President Zelensky, who was elected a year ago (at that time he had no political experience, except for the serial role of the teacher who became a president) was forced to pass the most difficult tests at the beginning of his term.
Together with the authorities, he inherited from predecessor Petro Poroshenko the ongoing conflict in Donbas, which involves negotiations with Russia (a difficult task, even with the support of France and Germany, as part of the Normandy Four). All this against the background of the impeachment procedure of Donald Trump, into which Zelensky was involved against his own will.
In parallel with this, he had to deal with a difficult situation in the economy, which largely depends on IMF financial assistance.
This support, in turn, is due to the implementation of reforms in Ukraine in such areas as health care, as well as the achievement of goals in the field of judicial independence and the fight against corruption. The implementation of these reforms rests on the elimination of corruption in the country.
In moving towards his goals, Zelensky relied in the first months of the presidency on a wide majority in the Rada and Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk. Anyway, in January he resigned after the publication of his unflattering remarks about the president.
Zelensky had to rush to look for a replacement amid the emergence of a coronavirus, which the government could not control: it transferred the fight against the epidemic in some regions to the shoulders of the oligarchs but failed to cope with it (28 381 cases and 833 dead), despite the restrictive measures that will be removed soon.
Thus, Zelensky and his young Servant of the People party are faced with not only a sanitary but also a political crisis (especially against the background of the return of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to Ukrainian politics several months before the municipal elections).
New prime minister
In March, the president of Ukraine was forced to find a new prime minister, while protecting the serious image of the government. According to him, although until that moment the Ukrainian government was doing everything possible, now the country needed an office that could do the impossible. He proposed the candidacy of Denys Shmygal, calling him capable of accomplishing the impossible by a person, despite the unknown in the Ukrainian political sphere.
The president promised the Rada a more professional government. Shmygal really had (albeit small) administrative experience: he served as governor of the Ivano-Frankivsk region, where he developed a reputation as a leader who promotes business and the economy. This feature became his trump card in the sense that the country's priorities were macroeconomic stability, attracting foreign direct investment, and maintaining close cooperation with the IMF.
Statements by the new prime minister about a cautious budget policy of the government and constructive cooperation with the IMF were designed to reassure Ukrainian MPs and citizens, as well as foreign partners. Anyway, although his strategy and reputation were respectable, a professional career could be troubling.
Shadow of the oligarchs
Denys Shmygal is known for having replaced many posts during his career after short work, and this does not inspire much confidence within the framework of the current Ukrainian government. In addition, from 2017 to 2019, he held a leading position in the energy holding of DTEK Rinat Akhmetov.
This famous oligarch controls several television channels, which positively covered the actions of the government in this turbulent beginning of the year. In addition, Akhmetov is a rival to Igor Kolomoisky, the former owner of the PrivatBank nationalized in 2016, who tried to return it by all possible means.
Kolomoisky’s influence is so strong that the IMF's banking system law, which in particular makes it impossible to return nationalized banks to their former owners, is known as the Kolomoisky Law.
In addition, Kolomoisky is the owner of a number of media outlets, including the channel on which the series that glorified the current president went out. The scandalous image of Kolomoisky raised suspicions about the president’s potential connections with the oligarchic sphere, which were strengthened (albeit short-term) by the appointment of former Kolomoisky’s lawyer Andriy Bogdan as head of the presidential administration.
Resurrection of Saakashvili
Another surprise or alarm event was the appointment of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as head of the executive committee of the National Reform Council.
Initially, they wanted to make Saakashvili the deputy prime minister in the government of Shmygal, but he could not get the necessary 226 votes for the deputies. Ironically, the National Reform Council was formed by former President Poroshenko, who had a difficult relationship with Saakashvili. In 2015, Poroshenko granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship and made him the Odesa governor.
Nevertheless, their mutual understanding did not last long: in November 2016, Saakashvili resigned, said that he could not cope with corruption in the region due to the lack of support from Kyiv, and proclaimed himself the face of the fight against corruption. He became an active oppositionist, although his actions often bordered on farce.
Saakashvili said his appointment proves Zelensky’s readiness to take emergency measures. These words are unlikely to reassure those who have not forgotten how the former Georgian leader camped in front of the Rada but was then deprived of Ukrainian citizenship, detained and expelled from the country, where he then re-entered and was again expelled. In 2019, President Zelensky returned Saakashvili citizenship, which portended his return to the official political scene.
Saakashvili is still a vibrant political figure. The lack of support necessary for joining the government in the Rada indicates the cautious attitude of the deputies, who consider him too controversial and scandalous. Saakashvili can cause internal conflicts that will create not only a split but also spurious noises that distract the authorities from the necessary solutions.
In addition to internal conflicts, Saakashvili’s return will affect Ukraine’s international relations. Georgia has already recalled its ambassador, considering it unacceptable to appoint its former president to such a position, who had already been convicted in absentia of abuse of power, and also might be attracted for misuse of funds.
In addition, this appointment might complicate the cooperation of Kyiv with Western countries, which fear that Saakashvili’s unpredictability and individualism could harm the implementation of reforms in Ukraine.
President Zelensky could not achieve the long-awaited peace in Donbas and is now forced to fight the Covid-19 epidemic after the political crisis that led to rearrangements in the government. This comes against the background of a fall in its ratings and the lack of confidence among the population.
Under such circumstances, the last appointments are a double-edged sword. They can give a second wind to power thanks to the declared qualities of the prime minister and the courage or even insolence of Saakashvili, which can contribute to the implementation of reforms.
At the same time, Ukraine needs stability to carry out large-scale projects, especially in conditions of deteriorating conditions against the backdrop of a global pandemic. This means that the new prime minister should hold on to his position rather firmly and not raise suspicions about his competence or relations with the oligarchic clans.
In addition to stability, reforms require cooperation with the Rada and ministers, in particular the influential Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who survived several permutations and governments. It will be interesting to see how MPs and ministers will react to the methods of Saakashvili, who has already stated that Ukraine "needs to be pulled out of the swamp"...
Saakashvili’s appointment can also be seen as a diversion that should allow the government to gain time. In this perspective, the former president of Georgia can not only take over the media but also become something of a “useful troublemaker,” creating a split among openly or potentially hostile Zelensky groups.
Such a plan still seems risky given Saakashvili’s explosive nature. The situation is certainly difficult, but at least it promises to be interesting...