Two years ago, Ukraine elected comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyi as President. At the time, he had no prior political experience. Some experts call those elections “voter revolution”, or “voter Maidan”.
Those have been two turbulent years. Not even halfway through his term in office (the President serves for five years), Zelenskyi is showing signs of a change. On May 20, Zelenskyi held the annual press conference.
We highlight key moments from the news conference, and look at how President Zelenskyi’s tenure has evolved in the past two years.
From dove to hawk
Peace was Ukrainians’ key expectation of the new President. Some were hopeful, others feared a peace deal on Putin’s terms.
Early on in office, President Zelenskyi was optimistic about the prospects of brokering a deal with Putin. He was pressing for a bilateral meeting with the Russian President. In the first months of Zelenskyi’s presidency, the new Ukrainian government avoided referring to Russia as aggressor, did not push forward on the aspirations to NATO membership, and kept emphasizing eagerness to negotiate.
Subsequently, the concessions that Moscow demanded were deemed unacceptable by Ukraine’s civil society, while Russia would not compromise. Following hours of talks across various formats, the achievements were quite modest. There have been a few prisoner swaps, and a ceasefire holding between summer and winter 2020.
When, in April 2021, Russia began to intimidate Ukraine and its foreign allies with the prospects of a large-scale invasion, Zelenskyi switched the rhetoric from “we need to stop firing” to “our planes will throw bombs”. Past the two-year mark in office, the President sees Ukraine’s NATO membership as the only way to end the war.
The expectation is to get the NATO Membership Action Plan by the end of his tenure.
“End the war, restore sovereignty over Donbas and Crimea, receive the NATO Membership Action Plan, and a normal dialogue with the EU,” an unnamed member of the President’s team was quoted as saying by “hromadske”.
Speaking at the press conference, Zelenskyi made it clear that the Kremlin holds the key to the settlement of the conflict in Donbas. “In our chess game, despite being white, when we started, we had only half of the pieces. Indeed, 99 per cent depends on Russia. The prospect of freezing the conflict is one per cent. We are clinging to that one per cent very tightly, not to let the conflict freeze,” Zelenskyi said.
Also, he underscored the importance of the Crimean Platform.
“Russia reacts negatively to the Crimean Platform. To us, it is paramount to have something, following seven years of the war and the illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.”
“I am happy that today we finally have the first serious platform to deal with de-occupation of Crimea. That is not yet another summit where declarations will be signed, but (a setting) to consider de-occupation steps.”
“Second, we shall finally open the permanent office of the Crimean Platform. A team of professionals, from lawyers to economists, and to humanitarian workers, will deal daily with the problems of occupied Crimea and the people entitled to humanitarian aid, and those imprisoned in Crimea or in the Russian Federation,” Zelenskyi said.
From “Kolomoyskyi’s puppet” to a “war on oligarchs”
When Zelenskyi ran for President, he was accused of being patronized by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi as the television channel “1+1” owned by the tycoon promoted the candidate in the campaign.
After Zelenskyi won the election race, Kolomoyskyi gained more power. He returned to Ukraine, gave a number of interviews, often rude in their tone, hinting that he’s the one to “solve the problems” now.
But the President and the oligarch parted ways quite soon. As the lawmakers voted in the so-called “anti-Kolomoyskyi” law, Zelenskyi attended the sitting to make sure there are enough votes. Later, MP Oleksandr Dubinskyi, believed to be lobbying Kolomoyskyi’s interests, was expelled from the “Servant of the People” (Sluha Narodu) party. Also, indictments in the PrivatBank case were issued, and anti-monopoly fines were imposed on the companies owned by the tycoon.
Zelenskyi became excited after enacting the sanctions imposed by the National Security and Defense Council on Viktor Medvedchuk and his cronies, a move that found broad support with the public. So, the President hurried to ride a wave of de-oligarchization.
“Medvedchuk out… others will follow,” Zelenskyi promised referring to his anti-oligarch campaign. Looking beyond the promises, there is a bill on oligarchs coming.
Zelenskyi revealed some of the details of the bill at the news conference. “The bill will be ready next week. Its core meaning and philosophy is we don’t want to kill big business. Instead, we kill the ‘power of oligarchs’ as a notion in our country. They will no longer have impact on mass media, politics, or civil servants.”
“Otherwise those people will be labeled ‘oligarchs’ and included in the registry. Then, those large companies may lose most of their assets abroad.”
“Large companies will not be destroyed. Everyone wants them to stay, proceed as big taxpayers, develop business and create more jobs,” Zelenskyi said.
“They have a chance to stop being oligarchs and avoid becoming them. The law will give them some time, not too much time, to get rid of their power. We’ll show them how, if they need to. There will be no dead end for them.”
“There are three major points: impact on media, one way or another; the role in the political life – impact on MPs, civil servants, and ministers; and their assets. Conforming to all the three criteria brings a person into the registry of oligarchs,” Zelenskyi explained.
From “fresh faces” to “experienced managers”
Starting his term in office, Zelenskyi mostly relied on “fresh faces”, embodied by the former Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk. But the President was dissatisfied with the results, he kept complaining of staffing shortages.
To address those shortages, government posts were assigned to “experienced managers” whose reputation was in some cases compromised. Thus, the Minister of Education Serhiy Shkarlet was at the center of a plagiarism scandal. Deputy head of the President’s Office Oleh Tatarov served as deputy chief of the Main Investigation Department of the Interior Ministry during Yanukovych’s presidency, and publicly spoke against the Maidan activists. Zelenskyi does not seem to be bothered by the previous record of those officials.
Commenting on Tatarov, Zelenskyi said: “Andriy Yermak (Head of the President’s Office – edit.) is convinced that Tatarov is a professional, so am I. As for the rest, I am not well-informed about what Tatarov has said or what his beliefs are (referring to his statements that the Maidan activists committed crimes, and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau is influenced by foreign states – “hromadske”), so it’s hard to comment. I know there are some gossips, but I have no evidence.”
“People who believe that the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime was a coup do not work with us. I never heard him say anything like that,” Zelenskyi said.
At the same time he agreed that there have been many staffing mistakes. “I feel ashamed for what some of the people in the team have done. Small mistakes are to be forgiven, and they need to improve. People deserve a second chance. I always give them a second, sometimes even a third chance. I then may regret, that’s true. I am responsible for what they are. But I did not see that from the start,” he said.
Zelenskyi admitted that the staffing shortages still exist. “Unfortunately, strong staff are a few. Still, in the ‘Servant of the People’ party there are more of them than in any other party. I am glad about the evolutionary cleansing of the Parliament. The next Parliament will be even cleaner.”
From “one-term president” to “one term is too little time”
Starting off his political career, Zelenskyi reassured the voters that he will be a one-term president. Later, he said that one term could be too little time. As his approval rating exceeds 30 per cent, Zelenskyi might be prompted to run for reelection.
“It’s too early and unfair to say, I have not even served half of the term. We’ll be in time to do a lot. There are many promises, and I don’t want them to remain promises in history. My willingness to run for the second term will fully coincide with the will of the public. It will heavily depend on the share of promises delivered.”
“It also depends on my family. Alongside Ukraine, they are significant in my life, so it will also largely depend on them,” Zelenskyi said.