First month of Zelenskyi’s presidency: key conclusions

First month of Zelenskyi’s presidency: key conclusions
June 21, 2019.

It’s been one month since Volodymyr Zelenskyi assumed the office of President. Throughout the month he dissolved the Parliament, got blamed for freely interpreting the legislation and the Constitution in particular as well as was accused of plagiarism and sexism. Zelenskyi wants his Presidential Office to leave the premises on Bankova to turn them into a museum. At the same time he continues the foreign policy course of his predecessor Petro Poroshenko towards the EU and NATO. UCMC draws the conclusions of the first thirty days in office of the new head of the state.  

Dissolution of the Parliament: legal gaps and a political decision

Zelenskyi started his inaugural address by saying that each Ukrainian is a president and is responsible for their country. Wrapping up his speech he announced the dissolution of the eighth convocation Parliament. Full text of the address. The new President will benefit from early parliamentary elections as it will be the right time for him to bring his political force into the Parliament on the crest of a wave.

On the next day after the inauguration the President signed the decree scheduling early parliamentary elections on July 21.

At the meeting with leaders of the parliamentary factions Volodymyr Zelenskyi suggested holding the parliamentary elections based on the proportional representation system with closed party lists. He also suggested decreasing the threshold from five to three per cent despite the fact that one day earlier in his inaugural address he called on the Parliament to adopt the Election Code stipulating the proportional representation system with open party lists. The Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) did not support Zelenskyi’s draft law introducing closed party lists.

The election campaign started on May 24, the next day after the presidential decree was published. At the same time a group of MPs appealed to the Constitutional Court asking to check the legality of the decree.

The decision of the Constitutional Court. The Court started considering the case on May 29 and issued a decision on June 20. The decision says that a conflict was created between the President of Ukraine and the Verkhovna Rada as to the reasons for early dissolution of the Parliament. According to the Constitutional Court the conflict has no legal solution as Ukraine’s Constitution does not stipulate the procedure for terminating the coalition of parliamentary factions in the Verkhovna Rada.

According to the Court’s decision, people hold fundamental sovereignty and are the only source of power, so the Constitutional Court of Ukraine stated that resolving the constitutional conflict of the people by holding early elections to the Verkhovna Rada is in line with the second part of the Constitution’s Article 5. So, the parliamentary elections will take place on July 21, 2019. The decision stems from political expediency much more than from legality.

First appointments: “buddies” and other scandalous appointments to the Presidential Administration, confrontation with Rada about government

The most scandalous appointment: head of the Presidential Administration. Zelenskyi’s most scandalous appointment so far is the appointment of Andriy Bohdan to the post of the Head of the Presidential Administration. Bohdan is thought to be linked to Ihor Kolomoyskyi. According to the law on cleansing (lustration) of authorities he cannot be holding the post as he served as the envoy on anticorruption policy in Mykola Azarov’s government for over a year between 2010 and 2014. The position of Zelenskyi’s team is Bohdan is not subject to the lustration law as he is not a civil servant.

At the same time deputy minister of justice Serhiy Petukhov reminded that the Law “On cleansing of authorities” clearly stipulates that the post of the Head of the Presidential Administration falls within the scope of the law.

In the end Zelenskyi’s representatives agreed that the President will dismiss Bohdan as soon as the Constitutional Court rules that the lustration law is in line with the Constitution. Until then the head of the state cannot be using the law that “contradicts the rule of law principle and is not in line with the Constitution.”

Surrounding the President with “buddies”. Volodymyr Zelenskyi has surrounded himself with “buddies”. His former partners at the “Kvartal 95” (95thquarter) show and members of the election campaign office took key posts at the Presidential Administration and became advisors to the head of the state. Among the promised new professionals there’s just the former head of the Better Regulation Delivery Office Oleksiy Honcharuk appointed Andriy Bohdan’s deputy on economic issues as well as Vadym Prystaiko, Head of the Mission of Ukraine to NATO, currently responsible for foreign affairs at the Presidential Administration.

Presidential quota in the government. The new President has not yet had a chance to fill out his quota in the government: the Parliament refused to dismiss the Foreign Affairs Ministry Pavlo Klimkin and the Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak. Not enough votes were found to dismiss the Security Service Head Vasyl Hrytsak either. The Presidential Administration decided to give it a different try and appointed the founder of the “Servant of People” (Sluha Narodu) party Ivan Bakanov first deputy head – head of the directorate on combatting corruption and organized crime at the Security Service. When presenting Bakanov the President said that he is expected to reorganize the Security Service of Ukraine and eliminate smuggling in two weeks. Zelenskyi must have forgotten the part of his election program saying that the Security Service “will not be dealing with economic crimes.”

Bills passed to the Parliament: impeachment, illicit enrichment and energy market

Quite a number of paragraphs in Zelenskyi’s election campaign suggested that mechanisms will be introduced to keep the authorities accountable, parliamentary immunity will be lifted and the impeachment procedure will be set up. In the first month some of the bills were already passed to the Parliament.

Draft law on impeachment. The document draws a detailed procedure of removing the head of the state from office. The  draft law is registered but has not been included into the agenda. Instead an alternative draft law was considered and approved – on temporary investigation commissions that also includes the clauses on impeachment. The bill was signed by the Head of the Parliament Andriy Parubiy. Next should come the signature of the President: he can either sign or veto the document. If he takes no action, tacit acceptance will apply and 15 days after the law will be published and come into force.

The draft law on illicit enrichment. Another draft law submitted by the President is on illicit enrichment. The issue came into the spotlight after the Constitutional Court recognized the respective article of the Criminal Code being discordant with the Constitution. In the draft law that he submitted the President suggests that only illegal assets exceeding UAH 11,5 million (over EUR 300 thousand) are subject to criminal liability. The law in question was still not included into the agenda even though the law on illicit enrichment is one of the IMF requirements to continue cooperating with Ukraine.

Energy. Two more presidential draft laws were introduced to the Parliament – on amending the Law on renewable energy and on energy market. The first bill intends returning the right to the “green tariff” to households that are installing land surface solar power plants. The second one intends postponing the launch of the energy market that was supposed to kick-start on July 1 de jure. De facto no pre-conditions are in place for that.

Foreign visits: Brussels, Paris and Berlin

Brussels: “a new President with old policy”. The President’s first international visit was to Brussels. On June 4 and 5 he met with the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk and the President of Poland Andrzej Duda.

Key messages voiced by the head of the state during the meetings suggest that Ukraine still holds the aspiration to become a full-fledged member of the EU and NATO. So the European media called Volodymyr Zelenskyi “a new President with old policy”. They surely intended foreign policy.

A speech plagiarized from Poroshenko’s. During the visit Volodymyr Zelenskyi repeated word-by-word part of the speech that his predecessor Petro Poroshenko delivered at a party congress of “European Solidarity” (Yevropeiska Solidarnist). The Presidential Administration said the case is an act of sabotage on the part of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and promised to hold an internal investigation.

Paris: a meeting with President Macron. Next foreign visit of Volodymyr Zelenskyi was to Paris. On June 17 he met the President of France Emmanuel Macron. They discussed the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the possible Normandy format meeting.

Another important statement made by Zelenskyi – Ukraine will not be talking directly to militants. He also called on the Russian authorities to free all Ukrainian prisoners and implement the decision of the International Tribunal and liberate the captured Ukrainian sailors.

Berlin: a meeting with Chancellor Merkel. More details on the Normandy format negotiations were revealed next day during Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s meeting with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They can possibly take place on July 12.

During his visit to Germany the President of Ukraine called on the German officials and representatives of business community not to soften the sanctions against Russia.

“Those who advocate for lifting of sanctions, I invite them to come to Donbas to see how much suffering the war has brought to Ukrainians. Take a look at Crimea that from a resort turned into an actual military camp,” Zelenskyi told “Bild” in an interview.

Backlash at the President’s sexist phrase: “Not your brand”

Zelenskyi’s statement during his Paris visit went unnoticed internationally but caused a heated discussion in Ukraine. On June 17 the President said a phrase that caused a wave of indignation in Ukraine.

Speaking during his visit to Station F in France – one of the world’s biggest startup incubators, Zelenskyi  said Ukrainian women are one of the countries “brands”.

“By the way, I would like to praise Ukraine and Ukrainians a bit. Everyone in the world used to think that Ukraine is agriculture, coal mines and metallurgists in the first place. While the tourists used to say that it’s very beautiful and the food is very good in Ukraine, the people are very beautiful especially the women. It is true and it remains our brand,” the President stated.

He then continued by listing the advantages of the Ukrainian IT industry but his phrase on women in Ukraine did not go unnoticed. It is being widely discussed especially on social media, many accuse the head of the state of sexism.

Ukrainian female users of social media started a campaign listing their professional achievements at the hashtags #я_тобі_не_бренд, #янебренд, #янетуристичнийбренд(I am not your brand, I am not a brand, I am not a tourism brand).

Majority of the opinion leaders call the President’s phrase sexist and call to apologize to Ukrainian women. Others compare Zelenskyi’s words to the notorious phrase of former president Yanukovych on women who “are taking their clothes off”.

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