Photo: Vladislav Davidzon (c) 2019
Ukraine after a Turbulent Election – as the Dust Settles
18 May 2019
On 7 May the British Ukrainian Society hosted Vladislav Davidzon, Editor-in-Chief of The Odessa Review, who gave a talk entitled, ‘Ukraine after a Turbulent Election - as the Dust Settles’.
This event was part of the Society’s ongoing lecture series that takes place at the House of Commons.
Lord Oxford introduced Mr Davidzon and moderated the Q&A session afterwards.
A transcript of Vladislav Davidzon’s speech can be found below:
Thank you, Lord Risby, for inviting me to speak in parliament and thank you, Lord Oxford, for chairing the meeting. It’s a tremendous time to be here and to speak to you. We are right in between the inauguration and the second round of the Ukrainian presidential elections when Mr Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected to represent the Ukrainian people. Five years ago the Maidan revolution took place where a corrupt, kleptocratic pro-Russian president was kicked out of power and fled to Russia after deploying force against protestors. Afterwards the country voted in Mr Petro Poroshenko, a former foreign minister and member of the old elite, who they hoped could change his spots to usher in a brave new world after the Maidan. President Poroshenko, as the polls have shown, did not end up being the man (or at least convincing) the Ukrainian people that he desperately hoped would rid Ukraine of corruption, usher in broad based reform and claw back resources from an entrenched oligarchy in order to usher in stable rule of law based liberal democracy. He did, it should be noted, many good things and had substantial achievements but was a flawed character and ultimately was unable to regain the trust of the Ukrainian people, which is why three weeks ago Ukrainians voted in, by a mandate of three to one, a completely amateur politician: a forty one year old Jewish-Ukrainian comedian from south-eastern Ukraine who had never served in any parliamentary delegation, had no experience whatsoever of foreign or domestic politics and had not done anything outside of television, not unlike Mr Trump. The parallels between the two men are exacting and interesting, but also misleading in many ways.
Some people think the outcome is a Russian revanche – the winner a Russian speaker from the south who was not for Ukrainianisation and thought the pace of Ukrainianisation was taking place too quickly. Some people think that the result can be entirely put down to corruption, and the popular view that reform was not taking place quickly enough. Other people think that President Poroshenko was unable to adequately explain the many good things he accomplished in a way that the electorate could understand. Many significant reforms did indeed take place during his tenure, most notably in the banking sector and within procurement. Ukraine under the leadership of Mr Poroshenko built an army from scratch and formed excellent relationships with the IMF, France, Brussels, Canada and America. Ukraine’s economy continues to grow by 3% per year. Despite this, Ukrainians saw continued poverty. The Hryvnia has devalued by around 70%, wiping out peoples savings. In removing Russia’s domination of the Ukrainian gas and oil markets, and by cutting subsidies on utilities for the elderly, pensioners in particular have not seen an increase in their living standards, and the costs of utilities for them have skyrocketed. Lots of people feel that things are not getting better for them even if the economic figures are good. Despite the size of the black market decreasing from 37-38% of the economy to about 32-33% over five years, the fight against entrenched corruption will take decades. This shrinkage of 1% per year is extraordinary and welcome, but for the many people who are exhausted with the war and have not seen an improvement in their personal circumstances, those things were simply not enough. People’s very high expectations were disappointed.
Other people think – and I’m one of them – that the story of Mr Kolomoiskiy is the key to understanding what is happening now.
Ukraine remains mired in a complicated situation with entrenched problems. It has a strong oligarchic class, poor governance and is now the poorest country in Europe after Moldova. It has a bellicose northern neighbor, which for 25 years dominated the country’s business and finance sectors, and also its security service – there were spies and intelligence agents within all the ministries. A large portion of Ukrainians associated themselves more with Russia and Russian culture (this portion of the population has declined over the past five years, and many pro-Russia Ukrainians no longer live in territory controlled by the government), and there were lots of people who did not think of themselves as Ukrainian, nor see their primary loyalty as to the Ukrainian state. In short, the country was dominated by Russian influence for a very long time. Naturally, it is very hard to reform a country like that.
Mr Zelenskiy was a TV comedian, and a very funny one. He comes from a very Russified, Sovietised Jewish intelligentsia family. He is very macho with a working class swagger, and his humour is very rough – it would not pass muster in America or Great Britain in 2019, filled as it is with gay and ethnic jokes and misogyny. Mr Zelenskiy made part of his business in Russia and built part of his career there, living in Moscow for several years. Culturally he is not Ukrainian but more post-Soviet, and his mentality is more Russian than Ukrainian, both in his humour and in the manner in which he speaks.
The first round took place on 21 March, and I spent about 90 minutes with Mr Zelenskiy the day before when he was very relaxed and flamboyant. Also present was my acquaintance, Mr Danylyuk, who served as finance minister in a reformist government from 2014-16, which was quashed and dissolved when Mr Poroshenko got rid of all of the western reformers from places like Lithuania, Georgia, America and Canada who came to Ukraine after 2014 to help. We spoke to each other primarily in Russian, and his English seems better than his Ukrainian – which for better or for worse doesn’t augur well for the process of Ukrainianisation. He has a very particular kind of world view: he presented himself during the campaign as Jewish by blood, Russian by culture and Ukrainian by patriotism. He came across as very shrewd and emotionally clever and personally engaged.
There are those who think that he was brought to power by Mr Kolomoiskiy, whose television station 1+1 remains very popular.
For about three years Mr Zelenskiy played the president in a very funny, scabrous, critically acclaimed TV programme called Servant of the People. His character is an ordinary man of the people, a teacher who goes on a rant during school which is recorded by one of his students. The rant is put on social media, and someone starts a write-in campaign for him to become president. Through crowdfunding they raise funds and propel him to the presidency with about 67-68% of the vote (in real life it turned out to be 72-73%). He goes from being an ordinary working class guy living in an extremely Soviet apartment with his parents and a cat, sitting around in a dirty t-shirt until to suddenly learning that he’s president of Ukraine – an ordinary man who can run the country better than any member of the political elite. Mr Zelenskiy is ultimately propelled to power in the same way as the character he plays on TV.
All of this is funny or course, except real life and fiction begin to bleed into each other in a way which does not allow us to understand where one begins and the other concludes. I have met finance people and with representatives from the IMF who told me they were horrified at the sub-plot in the third season where his character defaults on Ukraine’s IMF payments (they have probably priced in the television show plot into long-term loan rates by now). Some people do genuinely think it’s a blueprint for what Mr. Zelensky is going to do once he takes power on 20 May, including the finance guys who were very worried when they talked to me.
In 2014 Mr Kolomoiskiy was given the mandate of governing Dnipro, an industrial city near the Russian border, in order to keep the Russians from taking the city. Ukraine didn’t have an army in 2014 so had to resort to extreme measures and appointed oligarchs to a number of regions to keep them to falling to Russian led separatist forces. Mr Kolomoiskiy outfitted a couple of batallions to the tune of $10-12 million per year. It was his own private army which became one of the biggest in Europe and could have successfully fought the army of many developed nations. He did his job well and kept Dnipro from falling to the Russia-led seperatist forces, for which the political elite and the Ukrainian people were very happy, at that point.
Fast forward to the spring of 2015. Parliamentarians from the new reform bloc are trying to recover some of the ill-gotten gains Mr Kolomoiskiy received from various fraudulent schemes which he controlled, to stem money going from the state budget into his pocket instead of being paid out as dividends to the taxpayer. Boldly, he brought some of his newly formed army into the middle of Kyiv to surround a government office in order to prevent a board meeting from taking place – he controls most of the board members and if there is no quorum, they cannot have their annual vote on the dividends to give to the Ukrainian public.
This is the first challenge, right after the Maidan, to the Ukrainian state from a military standpoint. It was a move that could not be tolerated, so Mr Poroshenko calls him into his office and in front of television cameras, dresses-down and fires him from his position as governor of Dnipro, telling Mr Kolomoiskiy that if he doesn’t remove his guys he will take it back by force. Mr Kolomoiskiy flees to Switzerland but does not lose control of his television station and media holdings. Over the next three years, he concocts a far-fetched but ingenious scheme and uses the aforementioned television programme and the young comedian Mr Zelenskiy to prevent the re-election of Mr Poroshenko as pay back for having been humiliated.
The Ukrainian people will vote for almost anyone at this point – they want a reform candidate who is unsullied by old politics, someone young and fresh and clever, even if the person has no policy proposals whatsoever. Mr Zelenskiy crowd sourced his policy proposals on the internet during the one debate that took place in a football stadium and looked more like a boxing match. Mr Zelenskiy is now seen to be by many observers in Kyiv as being surrounded by Mr Kolomoiskiy’s advisors and will have his work cut out for him to prove to Ukrainians voters that he is not a puppet. We will find out whether that is true when Mr Zelenskiy is inaugurated. At that time we will see if reformers are installed, or if Kolomoiskiy’s loyalists will be the ones driving the agenda.
Sadly, I personally think the reformers are going to get locked out. I think it’s going to be almost completely Mr Kolomoiskiy’s people in this administration. He is now seen to be trying to appoint his personal lawyer, Mr Bohdan, to be head of the presidential administration, which in Ukraine, under a head of state that is inexperienced will constitute a de facto prime minister. Mr Bohdan was a member of the Yanukovich administration and therefore falls under lustration laws, so legally he can’t be the head of a presidential administration. That has not stopped Mr Kolomoiskiy, who also cannot stop crowing on any television or radio station that interviews him.
This process could go either way. It looks as though Mr Kolomoiskiy may have an inexperienced and pliant president who will install his choice of individuals for important posts within this administration. I do hope that individuals like Mr Danylyuk will take up posts, that he will become foreign minister, along with other Western educated and anti-corruption elites that Mr Zelenskiy showed as his face to his world: Mr Abromavicius, Mr Ryaboshapka. If they are installed, it is a good signal to the West that things will be okay. My hopes at this moment are not very high but we must hope for the best and to be pleasantly surprised.