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Zelenskiy's First Year: He Promised Sweeping Changes. How's He Doing?

Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the presidential election's first exit poll, at his campaign headquarters in Kyiv on April 21, 2019.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the presidential election's first exit poll, at his campaign headquarters in Kyiv on April 21, 2019.

A year ago, a beaming Volodymyr Zelenskiy strolled into his campaign headquarters to the theme song of the popular TV sitcom in which he played an accidental president. Confetti showered from the rafters and a crowd of supporters erupted in applause. He had just won Ukraine's presidential runoff election with 73 percent of the vote, the largest tally in the country's history.

The moment is captured in a slickly produced 50-minute video released by his office on April 21, the anniversary of the election. More of a public-relations puff piece than a documentary film, it sometimes resembles the sitcom and shines an uncritical light on Zelenskiy's first year in office.

In reality, the first year since the 42-year-old comedic actor's election has been chock full of ups and downs and twists and turns, with plenty of serious criticism over his governing from constituents and international observers, not to mention an array of opponents.

Zelenskiy has faced a number of scandals and his country has been boxed into matters ranging from the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump -- which stemmed largely from a telephone conversation between the two leaders in July 2019 -- and the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 in Iran in January.

He also inherited an ongoing war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, persistent corruption, and the powerful influence of Ukraine's oligarchs, among other issues.

So, how has he done so far?

"It could have been worse," says Volodymyr Yermolenko, chief editor of the news site UkraineWorld and analytics director at Internews Ukraine. "Zelenskiy came to this post totally unprepared and he's facing unprecedented challenges."

One year after Ukraine elected a political novice to lead the country of some 40 million people, RFE/RL takes a look at some of those challenges and how experts believe Zelenskiy has fared: Whether he has delivered on his campaign promises and how he is managing ongoing crises amid the onslaught of the coronavirus.

Ending The War

When he was sworn in as president in May 2019, Zelenskiy also inherited the role of supreme commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces and a grinding war against Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in what is known as the Donbas. More than 13,000 people have been killed since fighting began in April 2014.

One of Zelensky's two main promises was to bring the war to an end, a goal that polls have shown Ukrainians want to see accomplished more than anything.

"He showed a real willingness to end the war. That's a good thing,” Yermolenko says. "The world saw it, too -- that the real [desire for] peace was on the part of Ukraine, not Russia."

Throughout Zelenskiy's tenure, Kyiv and Western officials say, Russia has continued to funnel money, military equipment, and fighters to eastern Ukraine.

"But Zelensky also showed naiveté, thinking -- or pretending that he thinks -- that ending the war with Russia is an easy thing" and that goodwill would be enough, Yermolenko continues. "He now sees that it's not the case."

Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin met face-to-face for the first time in December, in Paris. The two leaders discussed ways to potentially bring the war to an end, but their positions remain far apart.

A separatist militant peers out a dugout on the front line with Ukrainian troops in the Donetsk region.
A separatist militant peers out a dugout on the front line with Ukrainian troops in the Donetsk region.

Nevertheless, says Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Kyiv-based Penta Center, Zelenskiy has found ways to make some progress. The meeting between Zelenskiy and Putin alone was a positive sign, since "the negotiation process to resolve the conflict in the Donbas had been at a dead end for three years."

He also points to three major prisoner exchanges, troop withdrawals in three locations on the line between government-controlled and separatist-held territory, and the completion of a vital civilian bridge in the front-line town of Stanytsya Luhanska.

Alyona Hetmanchuk, director of the new Europe Center, a Kyiv think tank, says that "the main thing" is not what Zelenskiy managed to do on the war issue but what he did not do: "He did not achieve peace on Russian terms," which would be unacceptable for most Ukrainians.

In the anniversary video, Zelenskiy says he is "sure that we will put an end to this war during my presidential term" and that if his current tactics don't yield results, he will change them.

Crushing Corruption

On Ukrainians' wish lists, second to ending the war has been seeing corruption stamped out, polls show. When Zelenskiy was elected, he promised "victory over corruption" -- a goal that he said would be challenging but judged to be possible after becoming the first president to win a parliamentary majority, in July.

Ukraine has struggled against entrenched corruption, which has drained the country's coffers since its independence drive helped lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As part of this fight, Zelenskiy vowed to conduct a sweeping "de-oligarchization" of the country.

But a year later, critics say neither has happened -- or at least not to the extent promised.

"Zelenskiy was expected to oversee quick and massive arrests of corrupt officials and politicians, as well as well-known businessmen," Fesenko says. "But Ukrainian law enforcement and the judicial system has been very slow and not effective enough."

"The lack of significant results in the fight against corruption has caused great dissatisfaction [among Ukrainians]," he adds.

Critics point to the firing of Ruslan Ryaboshapka, the first prosecutor-general under Zelenskiy, as one major point of concern. Ryaboshapka, who was viewed by many as an independent-minded reformist, was fired in early March and replaced by Iryna Venediktova, a close Zelenskiy ally who worked on his campaign.

In her first weeks in office, Venediktova has pursued charges against former President Petro Poroshenko and Tetyana Chornovil, a prominent activist and former lawmaker, that critics claim are politically motivated.

Iryna Venediktova attends an extraordinary session of the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv on March 17.
Iryna Venediktova attends an extraordinary session of the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv on March 17.

Zelenskiy has also struggled to shake the influence of Ihor Kolomoyskiy, the tycoon who owns the television channel that broadcast the former actor's popular sitcom and is at least partly credited with helping to raise his profile.

Kolomoyskiy has fought tooth and nail to see his former bank, PrivatBank, returned to him. The Ukrainian government nationalized the bank in 2016 to save it from collapse after regulators found a $5.5 billion hole in its balance sheet.

Among the positive anti-corruption measures Zelenskiy has managed to achieve was the restoration of criminal liability for illicit enrichment, Fesenko says. "A number of other decisions were also taken to combat corruption, some of which are very populist. For example, monetary rewards for information about corruption," he adds.

Hetmanchuk says that many Zelenskiy supporters expected to see "more justice" in cases where serious crimes had been committed, including lingering cases related to the Euromaidan -- the protests that drove Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014 -- and the Donbas war.

"But Zelensky has failed," she says. "Lack of rule of law is still the major internal challenge for Ukraine, while Russian aggression is the main external challenge."

Zelenskiy, Hetmanchuk adds, "kept some" of his anti-corruption-related promises, "like stripping [lawmakers'] immunity, but it is definitely not enough."

Human Rights

While contending that Zelenskiy's powers are limited on the human rights front, Oksana Pokalchuk, director of Amnesty International's Ukraine office, says his political influence and the fact that his party has an overwhelming majority in parliament should be factored in. She and other human rights activists have been disappointed by the president's actions on this front.

"President Zelenskiy could have submitted a bill on the ratification of the Istanbul Convention to address violence against women and girls," she explains. "While Ukraine has made outstanding progress over the last couple of years on this, the current approach still falls short of building a cohesive and human-oriented system aimed at protecting survivors of domestic and gender-based violence, and preventing such violence in the first place."

Impunity for hate-motivated attacks and against journalists and activists, which has also been a long-standing issue in Ukraine, has not been addressed by Zelenskiy, Pokalchuk adds. "While the president doesn't have the authority to ensure effective investigations, his role in setting the course to address this issue and condemning the violence should not be downplayed."

The release of film director Oleh Sentsov in a September 2019 prisoner swap was a victory, but one of few on the rights front.
The release of film director Oleh Sentsov in a September 2019 prisoner swap was a victory, but one of few on the rights front.

Pokalchuk notes some "celebrated achievements," like the release of filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and other Ukrainians held by Russia.

However, the "rights of one group were traded off for the rights of the other group, when a key suspect in the downing of [Malaysia Airlines flight MH17] was handed over to Russia, and when five former riot-police officers suspected in killings of Euromaidan protesters were handed over to Russia-backed separatists in [eastern Ukraine]," she says.

Foreign Policy

Fesenko says that there have been "no significant changes in foreign policy" in the past year. "Zelenskiy retained the pro-Western and pro-European foreign policy of Ukraine" that Poroshenko had set out, he says. "At the same time, [Zelenskiy] began to pay more attention to negotiations with Russia."

In particular, he cited negotiations with Moscow at the end of 2019 on the transit of Russian gas across Ukraine to the European Union. "This will allow Ukraine to receive about $2.5 billion annually as a transit fee." In addition, Russia agreed to pay Ukraine $2.9 billion that had been ordered by a Stockholm arbitration ruling.

Perhaps most prominent among Zelenskiy's many foreign-policy challenges were the developments surrounding the impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives of Trump, who was acquitted by the U.S. Senate on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of justice in February.

Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and Donald Trump meet in New York on September 25, 2019.
Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and Donald Trump meet in New York on September 25, 2019.

Calling it "an unprecedented challenge" for Zelenskiy and Ukraine, Hetmanchuk says it has had lasting effects on the relationship with Washington. "There are doubts in Kyiv if we can still rely on the United States as our political ally," she says.

Fesenko, though, argues that the impeachment drama had few lasting effects on Ukraine. The scandal "influenced American politics more than Ukraine's foreign policy," he says, and cites U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to Ukraine in January as a sign that the two countries continue to enjoy a close relationship.

Breaking The System

Zelenskiy vowed to break Ukraine's old system, using Trump's own words -- "drain the swamp" -- in the July 2019 phone call with the U.S. president.

Part of that meant bringing in what Zelenskiy called "new faces." Many of them were close personal friends or loyalists who had served on his election campaign. Some of them were young technocrats, like the former prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk. And others, like his former chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, were in fact older faces that had been under the employ of previous administrations, including that of Yanukovych.

Ultimately, the "new faces" failed, and Zelenskiy's first government was fired and replaced.

Zelenskiy says in the video that he will keep making personnel changes in the cabinet until Ukraine gets "a perfect government."

How Zelenskiy may be viewed by history is yet to be known -- he has served less than one-fifth of his presidential term. Much depends on what he is able to accomplish by 2024 (he has said he plans to put serve only a single five-year term), experts say.

While his popularity has fallen from the historic 70 percent support he once enjoyed, polls still put his approval rating above all his predecessors.

"In general, after his first year in office, Zelenskiy is not emerging as the most effective Ukrainian president," Hetmanchuk says. "But he is definitely not the disaster that many of his opponents predicted and are trying to portray him as."