Bohdan Nahaylo: Enough clowning around in Ukraine
For those of you old enough to remember, or who are interested in the music of the 1960s, there was a very influential British group called The Kinks. On Monday, as I watched proceedings in what was in effect a prolonged emergency session – three extraordinary sessions in one day – of the Ukrainian parliament, one of their songs came to mind – “Death of a Clown.”
Particularly the words: “The lion tamer’s whip doesn’t crack anymore, The lion’s won’t bite and the tigers won’t roar.” And this relates to both the behavior of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky forced to implore his majority faction to vote in unison in support of his proposals, and the deputies he was primarily addressing who have been allowing conflicts of interest to take precedence over party loyalty.
And what a shambles we witnessed. What a demoralizing mess! Yes, the president managed to salvage some grace by getting the first reading of the banking or so-called “anti-Kolomoisky” bill passed, named after the billionaire oligarch who is trying to get back his PrivatBank after allegedly looting $5.5 billion from it and sticking taxpayers with the bill. The banking legislation to ensure that Kolomoisky and others who bankrupted banks don’t get them returned. The legislation is vital for ensuring a potential $8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
A second IMF requirement is the establishment of a transparent agricultural land market. And a much watered-down version was still being discussed late into the evening.
With the country in the midst of the gravest medical challenge that it has ever faced – the minister of health, who was appointed barely a month ago “to get the job done,” was fired by the president, apparently for insisting on the strictest of measures, and the parliament meekly agreed.
And similarly with the new minister of finance, also barely into his seat amid the battle to stave off financial collapse. He was thrown out because he apparently did not get on with the new prime minister.
In both cases, the parliament initially refused to approve the replacements that had hastily been found for them. Consequently, at the height of the two simultaneous crises facing the country, Ukraine was temporarily left without ministers responsible for health and for the financial sector and securing a bailout from the IMF.
Feeling that way the wind was blowing in his face, Zelensky abruptly withdrew his nomination for the vacant post of minister of energy. This is at a time when, for instance, Ukraine’s largest private electricity and coal producer, DTEK, has announced it’s in serious trouble.
On top of this, parliament rejected the amendments to the state budget proposed by the Cabinet of Ministers to factor in the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The height of folly or irresponsibility? How can one expect the public, let alone the international community and Ukraine’s creditors to take the country’s leadership and parliament seriously?
Zelensky was elected in the belief that he not only stood for change but could deliver it. He pledged to clean Ukraine’s Augean stables of corruption, bureaucracy and to restore public confidence, stimulate economic recovery and seek The Servant of the People party quickly cobbled together around his reformist aura reaped the harvest – scores of unknown political newcomers secured a majority of seats in the new parliament.
But after almost a year it is clear that Zelensky is no Hercules and that for all his declared worthy intentions he has not shown himself up to the task. This is not to say that a return to the more cynical days of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, when patriotic masks were so popular, is being countenanced. If you want, it’s more a cry of frustration bordering on despair.
Today, it was clear that Zelensky was struggling to get the parliament to back his latest “initiatives” and it confirmed that his own faction is far from monolithic and wieldy. To prevent a complete fiasco, the president had to rush over to the parliament and use all his eroded but still, significant influence, to persuade the deputies to come to their senses, as it were, in a situation of crisis and looming default.
Eventually, the nominees for finance and health ministers were endorsed. And the first reading of the crucial law that will prevent the courts from returning the country’s largest bank PrivatBank after its nationalization from its ex-owner, Ihor Kolomoisky, went through successfully. And here it should be noted that Zelensnky’s bitter political foe, Poroshenko, offered his faction’s support, while Yulia Tymoshenko’s faction and the pro-Russian “Opposition Platform – For Life” opposed this bill, as did around a dozen of the Servant of the People faction.
On this somber day, all the deputies wore masks because of the coronavirus threat. And here too there was something very symbolic. Masks of this sort are frequently worn to counter the stench and in this case perhaps the lingering and still pervasive odor of corruption. And masks are also worn by those who want to conceal their identities, to cover their real faces, allegiances, and motives.
And the latest scandal concerning the brother of Zelensky’s right-hand man, Andriy Yermak, who has apparently been secretly filmed selling access to positions of influence, has made the question of masks, or rather, who hides behind them, more pertinent than ever.
Yes, Zelelenky as a clown is dying. Not in the sense of an outstanding former comic, but as an actor who used his dramatic skill and makeup to win over audiences and the electorate, and to hold their attention. As the song says, the makeup is drying and cracking around the chin. His one-man show has had its day. It is time to switch roles, employ professional directors, producers, and other political actors, or perhaps consider leaving the stage.