1st Oct 2023


Ukraine - Zelensky's authoritarian turn?

  • There are plenty of signs that Zelensky's main goal is to strengthen his personal authority. These include a willingness to remove of officials with nominally independent functions (Photo: European Union)

President Volodymyr Zelensky has begun the third year of his presidency mired in mid-term unpopularity with a poll published last month showing that only 21.8 percent of Ukrainians would vote to re-elect him.

More than half would prefer him not even to run for a second term.

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It's a steep decline from the 73 percent support that swept him to power so dramatically two years ago and a measure of badly voters think he has done to deliver on his promise of change.

In recognition of this, Zelensky has attempted to reboot his presidency by reviving his campaign pledge to push through the 'de-oligarchisation' of Ukraine.

His opening move came with a ban on three television stations controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk and the oligarch's subsequent arrest on suspicion of treason.

Medvedchuk is accused of collaborating with Russia to conceal his ownership of energy assets in occupied Crimea. "This is just the beginning", promised Zelensky: "There will be many more such measures until all of Ukraine's oligarchs are cut down to size and reduced to the status of ordinary big businessmen."

The ability of a few billionaires to exert a controlling influence over the country has been a problem since the early years of Ukraine's independence, so action to curb their power should be welcomed.

Yet 'de-oligarchisation' is a malleable concept open to more than one use.

Vladimir Putin was the first post-Soviet leader to play this card by promising to "liquidate the oligarchs as a class". What started as a warning to the business elite to stay out of politics quickly escalated to the arrest of political opponents and ended with the full restoration of authoritarian rule.

Give? Or take?

So the question arises of whether Zelensky intends take power from the oligarchs in order to give it to the people or, like Putin, to hoard it for himself.

There are plenty of signs that Zelensky's main goal is to strengthen his personal authority. These include a willingness to remove of officials with nominally independent functions.

The first to suffer this fate was general prosecutor Ruslan Ryaboshapka, dismissed last year allegedly for refusing to pursue cases in line with the president's agenda.

Another victim of Zelensky's controlling reflex was Yakiv Smolii, governor of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU), removed from office a few months later for showing too much independence - and replaced with someone more loyal.

The deputy governor was subsequently stripped of some of her responsibilities after she raised concerns about the bank's independence.

Ukraine's international creditors fear that economic populism will lead Zelensky to restore manual control over monetary and exchange rate policy, especially if his poll ratings continue to languish ahead of the next presidential election.

Perhaps most troubling of all has been Zelensky's apparent willingness to use police and judicial powers to advance the interests of his entourage and intimidate political rivals.

The appointment of his old school friend, Ivan Bakanov, as head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), was an early sign that Zelensky intended the power ministries to serve his personal interests.

An MP who released evidence last year implicating the brother of the president's chief adviser in corruption became the target of an SBU investigation shortly afterwards. Kyiv mayor, Vitaliy Klitschko, accused Zelensky of trying to "pressure" him in May when armed SBU officers raided his apartment block.

Klitschko has become a persistent critic of Zelensky's administration.

A bill currently being discussed in parliament to reform the SBU does little to reassure.

It was drafted in response to longstanding complaints that the service uses its jurisdiction over economic crimes to facilitate corruption and corporate raiding. Yet last month Human Rights Watch and more than 20 other human rights groups wrote to Zelensky to complain that the bill in fact represents a major power grab.

They argued that it fails to limit the SBU's role to national security, instead giving it "overly broad powers in both intelligence and law-enforcement spheres, while lacking essential necessary safeguards against abuse of these powers."

Of equal importance is the need to reform the judicial system to end political interference and other corrupt influences. Businesses lack confidence in the willingness of courts to defend their property rights because corrupt judges and officials continue to be tolerated.

Some progress has been made with the establishment of the High Anti-Corruption Court, thanks to pressure from Ukraine's western allies. But this won't be enough as long as the system continues to shield senior judges accused of corruption, such as Bohdan Lvov, deputy head of the Supreme Court, and Pavlo Vovk, head of Kyiv Administrative Court.

If the Ukrainian authorities won't act, western countries should consider directly sanctioning the most corrupt judges under laws like the Global Magnitsky Act.

Ukraine's international partners have welcomed president Zelensky's apparent commitment to reduce the influence of oligarchs as an opportunity to put the country on a new path of development.

But they should also be asking hard questions about his tendency to centralise power and whether his reforms are delivering the kind of change Ukraine needs.

Only real progress in limiting the power of security agencies over business and creating a genuinely independent and fair judicial system can end the corrupting influence of vested interests that holds Ukraine back.

Author bio

David Clark was special adviser on Europe at the UK Foreign Office (1997-2001) and now works as an independent analyst specialising in foreign policy and European affairs.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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