Serhy Yekelchyk is a professor of Slavic Studies and History at the University of Victoria (Victoria, Canada) and the current president of the Canadian Association for Ukrainian Studies.
1. What is your assessment of the first year of Zelensky’s presidency? Has he moved Ukraine in a positive direction?
The election of Volodymyr Zelensky as president of Ukraine generated considerable interest in the world media, but one year later, there has been precious little discussion of his record. I think the reason for the initial reaction was not so much his stature as a comedian with no political experience, as the fact that similar radical departures from the usual rules of politics were happening elsewhere, including in the US. Ukraine did not simply join the worldwide turn to populism; it managed to do so in the most spectacular way. Furthermore, Zelensky is not your typical European or American populist politician. He is not right-wing or anti-immigration; he has not tried to build conservative support by emphasizing religion or criticising gay rights. In other words, he represents a totally unknown quality that can turn out to be good or bad for Ukraine.
Zelensky did not confirm the worst fears and conspiracy theories of his opponents. He has not become a puppet of the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, with whom his entertainment company had worked closely in the past, nor has he abandoned Ukraine’s orientation towards the West. But on numerous occasions, it has seemed that pressure from the opposition and Ukrainian civil society has prevented him from committing major blunders. His eagerness to restart the peace process almost led to the unconditional acceptance of the political autonomy of the occupied territories in the Donbas and elections there, prior to the withdrawal of Russian troops. His line on the Ukrainian language and culture seemed to waver. His proposal to organize the lustration of all officials from the Poroshenko administration outraged many in Ukraine, as well as the country’s Western partners. The most recent attempts to prosecute Poroshenko sound a familiar note—Yanukovych used political justice in a similar way. The dismissal of his first cabinet of ministers after six months and the resignations of some high-profile officials in the presidential administration illustrate the lack of clear vision and a reliable team.
At the same time, Ukraine under Zelensky continues to work closely with the International Monetary Fund. A single-party majority in the parliament has allowed for the passage of a remarkable bill allowing the sale of agricultural land. Ever since independence, oligarchs have found it cheaper to rent land, a move justified by a mixture of socialist and nativist rhetoric. The new situation can rejuvenate the Ukrainian economy and fill the state’s coffers with sales tax on the sale of land. Zelensky’s party also accomplished what the previous political forces only talked about—briefly, at that, and only before the elections: It removed parliamentary immunity from prosecution and passed a law on presidential impeachment. All in all, Zelensky’s term in office thus far shows a mixed record with some positive highlights but also major concerns about the lack of a long-term strategy.
2. What impact do you think COVID-19 pandemic has had on Ukraine so far?
As of mid-June 2020, it remains unclear whether Ukraine has managed to limit the damage from the first wave of the virus or whether this wave will simply sweep through the country later than elsewhere in Europe. Ukraine was in transition from Soviet-type health care to an insurance model similar to the one in Canada. The Zelensky administration spoke of halting or even undoing the reform, but it did not have enough time to start implementing this threat. Being caught in the middle of a major transformation is usually not a good thing. In this case, however, the higher number of doctors and hospital beds per capita, the remnants of the Soviet model, did not necessarily make things worse, at least in urban areas. There is, of course, another Soviet legacy—not trusting the state and not following to the letter medical instructions—which is going to be disadvantageous. In any event, the economic damage has already been done and, in Ukraine’s case, the return of so many temporary workers from abroad means both an increased risk of the virus being imported into the country and the drastic reduction in remittance payments, which served as a major factor in the Ukrainian economy. It is going to be a difficult year.
3. What is your view of the latest developments in the Donbas region?
Zelensky badly wanted his first summit in the Normandy format and, in the fall of 2019, seemed willing to accept Putin’s conditions consisting of a certain interpretation of the Steinmeier Formula. Russia demanded not only law on the special status of the two so-called “people’s republics,” but also for Ukraine to agree to holding elections there before control of the border with Russia is restored to the Ukrainian side, and Russian troops are withdrawn. Mass protests throughout Ukraine had a sobering effect on Zelensky and his advisors, who then retreated to Poroshenko’s wise position of procrastination.
I am also skeptical about the practice of troop disengagement, which Zelensky embraced as another condition of holding that ultimately pointless Normandy summit in Paris in December 2019. This measure sounded reasonable enough because disengagement was supposed to reduce the number of casualties. But it appears that, at least in some cases, Russian and pro-Russian troops moved right into the areas vacated by the Ukrainian army, thus securing better tactical positions. Intermittent fire exchanges continue along the contact line, and every week there are more dead and wounded Ukrainian soldiers. So much for Zelensky the peacemaker.
4. Do you think COVID-19 can be used as an excuse for lifting sanctions on Russia? Are there any risks for Ukraine?
I do not think this is going to happen. Most sanctions are linked to the Russian annexation of the Crimea, and this chunk of territory is not something that Putin is willing to give up in exchange for lifting them. Besides, he practices a particular type of macho and anti-Western politics in which any concession to the enemy undermines the leader’s position.
As for the West, it is crucial that Ukraine has bipartisan support in the US (and in Canada, tri-partisan support). When all the major political forces in North America hold similar positions on helping Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression, it would be difficult for their European partners to break ranks, no matter how much some European politicians may want this. Let’s just hope that the Zelensky administration does not give such forces an opening by pushing for greater trade with Russia as an alleged recipe for Ukraine’s recovery once the pandemic abates.