Not great, not terrible –the repercussions of Ukrainegate
Ukraine has been making the front page of newspapers all over the world for a couple of weeks now, due to an incriminating phone call between Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky on 25th July. This conversation, the transcript of which was released on 25th September, led to the launch of an impeachment inquiry of President Trump and to the resignation of the US Special Envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker. But what have been the consequences for the Ukrainian President? To quote the character of Anatoly Dyatlov from the famous TV series Chernobyl, “not great, not terrible”.
Zelensky has scored an unprecedented victory in the history of Ukraine, being elected President with 73,2%. A popular comedian, with no experience in politics, he has been chosen to lead the country instead of Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky campaigned on memes and irony, promising to free Ukraine from corruption and transform it into a thriving democracy.
However, his gains did not end there. One day after his inauguration as President of Ukraine, Zelensky dissolved the Verkhovna Rada calling for parliamentary snap elections on 21st July. Despite the fact that there was no policy content in most messages during Zelensky’s presidential campaign, Ukrainians rewarded him once again, by giving his party, Servant of the People, an absolute majority in the Parliament – 254 out of 450 seats.
Zelensky is in the most favourable position to turn the country around, controlling all levels of power and having massive support from his electorate. He already delivered on some of his promises made during the campaign, by signing a bill creating the procedure to impeach a president and simplifying the firing of government officials as part of his fight against corruption.
President Zelensky is determined also to lift a longstanding ban on the sale of farmland and start a process of privatization of state-owned enterprises to boost investments and move on with the economic reforms that the country really needs.
And of course one of his biggest accomplishments in his few months of holding the presidency has been the prisoner swap between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, trading 35 prisoners each. Zelensky is undoubtedly more open towards dialogue with Putin than his predecessor and wants to show progress on the conflict resolution in Donbas. Even though the Minsk II Agreement is still far from being implemented the prisoner exchange gave hope to Ukrainians that there might be an end to this war.
However, Zelensky’s presidency is not all fun and games. His reputation is overshadowed by his close relationship with the oligarch Kolomoisky, owner of the 1+1 Channel, where Zelensky’s show was aired, and his alleged sponsor in the elections. Also troubling, the reconfirmation of Arsen Avakov as Interior Minister, an obstructionist to legal reforms who is tainted by numerous corruption allegations that he denies.
The real trouble on the international scene though, began for Zelensky only on September 25, when the White House released a memorandum of a phone conversation between President Trump and Zelensky himself, in late July. Apparently, shortly before this call, Trump had ordered $391.5 million in military aid to Ukraine to be frozen, to then pressure Zelensky to look into the case of Joe Biden’s son in relation to his position on the Board of the oil and gas company Burisma.
The speaker for the US House of Representatives launched an impeachment inquiry into Trump immediately after the release of the memorandum and the first head to fly was that of Kurt Volker. He was appointed as a special envoy on Ukraine in July 2017 and was involved in negotiations over the conflict in Donbas.
Volker has facilitated a meeting between Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Zelensky’s advisor Andriy Yermak, which made him look involved in the scandal. However, Ukraine considers Volker’s resignation a big loss as he was highly regarded in the country and seemed to be the “voice of reason” in the U.S. -Ukraine relations.
This situation, however, did not have a terrible impact on the Ukrainian President. For sure he will have some explaining to do to France and Germany, after openly criticising Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in the incriminating phone call. Zelensky complained about the lack of support to Ukraine from the EU while praising all the United States is doing for his country. However, in the age of unaccountability for what one says, and considering his lack of political experience, he will most likely be quickly forgiven.
With regards to Ukrainian population, if Volodymyr Zelensky brings peace to Donbas, creates better economic conditions for the country and takes even some tiny steps in eradicating corruption, they will not withdraw their support for the new President. According to the Rating Group poll, 71% of Ukrainians are satisfied with Zelensky’s work.
Recent developments in the conflict resolution will gain him even more support among people who feel the war fatigue. On October 1st, Zelensky agreed to the “Steinmeier Formula”, allowing local elections in the Eastern regions of Ukraine under the control of the separatist supported by Russia. One has to agree that with this decision he got back into EU’s good graces quite quickly paving also the way for the Normandy Four meeting.
Even with some missteps along the way, for now, Zelensky is still being given the benefit of the doubt by both the international community and his electorate and at least for the time being his support in the country is likely to stay at 70%.