the vote, Zelenskiy secured a strong popular mandate.

Questions abound about Zelenskiy’s core political beliefs and whether his performance in office will match his campaign rhetoric. Answers to these questions are speculative. However, we do know what issues animate citizens. Opinion polls consistently show Ukrainians want three things. First, they want a statesman who will stand up to Russian aggression and restore Ukraine’s sovereignty. Second, they want a reformer who will take a battering ram to the oligarchic system. Third, they want someone who will increase economic growth, boost wages, and create jobs. To the extent that Zelenskiy can make progress on these three issues, he will continue to enjoy strong popular support. Conversely, moves that undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, cater to oligarchic interests, or jeopardize economic growth are likely to erode support.

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Last week the Trump administration recalled US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch two months earlier than expected. Various forces within Ukraine's presidential administration, including the attorney general, had been calling for her head after she gave a speech that pointed out Ukraine’s lackluster commitment to reform on Poroshenko’s watch. The lack of an ambassador puts the United States in a weak position with a new Ukrainian president about to take over and parliamentary elections in October.

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Ukrainians have considerable experience of the hope that comes with new beginnings and the disillusionment that often follows. The country has lived through repeated false dawns over the past three decades, only for the same old bad habits to come creeping out of the shadows and reassert their debilitating grip on the nation. The arrival of independence in 1991 was the first watershed moment, but this seeming historic break with the past was actually a deeply flawed compromise that failed to dislodge the vast state apparatus inherited from the Soviet era. Unsurprisingly, the rebranding of career communists as Ukrainian democrats did little to improve living standards or move the country in the right direction.

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Five years after the Euromaidan street protests, Ukrainians are still waiting for transformative leaders and justice. On May 20, political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy will be sworn in as president. But that won’t necessarily result in a significant change for the country: Ukraine’s next president is inexperienced and his links to oligarchs are troubling. Its parliament, the least trusted body in the country, makes the most important decisions and appoints the government. And there are signs afoot that the forces there will be anything but new.

Ukraine holds its parliamentary elections on October 27. Now that the May holidays have passed, politics is in full swing and every politician is preening and gearing up for the next fight. As of now, however, legislators and candidates pushing for justice can’t work together. And the most popular politicians largely represent the same old corrupt elite.  

At Stanford last week, we got a preview of what’s to come. Six politicians from Ukraine’s leading reform-focused political parties and civic movements (plus one from the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko, whose reform credentials are dubious at best) paraded on stage to explain their platforms, relitigate past decisions, and urge the West to give them more time to finally unify.

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Enter Ukraine’s sparkling new passport service center on the third floor of a shabby 1990s Kyiv shopping center and you feel you have entered Ukraine’s world of the future: bright lights, a digital ticket system, and 60 stylishly uniformed young men and women. They are all devoted to giving you, the Ukrainian citizen, a new biometric passport allowing for work, travel, and study in the EU.

But when my wife and I—two foreigners—approached the welcome desk in February, brows furrowed. The supervisor was called. Rule books were thumbed through.

Your foreign marriage certificate is no longer valid in Ukraine. No matter that it was valid for your residency permits of 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Although it was registered by Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by the US Embassy in Bangkok, translated into Ukrainian, notarized several times, the marriage certificate now must be validated by Ukraine’s Embassy in Bangkok.

In turn, the Ukrainian Embassy in Bangkok ruled that Thai Foreign Ministry certification stamps more than 90 days old are no longer valid.

While Vladimir Putin offers Russian passports to all Ukrainians, starting with those living in fringe areas controlled by Russian troops, Ukraine sleepwalks ahead, marching toward a demographic abyss, tied in knots by bureaucratic red tape that stifles business, bars immigration, and encourages emigration.

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A key issue has emerged in the post-election drama in Ukraine. In a disturbing interview given by Andrij Bohdan, lawyer, confidant, and political advisor to President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he reveals that he continues to act as a lawyer for oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy with regard to the nationalization of PrivatBank. This assertion, if accepted by the president-elect, would constitute a major threat to the reform agenda of the Zelenskiy presidency.

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Ukraine’s presidential election was a veritable political earthquake. The fault line between the old and the new, the real and the illusory, and pseudo-nationalism and grassroots patriotism, has been dramatically exposed.

The old political establishment was shaken to its very foundations, and the strong tremors and shockwaves continue to be felt. The shifting political tectonic plates will settle only after the reconfiguration of political forces is completed, before and during the October parliamentary elections.  

While much still remains uncertain about the new president, political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy, certain things have already become clear.

Zelenskiy is not the clown and political incompetent as his rivals claimed.

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The impact one can have on building institutions like the modern state, the rule of law, and democracy is limited. The area where it’s easiest is the third category, building democracy. The first two, building the modern state and building a real rule of law, are much harder, and those are the areas that have been the real obstacles to the modernization of the political systems of many countries, including Ukraine. The reason that those are particularly difficult is that they’re essentially about power. If you hold an election, the old guard can think we will win the election. We know how to run candidates, we can contest things, we can protect our interests. If you want to build a modern state, it’s a different task. If you want to have a rule of law that applies to powerful people in a society, that is much harder because one is basically forcing them to give up power.

A lot of the well-meaning efforts of outside donors and governments to influence that process has been quite disappointing, especially in the area of corruption, which is the area I have looked at most closely. Corruption exists because it’s not in the self-interest of existing elites to have things change. Elites like the status quo. Therefore, changing that system is a matter of power. It’s a matter of gaining power on the part of people that are not corrupt and want a modern system. One can help that along by creating the proper kinds of incentives; one can do things like create special prosecutors, anti-corruption courts, and the like, which Ukraine has been involved in. One can try to pay people better in the bureaucracy so that they’re not as tempted to take bribes. So there some short-term things in terms of people’s incentives. 

But fundamentally good government is not simply this incentive structure. It’s also a matter of human capital. And this is why modernizing the state in so many countries has taken a long time, because it is basically an educational project. It’s a matter of the skills and knowledge and the level of education that’s carried around in the heads of the people that run the government or that come in to the government and that is a long-term project. 

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