Zelenskiy against Kremlin: A stormy year ahead

Vladimir Dubrovskiy,
Senior Economist,
CASE Ukraine,
Kyiv, Ukraine

Two years ago the strongest accusation that Poroshenko’s propaganda made against Volodymyr Zelenskiy was that he is going to surrender to Russia. His blazing incompetence, his origin from a Russian-speaking circles, career in show business dependent on the Russian market, and peacemaking rhetoric seemed to support this accusation. Moreover, Ihor Kolomoyskiy, whose “puppet” he allegedly was, at that time had turned around from his image of Putin’s enemy #1 and became fiercely anti-Western. The propaganda went so far as using the image of “Poroshenko against Putin” on billboards set across the country before the run-off, with innuendo that Ze was just an enemy’s avatar. Even some respectable observers openly named him a Russian proxy, and presented his election as a special operation of the Russian secret service.

This was untrue from the very beginning, although electing an ignorant novice the president of a country at war was indeed a deadly risky move; and his naïve peacemaking could have indeed been dangerous. Still, an unbiased observer should have taken into account Ze’s strong patriotic statements and harsh rhetoric against Putin’s Russia – Ze certainly loves Ukraine, although, perhaps, not in a way the mainstream Ukrainian artists would like. But whatever are his deep beliefs, the logics of political and institutional interests now makes Ze confronting the Kremlin and its Ukrainian proxies in a way harsher than Poroshenko ever dared.

Just as predicted, Zelenskiy has freed himself from once strong Kolomoyskiy’s influence. The oligarch has never got his PrivatBank back (and Ze personally arrived to the parliament to persuade the MPs to vote for the law totally prohibiting such a move); neither has he obtained any major compensation, as he insisted; and recently Olexander Dubinskiy, the US-sanctioned MP strongly associated with Kolomoyskiy, was expelled from The People’s Servant (PS) party – also with direct involvement of its actual leader.

However, as also was predicted, Ze failed to become a strong arbiter between various oligarchs. He lacks a reliable “vertical”, does not have full control over the law enforcement, and his main (and pet) asset – popularity – is the TV’s hostage. A handful of TV channels controlled by the oligarchs still remain the main source of information for the most of population, hence a grip over political ratings’ neck.

It played out recently when heating prices increased, mostly because of the market reasons along with monopolies’ markup pricing. Viktor Medvedchuk’s three TV channels inflated public anger a lot and helped his pro-Kremlin party to spark protests. The government reacted by freezing the prices, which further worsened relations with the IMF. The situation politically benefited Medvedchuk – a Putin’s crony who used to promise cheap Russian natural gas and present the West as an enemy. But – perhaps, the most importantly – the pro-Kremlin force gained at the expense of the presidential one, and overran the PS in January polls. In the immediate response to the collapse of his ratings and those of his party, Zelenskiy crashed on Medvedchuk’s puppet Kozak, the nominal owner of the channels, and effectively shut three channels down. Looks like the first step in climbing over the oligarchs.

However, it may turn futile because, and this is the most important, Ze, unlike his predecessors, critically lacks control over the judiciary. However odd it sounds, formally independent judiciary and law enforcement proved to be a bad idea in contemporary Ukraine because of rampant corruption and Mafia-style informal institutions that penetrate these vital state bodies. Normally, a healthy judicial and law-enforcement corpus heals itself when being left to its own devices – and this was the reason behind the West’s insistence on their independence. But when it comes to Mafia-like institutions, independence only makes them more robust and tighter controlled by their godfathers, including Medvedchuk and Andrey Portnov. Both represent Kremlin – and “the Old System” rooted in the Russian/Soviet institutional heritage. Corrupt judges and “law-enforcement” officers lose the most from heading westward, towards the rule-of-law – and it makes them Kremlin’s natural “fifth column”.

Both Kremlin’s hands shaked one another when the legally invulnerable Constitutional Court, upon the appeal of MPs tied to Medvedchuk and Kolomoyskiy, ruled the Western-build anti-corruption system unconstitutional in November. This was the first episode in the battle, and the battle is nnot over yet. Shutting down the pro-Kremlin TV channels is likely to start the next episode, and there are many more to come. Ze is poorly equipped for this combat, but here he deserves support from both the West and the civil society – provided that it will bring integrity, real independence and the rule of law to the judiciary branch. With a weak arbiter like Ze, it seems to be feasible.

But why Zelenskiy, not Poroshenko, clashed with Ukraine’s main enemies, Medvedchuk and the judicial Mafia? This is because for his predecessor, Putin’s crony was not a real rival, rather a sparring-partner, and the corrupt judiciary was a necessary, convenient and obedient tool. However, for Ze both are his personal rivals and existential enemies. In reality, this simple interest proved to matter more than all patriotic rhetoric.

Email: vlad.dubrovskiy1@gmail.com

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