Volodymyr Zelensky won the Ukrainian presidential elections on two main pledges: to end the war in the east and to uproot corruption. How has his government fared in meeting these two promises?
Ending the war?
The election results seemed to reflect a war-weariness that was widely interpreted as a rejection of former president Poroshenko’s unremitting diet of militarism and Russophobia.
In early September, Kiev finally agreed a substantial prisoner swap with Moscow. Scores of prisoners were exchanged, including Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and the 24 sailors who breached maritime law in the Kerch strait in 2018.
Later that month, Kiev’s chief negotiator mooted the possibility of further swaps, on the basis of ‘all for all’, and it seems likely that more will follow.
This apparent thaw in relations has not sat well with overt neo-nazi circles, which are staging street protests and accusing Zelensky of capitulation. They particularly resent the decision to release Volodymyr Tsemakh, falsely accused of responsibility for the downing of the Malaysian passenger plane MH17.
They are no less unhappy with Zelensky’s declared readiness to embrace the so-called Steinmeier formula as a practical roadmap for finally getting on and implementing the Minsk peace agreement on ceasefire, local elections and autonomy for Donetsk and Lugansk. The agreement was signed up to by Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France, but hitherto Kiev has invented one excuse after another to avoid acting on it.
The Steinmeier formula, named after the former German foreign minister who first proposed it in 2016, goes into the nitty gritty on troop withdrawal arrangements, free and fair elections in the Donbass under Ukrainian law, verification by the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and, ultimately, self-governing status.
It remains to be seen if the Kiev government is prepared to face down the howls of protest coming from the ultra-nationalists. There have already been skirmishes between police and war veterans trying to prevent the withdrawal of troops from two towns, and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has expressed doubts about whether Zelensky can really guarantee the pull-out.
As regards the battle against corruption, it’s a question of whom you believe.
Some claim that billionaire business magnate Ihor Kolomoyskyi and his gang of fellow oligarchs are being treated with kid gloves by the new president, in recognition of Kolomoyskyi’s good offices in promoting Zelensky’s presidential campaign.
Worse, former central bank boss Valeria Gontareva, who spearheaded an investigation into Kolomoyskyi’s shady dealings around the nationalisation of what was previously Privatbank, is allegedly now being subjected to threats against her person, supposedly orchestrated by Kolomoyskyi.
Other versions of the story suggest that the nationalisation of Privatbank, which has been ruled illegal in the courts, was itself the result of a murky collusion between Gontareva and then-president Poroshenko, designed to pull out the rug from under a rival oligarch.
Some even hint that Gontareva’s tales of being the victim of a hit-and-run car and arson attacks could be fabricated to win her asylum in Britain at a time when she is herself under investigation back in the Ukraine. (Ukraine struggles to shake off the influence of oligarchs by Ben Hall, Financial Times, 19 September 2019 and Ukraine’s president can’t avoid showdown with his oligarch backer by Konstantin Shorkin, Carnegie Moscow Centre, 2 October 2019)
So it is not yet clear whether Zelensky’s campaign to “drain the swamp” (a phrase he has been happy to borrow from US president Donald Trump) will really make some headway or is merely another episode in the ongoing turf war between rival oligarchs.
What is very clear indeed, though, is that so long as Ukraine is run as a corrupt vassal state of the European Union and Nato, only fit to be used as a launchpad for provocations against Russia, then corruption will continue to fester unchecked.
A fish rots from the head down, and imperialism teaches corruption to the whole world.
How it’s really done
Ask Joe Biden, the leading Democrat candidate for the next US presidency.
His son Hunter sat on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma from 2015 to 2019, pulling in $50,000 a month, purely on the strength of his surname. When Biden senior did not care for the manner in which chief prosecutor Viktor Shokin was handling corruption investigations, he twisted arms to have him removed.
Joe Biden openly boasted to the Council on Foreign Relations about the way in which he threatened to block $1bn in IMF loan guarantees unless Shokin was sacked. His words verbatim: “I looked at them and said: I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch. He got fired.”
Shokin’s successor, Yuriy Lutsenko, did not pursue investigations against Burisma, claiming that the US embassy in Kiev had given him a ‘do not prosecute’ list.
Since then, Hunter Biden has continued to hawk his prestigious name round the world, for a time joining the board of a Chinese-backed private equity company. After Biden senior visited China in 2013 in his role as US vice-president, the company secured a Chinese business licence and raised more than a billion dollars. (Hunter Biden calls Trump’s accusations ‘a barrage of false charges’ … and resigns from Chinese equity firm, RT, 13 October 2019)
Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchs learn only from the very best teachers.