The End of Zelensky’s First Year: The Outcome of 2019

The only really large, you can even say fateful, event for Ukraine in the past year was the presidential election. Its role in both Kiev’s foreign policy positioning and the arrangement of its domestic political forces cannot be overestimated.

Despite Zelensky’s deafening (73% of the vote in his favour) victory, his election was not a foregone conclusion. From my point of view, it became inevitable only after Poroshenko made a catastrophic mistake by building his entire campaign on the fight against Tymoshenko (with the aim of not letting her enter the second round of voting). In fact, he reached an agreement with his opponents concerning his intention to take Zelensky to the second round, considering that it would be easier to win against an inexperienced clown. In fact, it was easier for him to compete with Tymoshenko.

Firstly, Yuliya Tymoshenko has already lost her former charisma and, even as an alternative to the hated Poroshenko, didn’t gain much of an approval rating.

Secondly, in order for these two characters to be guaranteed to enter the second round, they had to make an alliance between themselves. Without mutual support, they would not have been able to organise the right amount of fraud.

Thirdly, such an alliance could involve Medvedchuk, who has the experience of cooperating with Tymoshenko in 2006/7-2010.

Fourthly, with this arrangement of forces, Akhmetov would take a more balanced position. He already had business interests in common with Poroshenko. With Poroshenko having more or less serious oligarchic support, the cautious Akhmetov would prefer to put most of his eggs into Petro’s basket.

Fifthly, Pinchuk, equally afraid of Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, and Kolomoisky, would likely take a neutral stance.

This, and sixthly, would have a cumulative effect. There wouldn’t be a feeling of universal opposition in Poroshenko’s society, the oligarchic media would work much more lazily against him, and Zelensky wouldn’t be presented by the majority of publications and television channels as the only alternative to the disastrous course – support for an “alternative to Poroshenko” would be distributed among several candidates. In such a case, a much smaller amount of falsifications would be required – the task would be solved.

This would certainly not cancel Poroshenko’s entrance into the second round, in which Tymoshenko would try to consolidate the Ukrainian oligarchy against him. But he would still have the opportunity to manoeuvre by trying to attract to his side a harboring malice Kolomoisky, whose candidate was brazenly deprived of victory, and the rest of the oligarchy would not feel confident, because the gap between the participants of the second round would be small.

All of this would require Poroshenko to be an active, manoeuvrable politician on the verge of a foul, with the risk of deafening loss (it would be necessary to neutralise the Avakov factor and the unfriendly attitude of the American administration and European partners). But we are still told that Poroshenko is a heavyweight politician and an outstanding intellectual. Experienced talented politicians are not afraid to take risks, especially in a situation where risk is the only chance to escape a catastrophic defeat.

If Poroshenko had stayed in power or if Tymoshenko had succeeded, Ukraine would not have received a shot of adrenaline to its heart. But Zelensky’s election didn’t just rekindle Maidan’s hopes. It led to a unique situation – the remnants of anti-maidan merging with most of Maidan in unnatural unity. Their barren unity, which resembles a family composed of a eunuch and a rubber woman, was based on the hope that it was enough to remove Poroshenko to turn everything bad into everything good. In this regard, the “adequate members” of anti-maidan, which showed amazing inadequacy, fully repeated the beliefs of “people with kind faces” that not long ago made them laugh and who firmly knew that it is President Yanoukovych who lies between them and European happiness – like a stone on the pillar road to the rich idleness. At the beginning of 2019, the opposites converged and Ukrainians in a single impulse (not counting right-wing radicals) supported the idea of the demolition of Poroshenko by anyone.

In the view of Ukrainian voters, Zelensky, for an incomprehensible reason, was supposed to enter into an irreconcilable struggle with his benefactor Kolomoisky, for the “simple human happiness” of the “small Ukrainian”. This is also despite the fact that the options for “simple human happiness” were hardly much fewer than the “small Ukrainians” themselves.

The classic manoeuvre of changing the figurehead without changing the system gave Ukraine a whole year of relative stabilisation. One can ignore the right’s opposition to Poroshenko and their periodic attacks against Zelensky. It is a struggle not against the system, but within the system. And it was initially clear that Zelensky was not afraid of a serious shock until the end of 2019, whatever he did. Too high expectations were associated with him in order for someone to risk arousing the people by really snapping Zelensky. Most likely they would demolish him. But after all, it’s not enough to take power, one still has to hold onto it. But at this stage questions would have already arisen.

The foreign policy situation of the country has also stabilised. It did not improve, it did not deteriorate, but namely stabilised. The pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions fighting in America balanced each other, causing American politics in Ukraine to lose meaning, becoming a technical element of the tactical election fight. The Ukrainian argument was used by the Democrats at the stage of the pre-election fight, so it cannot play a strategic role in the 2020 election – the efforts of the Democrats and Republicans cancel each other out, a new solution must be sought for a breakthrough. Ukraine can no longer be such a solution. It will continue to be used as an element of intra-American positional war, but it is because of precisely this that it will continue to lose the sympathy of the “grateful American people”, i.e., strategic appeal to the waring American factions.

Europeans, most notably Merkel, who was unlucky with Maidan (Germany carried the heaviest part of it, and the United States did not allow Klitschko to be appointed president) decided that with Zelensky’s help they would be able to move forward with the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Thus, they could take a dominant position in Ukraine and try to use it in their geopolitical game with both America and Russia – to achieve the position they sought when then invested in the 2014 Maidan.

Russia, of course, did not plan to realise European interests in Ukraine, but, apparently, at the decision-making level, they did not believe in Zelensky’s ability to change something, despite the fact that in Russia the opinion of some representatives of the elite that if you “give Zelensky an opportunity” and support him with some concessions, then in the end it will be possible to get along with him, existed and still exists. As I said, Russia’s actions to prepare a meeting in the Normandy format have shown that a line of support for Zelensky at the highest Russian political level is not in demand. I think that after the meeting in Paris it will be in demand even less, as Zelensky by his behaviour confirmed the worst fears about his ability to conduct informed dialogue at the international level.

As a result, following Zelensky’s first year, we have a total loss of opportunities that he, as president, and Ukraine, as a state, received after the unexpected formation, during the presidential election, of an infantile-trusting absolute majority of voters. Zelensky’s approval rating has significantly fallen and will continue to fall, despite even favourable conditions for Ukraine’s transit contract with Gazprom (even before the official signing of which Gazprom transferred Naftogaz $3 billion by the decision of the Stockholm Arbitration). Ukraine didn’t at all take this contract as a victory. However, Russia did not perceive it as a defeat, which means that it will not give Zelensky approval rating points, nor will Gazprom’s billions not only not stop, but won’t even slow down the processes of disintegration going on in Ukraine (their much larger billions from the IMF and the European Union did not slow down).

The EU made sure that Zelensky is Poroshenko 2.0, only less self-contained (dependant on Kolomoisky). Both struggling parties in the US see that Zelensky is unable to provide them with support. Everything they want to implement in Ukraine within the framework of their domestic political struggle, they have to do themselves (like how Rudy Giuliani independently made a film about the corruption of Biden, without waiting for any help from Ukrainian officials). Russia has maintained that no agreement with Ukraine (not with the regime, namely Ukraine) is possible, as there are no politicians within this system capable of fulfilling their obligations (not only oral promises, but also signed agreements).

In general, after a year the country is in the same position as it was in December 2018. It’s just that the economic situation deteriorated (industrial production fell by 7%, steel smelting by 10%, and in terms of grain exports Ukraine fell to 9th place in the world). In principle, this can be considered an achievement. An extra year without a catastrophe for Ukraine, which is a century of prosperity for a normal country.

But by April the problem of the next meeting in the Normandy format (this time in Berlin) will have to be solved. Against the background of the need to carry out “homework”, internal contradictions will escalate. Zelensky’s approval rating should reliably drop below 50% by this time, and most likely below 40%. Consequently, radicals will gain greater freedom of hands, and his fear of them will only increase.

However, all of this will be later, but for now Ukraine is living out a year of relative stability and unrealised expectations.

Rostislav Ishchenko

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