Ilya Timtchenko: Ukraine’s lack of leadership is costing lives

Prime Minister Denys Shmygal speaks during the Cabinet of Ministers meeting in Kyiv on April 22, 2020.Photo by Goodzenko Anry/

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky government reboot on March 4 has arguably been one of the worst decisions of the president so far. The results speak for themselves: a newly established government has been removed right before the heat of the COVID-19 epidemic hit Ukraine, followed by intense fires causing Ukraine’s air to be the worst globally.

Zelensky’s first government – which was lead by former Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk – had only operated for six months. This makes it one of the most short-lived governments in independent Ukraine’s history.

The timing could not have been worse. The government reshuffle happened only 13 days before Ukraine imposed a nationwide quarantine in order to stop the spread of the global COVID-19 pandemic. It took the same amount of time for the government to appoint one of its most crucial ministerial positions – the economy minister. And the new appointment of Ihor Petrashko hasn’t been a great one: he was a top manager of the country’s largest agro-holding UkrLandFarming that is billions of hryvnias in debt.

The appointments of other essential ministers, especially as the country grapples to fight the spread of the pandemic, has been nothing but catastrophic. Ukraine’s Finance Minister Ihor Umansky didn’t even last a month as he was later dismissed on March 30; Serhiy Marchenko took his seat.

The same story follows the health minister position. Former Odesa Governor Maksym Stepanov became health minister on March 30 as he replaced scandalous Illia Yemets who barely lasted a month. Volodymyr Dybovyk has highlighted some good reasons why Ukraine’s government has been lacking in leadership in the Health Ministry; Katya Gorchinskaya has also rightly pointed out how the state has been detrimental in the procurement of essential medical supplies to stop the virus spread; if not for the private sector and civic society, the country simply wouldn’t be able to help those affected by the virus today.

And the government finally decided on April 16 to place Olha Buslavets as acting minister for the Energy and Ecology Ministry, a ministry that is crucial in combatting the forest fires that started weeks ago. Buslavets has been allegedly connected to Ukrainian billionaire oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.

The disastrous leadership decisions and general lack of statecraft among Zelensky’s government are now worsening a situation that is literally at the expense of people’s health and lives.

Those who are true professionals in public policy leadership positions understand that it takes time to be rooted within an assigned seat in order to become effective. I have pointed out previously an excellent piece by John Paul Rollert called “Presidents Aren’t CEOs”, which emphasizes that governments cannot be run as companies due to the very different nature of administration.

Statesmanship is not the same as entrepreneurship. In addition to knowing the basics of economic theory – such as what causes a demand curve to shift rather than move along the curve, what is deadweight loss, what are complements versus substitutes and how to implement them on a supply-and-demand graph – it is essential for a statesperson to be familiar with the basics of international affairs: What is the difference between realism, constructivism and liberalism? How to effectively execute conflict resolution? What dictates international law? Etc.

Even business executives understand that six months is not enough for a private-sector leadership position. Being the acute businessperson that some have attributed to Zelensky during the 2019 presidential campaign, he should understand that. Out of all people, during his media career, he has surrounded himself with some of his best friends, a number of whom have followed him into the public sector to surround his presidential seat.

Zelensky’s argument for removing Honcharuk’s government was that it was an ineffective team – a weak excuse as both professors Oleh Havrylyshyn and Basil Kalymon have argued that the Honcharuk government has achieved some significant results. But even if Zelensky was correct, it made little sense to replace the ministers that he did and to choose the people he decided to replace them with.

Most notably, he should have kept Ulana Suprun as health minister and Oksana Markarova as finance minister. Zelensky probably should have also kept Tymofiy Mylovanov; if anything, the president should definitely not have replaced Mylovanov with Petrashko. Of the people he should have removed – but decided to keep instead – is Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who has a tainted background and is currently accumulating power with the state budget pumping more money into his ministry.

During a global pandemic and mass forest fires causing hazardous air quality, it is strictly essential to have an up-to-date health public policy statesperson to navigate through the crisis. The right decision would have been to return Suprun to the role she held for three years.

It is also vital to have an economy-agriculture minister during such challenging times as the government should effectively communicate with the business community. Keeping the economy moving during a crisis is as important as providing the necessary medical equipment. How well the government deals with the economy now will define the success of the country’s work output in the upcoming years and help in particular those on the margins not to fall into poverty.

But even if there were better replacements in the post-Honcharuk government, it wouldn’t do justice to the timing as the country is in a multi-layered crisis mode: COVID-19 spread, raging fires causing heavy air pollution, Russia’s war against Ukraine, and ongoing corruption that continue to suffocate the economy.

A developing country such as Ukraine simply cannot afford to reboot so often as it takes time not only for the leaders to adjust to their new positions but for the community to establish trust and accountability.

During conversations with Ukraine’s top officials, I often hear the same excuse for inactivity. They like to blame a previous administration for the lack of today’s results. If they cannot blame it on the previous administration, they shift it on another ministry. And more lawmaker replacements make the blame game much easier for a government that already traditionally operates without taking responsibility.

One must question then if the Honcharuk government was replaced simply for cosmetic purposes for the president to gain trust during his first months of rule? Is the “new” government really the one that Zelensky was trying to push through from the beginning? And will these officials, including the president, be held responsible for their reckless management decisions?

Ilya Timtchenko is a freelance writer and former business editor at the Kyiv Post.

(c)KYIV POST 2020

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