July 26, 2021

Ukraine between health crisis and political crisis

President Zelensky, elected a year ago now – with no political experience other than playing the role of a teacher turned president of Ukraine in a successful series – has had a rocky start to his mandate. Having taken the presidency following Petro Poroshenko, he will have had to manage the conflict still active in the Donbass, which requires negotiations with Russia – a difficult task if ever there is one, even with the support of France and of Germany as part of the “Normandy format”. All this against the backdrop of the impeachment procedure for President Trump in which Zelensky is embroiled in spite of himself.

At the same time, it must manage a complex economic situation, largely dependent on financial support from the IMF, itself correlated with the progress of the reforms that Ukraine must pursue in sectors as important as health as well as ” achievement of the objectives set in terms of judicial independence and the fight against corruption. However, carrying out these reforms requires combating the corruption which persists in the country.

An activist wearing a gas mask holds a sign depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that read “Covid-19 will not save you” during a protest against containment outside the presidential administration building in Kiev on March 14, 2020.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP

To accomplish this task, Zelensky relied, during the first months of his mandate, on a large majority in the Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) and on his prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk. But the latter tendered his resignation in January after the broadcast of derogatory remarks he had made against the president. Zelensky had to quickly find a replacement for him, while the Covid was exploding and the government was having a hard time coping, to the point of sometimes largely delegating its management to the oligarchs in certain regions without however stemming the pandemic (25,964 contaminations and 762 dead on June 4) despite the confinement which is coming to an end.

Thus added to the delicate management of the Covid crisis was that of a political crisis – and this, in a context marked by the reappearance of former Georgian President Saakashvili in Ukrainian political life and a few months before municipal elections, major stake for Volodymyr Zelensky and for his young party “Servant of the people”.

A new prime minister

Last March, the Ukrainian president found himself obliged to find a new prime minister while protecting his government’s image of seriousness. He then declared that although the government known until then had done its best, Ukraine now needed a government “capable of doing the impossible”. In the same movement, he proposed the candidacy of Denys Chmygal, presenting him as the man capable of the impossible, despite his lack of notoriety in the national political sphere.

Newly appointed Prime Minister Denys Chmygal on March 4, 2020 in the Rada, Kiev.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP

The president had promised the Rada a more professional government than the previous one; Chmygal had administrative experience, albeit slight (since August 2019), but real, as governor of the Ivano-Frankivsk region where he had built a reputation as a leader promoting business and the economy. This characteristic represented an asset insofar as the priorities which were set for it were to ensure the macroeconomic stability of the country and to develop direct foreign investments while maintaining a close relationship with the IMF. The statements by the new Prime Minister that his government will pursue a prudent fiscal policy and cooperate constructively with the IMF aim to reassure MPs and the Ukrainian people as well as foreign partners; but if the vision and reputation of this polytechnician from Lviv are comforting, his professional career can nevertheless be worrying.

The shadow of the oligarchs

Denys Chmygal is known to have chained, over the course of his career, a large number of positions for periods de facto very short, which in the current Ukrainian government context is not a guarantee of serenity. In addition, from 2017 to 2019, he held a management position at DTEK, an energy holding company owned by Rinat Akhmetov. This famous oligarch owns several television channels which have given the government positive media coverage at this tumultuous start to the year. In addition, Akhmetov is a rival of Ihor Kolomoisky, former owner of PrivatBank, a bank nationalized against his will in 2016 which he tried to recover by all possible means. Kolomoisky’s imprint is so strong that the IMF-requested banking law, which makes it impossible for nationalized banks to return to their former owners, is known as the “Kolomoisky law”.

But Kolomoisky is also the owner of several media including the one that broadcast the series that made the president then candidate famous. The sulphurous personality of Kolomoisky had sown doubt as to the links maintained by the president with the oligarchic sphere, a suspicion reinforced by the appointment, albeit of short duration, of Andriy Bohdan, former lawyer of the same Kolomoisky, at the head of the administration. presidential.

The resurrection of Saakashvili

Another subject of surprise or concern: the appointment of former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-2013) as chairman of the executive committee of the National Council for Reforms.

Initially presented to become deputy prime minister in charge of reforms in Shmygal’s government, Saakashvili was unable to win the 226 parliamentary votes necessary to obtain a seat in the executive. Ironically, the National Reform Council was created by President Petro Poroshenko, with whom Saakashvili had a troubled relationship. Indeed, President Poroshenko gave Ukrainian nationality to Saakashvili in 2015 before appointing him governor of Odessa. But the honeymoon was short-lived: Saakashvili resigned in November 2016, announcing that he had not been able to stem corruption in his region due to a lack of support from Kiev, and at the same time proclaiming himself a leading figure in the fight against corruption. He thereby became a very active opponent of the incumbent president, an opponent whose actions sometimes bordered on farce.

For Saakashvili to say his appointment shows Zelensky’s readiness to take extraordinary measures will not necessarily reassure those who remember the camp set up in front of the Rada by the new member of the National Reform Council, before he was stripped of his Ukrainian nationality. , briefly arrested, expelled the first time, then a second after re-entering Ukraine. President Zelensky returned his Ukrainian nationality to Saakashvili in 2019, which portended a return to the official stage of the former Georgian president.

Mikheil Saakashvili addresses the media in Kiev, April 24, 2020.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP

Saakashvili remains a colorful character. The impossibility of gathering the necessary support for the Rada to integrate the executive illustrates the caution with which the deputies observed his return to government, considering it too confrontational and scandalous. The person of Saakashvili, particularly divisive, could be at the origin of internal conflicts, which could create dissensions but also parasitic noises which will be as many distractions moving the executive away from the heart of the action to be carried out.

Besides internal conflicts, Saakashvili’s return will have an impact on Ukraine’s international relations. Georgia has already recalled its ambassador, considering unacceptable the appointment to this post of its former president, convicted in absentia on several occasions in Tbilisi for abuse of power and assault and battery, and still facing accusations of embezzlement. funds.

The appointment could also complicate Kyiv’s cooperation with other Western countries fearing that the unpredictability and taste for individualism of the former Georgian president could hamper the conduct of Ukrainian reforms.

Double-edged appointments

President Zelensky has failed to bring the long-awaited peace to the Donbass and now has to deal with the management of the Covid-19 pandemic in the aftermath of a political crisis that prompted a government reshuffle, all while its popularity is waning and people are not sure that Ukraine is on the right track.

In this context, the latest appointments are a double-edged sword. They can breathe new life into the team in power thanks to the qualities attributed to the prime minister and to the daring, not to say rebellious, side of Saakashvili, who could help push for reforms. However, Ukraine will need stability to carry out the ambitious projects which await it and which will have to take place in an economic context which has probably made even more complex following the pandemic that the whole world is going through. This assumes that the new prime minister can benefit from the necessary longevity and that he does not engender too many doubts as to his skills or his links with oligarchic clans.

In addition to stability, the accomplishment of reforms requires collaborative work with members of the Rada and with the various ministries involved, in particular the powerful Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov, who has resisted various reshuffles and governments. It will be interesting to know how deputies and ministers react to the methods of Saakashvili who already announces that he wants to “drain the swamp”, that is to say to clean up the swamp, which is reminiscent of the slogan of a candidate for another election today became president.

Resorting to Saakashvili can also be seen as a diversion, notably allowing the government to save time. In this hypothesis, the former Georgian president could not only partially occupy the media, but also act as a “useful quarrel”, creating dissension within various groups openly or potentially hostile to the president. However, this hypothesis remains risky in view of Saakashvili’s explosive personality, to say the least. As we can see, the situation remains complex, but it promises to be interesting in any case …