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100 days of Zelensky: Ukraine president more a scurrying Macron than a thundering Trump so far

100 days of Zelensky: Ukraine president more a scurrying Macron than a thundering Trump so far
The comedian-elected-president has been a safer pair of hands than critics warned, but hasn’t yet drained Ukraine’s swamp, as supporters hoped. And for Volodymyr Zelensky, it will only get harder from now on.

Honeymoon polls

Headline figures show that the 41-year-old political novice, who promised to cut across existing political fault lines and unify the country, is still in the ascendant. After thrashing incumbent Petro Poroshenko in the second round of the presidential election in April, his newly-created party secured the first-ever single-faction majority in parliament in the country’s history following a snap election in July.

Zelensky has recorded an approval rating of 70 percent, an all-time high, in a poll published this week to mark one hundred days in office.

Zelensky’s team has bombarded the electorate with proof of the new leader’s bustle as he combats the patronage, backroom deals and shifting loyalties of Ukraine’s radioactively charged political scene,

Over 500 personal edicts and orders, more than 300 officials removed, 20 trips across the country, five foreign visits. His party say that they have prepared 465 fresh laws and amendments, and once the president finished his speech during the opening session of the Rada on Thursday, they immediately began to exercise their voting dominance.

A man Bolton & Putin can do business with

Thousands of hours in front of the camera behind him, Zelensky continues to polish his all-things-to-all-people persona. He is a plain-spoken meme-starting boss when expelling a local official with a criminal record from a meeting with the words “Get out of here, you bandit!” But also every inch the Westernised politician in a sharp suit delivering his address to NATO in English.

A “very impressed” John Bolton, Donald Trump’s national security advisor, gushed about an “outstanding” meeting with the Ukrainian leader, while even Vladimir Putin has called his new regular conversations with Kiev “promising.”

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A native Russian speaker with no Maidan baggage, Zelensky has distanced himself from the more divisive anti-Moscow nationalism of his predecessor, vowing to resurrect the mothballed Minsk agreements that aim for a solution for the rumbling conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Kiev's release from custody of journalist Kirill Vyshinsky, who still faces charges of high treason for his work for the local bureau of Russia's RIA news agency, is a positive sign. Another is touted Russian-Ukrainian prisoner swap, though neither story is resolved, and each is only a small piece of the puzzle if relations are ever to normalize between neighboring states.

Also on rt.com No prisoner swap with Russia on Friday, talks continue – Ukraine

Meanwhile, he has reassured the western part of the country, where he received the fewest votes, relatively, of his European commitment by making Brussels the destination of his first trip abroad.

Exceeding low expectations

But perhaps Zelensky’s biggest achievement so far has simply been that he has not been an embarrassment.

Even those who voted for him feared that the man who had previously only played a president on TV, and was carefully shielded by his own generalities and jokes during his campaign, would be exposed a laughing stock. He hasn’t been one. An alternative forecast predicted that he would be too weak personally and politically to be anything but a figurehead. But Zelensky’s mandate alone means that for better or worse, the real power in Ukraine now comes from his office on Bankovaya Street in Kiev.

So, Zelensky has managed to overcome the admittedly low expectations, and not yet turned any of his volatile and wide-ranging support base against himself.

All downhill from here

Yet the high watermark of the presidency may already be behind Zelensky. Expectations of results will now grow, but none of the major issues that downed his predecessors look any closer to a satisfying resolution.

Take Eastern Ukraine. The Normandy Four meeting next week, where Zelensky will stand alongside Putin, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel will give the Ukrainian politician international cachet, but Donbass is still highly unlikely to agree to reintegrate seamlessly into Ukraine, as if no bloody five year conflict happened. Any declarations of special autonomy for the region will fuel those domestic voices calling Zelensky soft on Moscow. Maintaining the status quo for the duration of the five-year presidential term will simply see trust seep away on an issue that pollsters say remains by far the most important to Ukrainians.

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Or Western integration. The association agreement that sparked the Maidan protests and eventual overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich in 2014, was signed five years ago by Poroshenko, yet EU membership is further away than two decades ago. Joining NATO has better odds, but any attempt to do so will set off another dramatic rift with Moscow, and divide Ukraine’s population all over again.

Only path to success

There is one key area, where Zelensky can make a difference. And that is tackling corruption: turning Ukraine’s permanently struggling economy and political system from that of a transitioning state into something fit for a mature capitalist democracy.

Zelensky’s team pretend the solution is as simple as getting those untainted by holding office into parliament. It is odd to assume that TV celebrities-turned-deputies are incorruptible, while even finding faceless technocrats who are not products of the same scandal-plagued establishment has proven an insurmountable challenge.

Either way, even if Oleksiy Honcharuk, the largely-unknown 35-year-old lawyer Zelensky has nominated as his prime minister, is a wizard with a strong moral compass, it takes more than personnel. Other than the fiery rhetoric coming from the president, nothing in the past 100 days suggests that Zelensky has thought through a systematic anti-corruption reform. The lack of specifics was an electoral advantage in March, but at some point the government will have to show at least a philosophy or method.

There are, however, signs auguring an unfortunate continuity. Such as the sudden, and one may guess not entirely coincidental, legal trouble that Petro Poroshenko finds himself in with 11 legal cases opened against him this summer. Vendettas against outgoing leaders have been a mainstay of recent Ukrainian politics, and much as it is plausible that Poroshenko, a tycoon with varied business interests, broke the law, this screams selective justice.

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All while Zelensky has done nothing to create distance between himself and Igor Kolomoiskiy, his billionaire former employer with a lengthy record of suspect financial and political schemes, who is reported to have bankrolled the current leader’s election campaign. Plus ca change?

Cautionary tale

Before it is too late, Zelensky should heed the example of another young leader, with whom he shares a surprisingly similar narrative arc, if not political platform. Emmanuel Macron seemingly came out of nowhere to win the presidency in a time of domestic political turmoil in France, and created a dominant party in his own name that gave him an apparently limitless mandate. Just as with Zelensky, the rise to prominence was largely arbitrary, with disenchantment almost inevitable. Despite a promise to serve the entire political spectrum, within months he was rejected by huge swathes of the electorate (not just the Yellow Vests). Today, Macron’s net approval ratings hover at minus 40.

President Zelensky might not be an over-promoted simpleton, but can he do something different – turn his fast-won popularity and skin deep support as a base to actually better his country? Can he commit to effective reform rather than endless busy posing? Or will Zelensky prove that he is not the cure, but the symptom of Ukraine’s political convulsions.

By Igor Ogorodnev

Igor Ogorodnev is a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.

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