Ukraine’s New President Volodomyr Zelenskiy Vows Reform. Or Is It Revenge?

By Anna Nemtsova
Maxym Marusenko/Getty

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s comedian turned politician, was sworn in as president on Monday in front of a parliament that was mostly hostile to his agenda. So Zelenskiy simply announced he would dissolve the parliament, calling snap elections. “Glory to Ukraine!” he said.

In his inaugural speech, President Zelenskiy said that his main responsibility is to end the war against pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. After five years of fighting and thousands of lives lost, that certainly is his biggest challenge. But the solutions he offers are neither dramatic nor even very clear.

When it comes to fighting corruption, however, an issue on which the vast majority of Ukrainians agree, Zelenskiy announced some bold strokes.

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He wants to take away legal immunity from future parliament members. He wants to punish bureaucrats for corruption and fire the top military and law enforcement officials, including Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, and Vasily Gritsak, the head of the Ukrainian Security Service.

Each name to be purged got an ovation.

“The President delivered a brilliant speech. Brave. Powerful. I want to believe what he said,” Galina Odnorog, leader of a volunteer movement in eastern Ukraine, wrote in a Facebook post. “I had tears in my eyes when I listened to him.”

But is Zelenskiy vowing reform, or revenge?

Already there are signs that Ukraine's elites will use the change of leadership for a wide-ranging and destabilizing settling of scores.

The national police have moved to stop some 180 top officials from the outgoing government of President Petro Poroshenko from leaving the country. The list includes Poroshenko, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman and Parliament Speaker Andriy Parubiy. Prosecutions are expected.

Millions of Ukrainians welcome Zelenskiy’s revolutionary style, hoping he will stick to his word and become a radical corruption fighter during the five years of his presidential term. (Zelenskiy has promised not to run for a second term.)

According to a poll by the Democratic Initiatives foundation, 91 percent of Ukrainians consider corruption the key issue, and will welcome arrests. Zelenskiy blamed his predecessor for impoverishing Ukraine and many people agree. Poroshenko’s slogan in the last elections was “to live in a new way,” Zelenskiy said at a recent news conference, noting that for average Ukrainians it should have been “to survive.”

Zelenskiy’s electorate more than agrees.  “I want to see Poroshenko in prison for making us dirt poor,” Svitlana Maslova, a teacher in Cherkasy region told The Daily Beast. “I am a single mother, a teacher at an elementary school, I am surviving on $100 a month, let Poroshenko try to live on that salary with his children.”

The risk of vendetta seems to be rising. The change of power opened the door for the return of powerful figures who were in exile under Poroshenko, including one of the senior officials who fled after street protests in 2014 that ousted President Victor Yanukovych. On Sunday, Yanukovych’s administrator Andrei Portnov returned to Ukraine, saying he intends now to sue Poroshenko and a number of other prominent Ukrainian politicians.

Jailing political opponents, or targeting them in the judicial system, hardly counts as fighting corruption. Mustafa Nayyem, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, is blaming the current prosecutor general for the increased politicization of law enforcement:  Portnov’s return is “a symbolic result of Petro Poroshenko’s presidency,” a legacy of his final days, Nayyem wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday.

Zelenskiy’s long time business partner, Ihor Kolomoisky, who has lived in self-imposed exile since 2017, also returned days before the change of leadership . Ukrainians know Kolomoisky, former governor of the Dnipro region in eastern Ukraine, as a defender of the east from pro-Russian forces. His business dealings are less straightforward. The FBI is investigating him for money laundering. Kolomoisky denied his crimes, insisting that the FBI probe “will result in nothing,” and blaming political vendettas for his legal problems.  

As foreign delegations arrived in Kiev over the weekend, much attention fell on somebody who will not be present: President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has tried to mine Ukraine's turmoil for advantage in U.S. politics. Giuliani has been promoting the idea that Ukrainian officials assisted the Democratic Party in the 2016 election in the United States, trying to suggest a counterbalance to what the Mueller report called “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference helping to elect Trump.

Giuliani had planned to visit Kiev this month but cancelled his trip at the last minute. He has continued to press for investigations on the Ukrainian collusion idea, and suggested that if they are not pursued it is only because "enemies of President Trump" are advising Zelenskiy.

Whatever plans President Trump and his allies had for vendetta in Ukraine, it will be difficult to fulfil them now, since their ally Prosecutor General Lutsenko has been fired.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian political elite is on the move. In the past few days, several top government officials quit one after another, including the deputy head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Pavel Demchin. Other senior officials were detained on corruption charges.

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On Friday, military prosecutors arrested Valery Yaroshenko, the head of the State Employment Service for receiving alleged kickbacks of up to $800,000.

Ukraine’s new First Lady, Olena Zelenska, told The Daily Beast last month that her husband’s priorities were reforms and the fight against corruption and that continues to be his strongest theme.

“Our priority is a victory over corruption; de-monopolization, de-oligarchization in the media,” Zelenskiy told E.U. Commissioner Johannes Hahn at a recent meeting.

But Ukrainian oligarchs,are still powerful. They still control influential political parties and television channels–including Kolomoisky’s “1+1” television channel, which made Zelenskiy a star.

If Zelenskiy manages to change all that, not just shuffle the deck, will he fulfill his promise and actually break the corrupt system in Ukraine.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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