He doesn’t know it yet, and his approval ratings certainly don’t suggest it yet, but President Volodymyr Zelensky looks finished politically — a one-termer in the making.
And the cause of his demise will be the same rake that he and all of his predecessors stepped on: Lack of rule of law, the politicization of law enforcement and the criminal justice system, protection of a caste of untouchables, and misplaced priorities.
It’s sad, especially for Ukrainians. But after more than a year, it’s becoming clear that Zelensky doesn’t have any idea or interest in how strong democratic institutions should be operating or how to build them in a way consistent with the Western values to which he pays lip service. It’s not just a language or cultural thing, although his Soviet background and poor English play a part in shaping his world view.
Recent high-profile investigations show that Ukraine’s criminal justice system is so irretrievably broken that it would be better to start over from scratch. Theoretically, for the criminal justice system, it shouldn’t matter who is president, In reality, that’s all that matters in Ukraine.
Zelensky just wants to take what each of Ukraine’s presidents thinks is his rightful place: The decider of who goes to jail and who stays free.
So he can expect more protests and less public support.
He thinks he can attract big investment and build a booming economy without the rule of law. It will never happen. And, as more Ukrainians come to understand that Zelensky has no intention of taking on the oligarchs, monopolies, and corruptionists, they will look for someone else to lead the nation.
His undoing started when he kept Arsen Avakov as the head of the Interior Ministry, where he rules like a tyrant in charge of 360,000 law enforcers. Avakov has a dodgy background, dating to his rise in Kharkiv during the “wild 1990s,” a time of assassinations and rampant lawlessness. He went into politics, adroitly taking the winning side when President Viktor Yushchenko came to power but ending up on the losing side by going against President Viktor Yanukovych. He thrived again after the EuroMaidan Revolution toppled Yanukovych.
Not only is he the nation’s top cop, but his power also rivals that of Zelensky. But in this role, he has shown no ability or interest in solving major crimes, nor in reforming the police, nor in elementary transparency.
Yet Zelensky moves even closer to him. The president this week decided to task the Interior Ministry and the equally unaccountable Security Service of Ukraine with enforcing the weight limits of trucks on Ukraine’s roads. This important job is done by the Federal Highway Administration in America, for instance.
The president is not only failing to reform law enforcement institutions, but he’s also not even trying. Hence, we get strange cases and perversions of justice that smell a lot like the political persecution of previous administrations. After doing nothing about multibillion-dollar bank fraud, Viktor Yanukovychera crimes, and other important and complex cases, the corrupt apparatus moved at lightning speed to gin up some criminal charges — any charges — against ex-President Petro Poroshenko for “abuse of office,” the catch-all damnation akin to the Soviet-era “hooliganism.”
Then, more than six years after the fact, some prosecutor woke up and decided to add war crimes charges against the Kremlin’s Igor Girkin for allegedly ordering the torture and killing of at least three people in April 2014. It had no real practical use since he’s safely in Russia somewhere, and he’s already been wanted by Ukraine on terrorism charges and is also one of four defendants being tried in absentia in The Hague for the July 17, 2014, shoot-down of flight MH17, killing all 298 people on board.
The most promising result this week was the arrest of Kherson Oblast governor Vladyslav Manger, who is charged with ordering the acid attack on activist Kateryna Gandziuk that led to her death two years ago. But with past as prologue, the case will drag on, interest will wane and Manger will be free.
Then there is the miscarriage of justice against Serhiy Sternenko, an Odesa activist who fought off two violent attackers two years ago — killing one of the assailants in a struggle in which Sternenko suffered a concussion and cuts. Instead of treating him as a victim, prosecutors charged him with murder. Mass protests have taken place this week outside the Kyiv court where Sternenko’s case is being heard. Pro-Russian politicians try to paint Sternenko as an extreme nationalist, but his activism amounted to courageously trying to stop illegal development in Odesa — angering the city’s powerful elite.
Replacing Ruslan Riaboshapka as prosecutor general with Iryna Venediktova shows that Zelensky wants a political hack in the position.
Zenon Zawada, an analyst with Concorde Capital, is right: “Zelensky’s jokes aren’t funny anymore as these incidents establish a pattern by his administration of using the courts to intimidate political enemies. We believe that with the selection of Iryna Venediktova as prosecutor general, Zelensky deliberately ceded control of the state prosecution to pro-Russian forces in a backroom political deal Among those directing from the shadows the actions of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigations (DBR) is likely to be Andriy Portnov, who is suspected of guiding these offices’ activities from the very start of the Zelensky administration.”
Besides Avakov, the discredited Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky remains in place.
As for the courts, while there is still hope for the High Anti-Corruption Court whose creation Poroshenko blocked for three years, Zelensky is a no-show on judicial reform. Zelensky’s administration toyed with gutting the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, which has shown effectiveness in investigating high-level corruption.
But such a radical move would have cost Zelensky Western support. That’s the same reason he’s let the National Bank of Ukraine remain independent — he doesn’t want to lose the backing of the International Monetary Fund and others. That’s also the same reason why billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky will keep losing in Ukraine’s courts. A win for the alleged thief of $5.5 billion from his former PrivatBank could trigger an end to Western support. But never fear, Kolomoisky will profit from other dirty schemes to compensate — like selling Russian coal to Ukraine’s state companies.
This is no way to run a country.