Volodymyr Zelensky won a landslide victory over Petro Poroshenko in the rapid presidential elections in May this year, precisely because he called for change. Ukrainians were frustrated that the reforms expected after the Revolution of Dignity were progressing too slowly. Voters gave Zelensky a broad mandate to bring about real change. The first 100 days of Zelensky’s presidency ended in late August.
According to polls conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, in the first 100 days people expected the new president to reduce energy costs, draft bills to waive the immunity of MPs, judges and presidents, peacefully end hostilities in Donbas, and investigate the most prominent corruption cases.
In the first 100 days of his activity Zelensky showed character and style in his leadership. With regard to the problems with Russia, the Crimea, the war in Donbas and the continuation of sanctions, Zelensky’s policy is consistent with that of former President Petro Poroshenko.
A Reformer and a Populist
The new president has been described both as a “reformer” and a “populist”.
Many feared that the inauguration of Mr Zelensky and his team would cause an economic crisis in the country. And such fears were understandable, for in a country in a state of war one cannot afford to make mistakes. For now, however, the situation has turned out to be quite the opposite. Volodymyr Zelensky has already implemented some successful measures. In many respects his work differs fundamentally from Petro Poroshenko’s approach. Zelensky can allow himself to call Vladimir Putin, which has already happened several times, for example to discuss the situation at the demarcation line. It remains questionable, however, what this will ultimately accomplish.
One of the first outstanding decisions of Volodymyr Zelensky was the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada of the 8th convocation and the scheduling of early elections to the Ukrainian Parliament for July. Thus the pro-presidential political force consolidated a breathtaking victory for the “Servant of the People” party and, for the first time in the country’s history, forged a so-called mono coalition in the Rada, which ensured control over parliament and government.
This has opened up great opportunities for Wolodymyr Zelensky. Already on the first day of work of the Rada, the mono-majority demonstrated that it would not need the consent of other parties to make important decisions. And there was even some confusion amongst the other political forces. Within almost 24 hours, the Rada exchanged the leadership of the country – from minister all the way up to prosecutor general. In the days that followed, deputies used a simplified procedure to pass dozens of bills. After just a few days, Zelensky’s party had completely reshuffled power in the country.
According to experts, this situation may also pose a threat to Ukrainian legislature. In particular, it’s about the lack of competition in the Rada and the monopoly position of one political force. What is crucial now is whether the Zelensky team places national interests above the interests of the party. The first months of work of the new Rada give reason for cautious optimism.
On the first day of work, the new Parliament, namely the majority, initiated the first reading of the bill to abolish parliamentary immunity. In the past, the lifting of immunity had been raised repeatedly by both MPs and civil society. In the near future, the Rada is expected to debate nearly 500 other bills drafted by the president’s team.
The first appointments have sparked criticism among civil society organisations. In particular, this concerns the appointment of Andriy Bohdan as Head of the Presidential Office. Previously, Bohdan was a lawyer for the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and held government posts under President Viktor Yanukovych. That is the main reason for the criticism, because Bohdan is thus subject to the lustration law. What is also somewhat strange is the fact that he constantly accompanies Zelensky on visits. He also seems to be trying to control Zelensky’s actions and possibly influence his decisions. However, on his travels throughout Ukraine, the president has shown that he sharply curbs any attempts to impose opinions on him.
Ruslan Riaboshapka, another deputy chief of the President’s Office, became Prosecutor General. In general, this appointment has received wide approval. One of the key areas of Riaboshapka’s work will be anti-corruption efforts.
Aivaras Abromavicius, a well-known reformer and ex-economy minister, was appointed CEO of the Ukroboronprom State Enterprise. He was tasked with carrying out an in-depth transformation of the company and improving its public image. His Ukroboronprom reform focuses on comprehensive auditing and personnel restructuring. Abromavicius will also focus on supplying high-quality weapons to the Ukrainian Army and increasing exports of products that are competitive in foreign markets. Abromavicius has set itself an ambitious goal – to increase exports of weapons and military equipment fivefold by 2025. The head of Ukroboronprom sees aircraft construction and rocket construction as the most promising areas.
Oleksandr Turchynov was replaced as Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council by Oleksandr Danyliuk, former Finance Minister of the Government of Volodymyr Groysman. He will play a key role in security sector reform and the development of relevant legislation.
Vadym Prystaiko has become a new Foreign Minister; the appointment of this career diplomat and former deputy foreign minister was not objected to.
The MoD is now headed by Andriy Zahorodniuk, former head of the Project Reform Office at the MoD which was created to coordinate changes in the defence department with the involvement of businesses and volunteers; he is also a member of the Ukroboronprom board. Also, since June, he, along with David Arakhamia and Aivaras Abromavicius, has been a member of Ukroboronprom’s supervisory board. As a volunteer he had supported the ATO troops in Donbas. He dealt with the implementation of electronic procurement through a Prozorro system, criticised Soviet-style procedures in building new houses for the military and problems with food supply in the army. According to Andrei Zahorodniuk, his main priority will be the reform of the Ukrainian army and a stronger renunciation of the Soviet heritage.
With the exception of Arsen Avakov, the new government consists almost exclusively of fresh new faces. Their average age is 30-40, making the new cabinet the youngest in Europe. The head of government is also the youngest in the history of an independent Ukraine. All the new ministers are well educated and have a solid reputation.
First Steps on the International Stage
In addition to the important appointments, Volodymyr Zelensky took a number of equally important steps at the international level. He restructured Ukrainian embassies and dismissed Ukrainian ambassadors to the US, Cyprus, the Vatican, Armenia, Turkmenistan and a number of African countries.
Zelensky’s first overseas visit took him to Brussels, where he visited NATO headquarters and EU institutions. The president’s decisions about his first overseas visits to Paris, Berlin, Toronto, Ankara and Istanbul, Warsaw for meetings with world leaders confirmed strategic partnership with the West and Ukraine’s course toward rapprochement with the EU and NATO. In his meetings with world leaders, the Ukrainian President called on them to maintain and tighten anti-Russian sanctions.
Donald Trump said that the term of office of the new Ukrainian president had started very well. In return, Zelensky assured American politicians that the new government intended to introduce major reforms in the first year of its work.
The trend towards quick victories at a high price is reflected in the successful exchange of 35 x 35 prisoners of war between Ukraine and Russia. The release of the prisoners was one of Zelensky’s election promises.
Among the Ukrainians who returned home were Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Pavlo Hryb, Volodymyr Balukh, and Ukrainian navy sailors captured near the Kerch Strait. For example, the unsuccessful struggle of politicians and civil society for the release of Oleh Sentsov took more than five years. As part of the exchange, the former anti-aircraft gunner of the “DPR”, Volodymyr Tsemakh, and the head of the RIA Novosti Ukraine office Kirill Vyshinsky, brought to trial for treason, was handed over to Moscow.
Politico called the exchange a “triumph” of the new Ukrainian President while Spiegel described these events as the first significant victory at the international level in Zelensky’s 100 days in office.
However, the quick win has a downside. The ultimate reaction of the Netherlands regarding the handover of Tsemakh to Russia is yet to be seen. Amsterdam had formally warned Kyiv that the militant’s status in MH17 downing probe was changed to “suspect”. As it became known, Dutch investigators did interrogate Tsemakh before he was sent to Moscow.
Thus Volodymyr Zelensky set priorities in favour of the return of Ukrainian citizens from captivity, even at the risk of changing the balance of the international coalition in defence of Ukraine. So far, such a shift of the red lines in the negotiations with the Russians could hardly be imagined.
The main problem, however, is that the return strategy of Ukrainian citizens remains non-transparent. And for the return of other Ukrainian citizens from Russian prisons, the Kremlin could charge a price that is simply too high, not to mention the withdrawal of Russian troops from Donbas and the return of the Crimea to Ukraine.
By the way, as for Crimea, judging by Zelensky’s statements, Ukraine is now developing a long-term strategy and several scenarios of action. But given Zelensky’s approach to take step-by-step moves, his priority will be to restore peace in Donbas. Zelensky’s position on a peace settlement in eastern Ukraine is to uphold the Minsk process and resume the Normandy format of talks. The next meeting of the Normandy Four leaders is expected to be held in the near future.
In general, Zelensky’s current team, the appointments he made to the government, and the results of his first months in office show great potential for real reform. But it’s too early to praise the new president. Ukraine is in a phase of great change, as the Zelensky team has received a large part of public confidence for the implementation of such a reform. In addition, several steps have already been taken that no longer allow attributing all mistakes to the previous government.