After a period of relative calm, public politics returned to Kyiv this summer in pre-war style. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sacked the head of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), a number of regional SBU heads and his prosecutor general in July. There was also a presidential decree circulating in July (though not officially recorded or seen with Zelenskyy’s signature) that would have stripped Ukrainian citizenship from a number of people, including three prominent political figures.
The SBU cleanup was unsurprising, given the organization’s incompetence and betrayal that gave Russia control of Kherson at the start of the war, but the dismissal of the attorney general and the targeting of the political boss alleged Zelenskyy, Ihor Kolomoisky, were unforeseen. These moves deserve pause among those who support Ukraine, especially for how they reflect on the democracy Ukraine is fighting to defend.
Ukrainian commentators trace these moves to Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. Censor.net editor-in-chief Yuri Butusov sees the decisions to replace Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova and SBU chief Ivan Bakanov as consolidating control of Ukraine’s security organs under Yermak and his deputy, Oleh Tatarov. It was no surprise that pro-Russian politician Vadym Rabinovych was put down.
As for the most notable figure who would have lost his citizenship, Kolomoisky – an oligarch and widely presumed to be Zelenskyy’s main patron – Zelenskyy probably concluded that he had all the legitimacy and political power he needed, and his administration likely felt he had the ability to strike Kolomoisky for a perceived transgression. That transgression, as The New Voice of Ukraine reports, was Kolomoisky’s former deputy in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Hennady Korban, implicated in a letter sent by Republican U.S. Representative Victoria Spartz to the Biden administration questioning the Yermak’s loyalty to Ukraine. Korban was the third significant figure to lose his citizenship.
The return of convoluted public policy in Ukraine poses risks both to the war effort and to Ukrainian democracy. Ukraine needs the competence of its leaders and their direct subordinates. If flexibility and subordination to cliques within the presidential administration were to become a higher priority than job performance, Ukraine could lose its way to victory in the war. Moreover, Zelenskyy, his advisers and his security organs must never forget that the attention paid to Ukrainian politics has never been greater. Zelenskyy has upended half-hearted European security paradigms by convincingly presenting his country’s fight as a battle for European democracy. His administration must remember that with some supporters of Ukraine who have suffered greatly this winter, they should not be given excuses to abandon Ukraine.
On the other hand, Ukraine’s partners concerned about the direction of Ukrainian democracy should understand that even if Zelensky and his administration were inclined to consolidate power in an undemocratic way, the reality of Ukrainian politics makes this unlikely.
First, while an intense fandom has emerged around Zelenskyy in the West, nothing resembles a personality cult developing around him in Ukraine. During his time in Ukraine, this author observed that public expressions of martial spirit are extremely organic and glorify the defenders of Ukraine, its historic struggle for the nation and the hearts of its people rather than to salute the current leader or rejoice in a cult of past imperial grandeur.
During his inauguration in 2019, Zelenskyy told the Ukrainian parliament: “I really don’t want my photos to be in your offices, because the president is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Instead, hang pictures of your children and look at them every time you make a decision. Despite the war and the adoration of its heroes in the West, neither Zelenskyy nor the Ukrainian people have turned their backs on this message. Members of the author’s Ukrainian social networks feel free to criticize their president when they disagree with his conduct, and there will be things for Zelenskyy to answer for when he and his party go before voters in coming years. The people of Ukraine are fiercely dedicated to the fight that Zelenskyy is waging, but Zelenskyy will have to earn the right to continue to fight this fight.
Second, while Zelenskyy’s administration has tightened its grip on Kyiv’s organs of power and his Servant of the People party holds an absolute majority in parliament, his party lacks a well-developed national infrastructure. Servant of the People only emerged in the 2019 snap parliamentary elections, and although it was the best of all national parties in the 2020 local elections, it was vastly outperformed by local political parties organized by local elites. Zelenskyy lacks a powerful national base of party operatives to turn to for loyalty at all levels of Ukrainian politics. Even Zelenskyy’s use of his Big Construction program (which generously distributed funds for pet projects across the country) to support his party’s 2020 election prospects failed to win mayors from major cities, and the party holds the largest faction in just four regional councils.
Third, as this author found as an election observer in Ukraine at dozens of polling stations in six different votes in 2019 and 2020 (including presidential, parliamentary, and local elections), Ukraine’s electoral system is highly resistant to tampering. While unsavory practices in election campaigns are sadly common, the voting process itself involves strong countermeasures against fraud and is being closely watched by all competing parties, a robust civil society and international partners. You can’t just get away with stuffing the ballots or altering the results. If a politician wants to be elected in Ukraine, he must convince enough people to vote for him.
Finally, politics in Ukraine has always been a delicate balancing act between national and regional clans of political patronage backed by oligarchs. These clans are centered around business elites who wield influence over the media, political party networks and state officials. Political parties in Ukraine are not so much defined by ideology as by the partisan clans behind them. To lead the country, the Ukrainian president must have the tacit consent of Ukrainian political clans. If the President has his consent withdrawn, political clans in the country may drag their feet in carrying out the policy (see the resistance of city mayors during the COVID pandemic to the implementation of restrictions ordered by Kyiv), in launching hostile media campaigns via both the formal media they own and via the Telegram rumor mills, and banding together in support of the offender’s opponents. And one of the most successful post-Maidan reforms in Ukraine, the decentralization reform which devolved more budgetary and decision-making power to the regional and community level, will further strengthen the strongholds of Ukrainian political pluralism.
This plurality embedded in Ukrainian politics has, through elections and revolutions, prevented the emergence of political hegemonies and clan dynasties. After all, although Ukrainian politicians have never been shy about using government resources to their own political advantage, Ukraine has only ever had one re-elected president: Leonid Kuchma, who presided from 1994 to 2005. , and whose designated successor, Viktor Yanukovych, had his fraudulent election overturned in the Orange Revolution of 2004. It remains to be seen whether the war will ultimately shatter the oligarchic structure of Ukrainian politics that has existed throughout his tenure. independent story, but based on the author’s conversations with sources involved in aid distribution across the country, the war did not kill outside the competition for influence, resources and power.
Western supporters of Ukraine have no clear buttons to push or strings to pull to safeguard the country’s democracy. The West, especially the Biden administration and the British government, has thrown huge amounts of political capital and physical resources behind Ukraine’s survival, and withdrawing its support would be devastating for Ukrainian victory. Ukraine’s Western allies can keep their ears to the ground, use a low-key bullying pulpit to pressure the Zelenskyy administration to value competence over clan politics and avoid damaging the competitive arena of Ukrainian politics, and stays in touch with regional political figures to ensure that the Ukrainian political base remains sound. A periodic public assessment by the US State Department and/or Congress would be helpful in keeping the pressure on the Zelenskyy administration not to stray from the democracy its people are fighting to defend. But at the end of the day, if the West wants the Ukrainian government to have sovereignty over the country, it must trust that the Ukrainian political system will use its own safeguards and that Ukrainian civil society will keep a democracy alive. competitive.
Fortunately, even though the intentions of Zelenskyy and his administration are hostile to Ukrainian democracy, and no matter how tightly they try to seize Kyiv’s organs of power, Zelenskyy presides over a system that has strong resilience against authoritarian takeover. . A situation similar to the way President Vladimir Putin seized autocratic power in Russia is made unlikely in Ukraine by the combination of Western scrutiny and the pluralistic distribution of political power in Ukraine. Moreover, Western supporters of Ukraine should understand that even if Zelenskyy manages to seriously damage Ukrainian democracy, it is hard to imagine that the Ukrainian people would be well served by the alternative if the West stopped supporting Ukraine. Ukraine – a despotic and genocidal Russian occupation in which Ukrainians lose their state and nationality.
Joel Wasserman is an analyst who has been working and volunteering in Ukraine since March 2018. He has worked with Ukrainian news and commentary outlet UkraineWorld and a number of Ukrainian NGOs, in addition to being an official Ukrainian election observer with the Ukrainian World. Congress and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Since moving from Kyiv shortly before the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, he has lived in Lviv. He tweets at @joelw_762.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect an official policy or position of the New Lines Institute.