Zelensky's year in office: Parting with illusions, retaining people's trust
There is such a concept as "honeymoon" for any newly-elected president. This is a period of high expectations, a time when the new head of state is mainly seen in positive colors. In Ukraine, it's usually the first three to four months in office, maybe five. In this sense, Volodymyr Zelensky's popular rating 12 months into taking office is rather unique. Compared to Poroshenko, Yanukovych, or Yushchenko, Zelensky is seeing a record-high level of people's confidence a year since he took the helm of the state.
It is clear that some disappointment has already mounted. It's always been the case with any presidents. Yanukovych, Poroshenko and Yushchenko all had more Ukrainians distrusting them than those showing support in the same timeframe. Zelensky is seeing a slightly different situation. Even given that disappointment, still, 57% of Ukrainians trust their president, while 37% don't. So there's a positive balance. Zelensky's popular rating remains really high. Some 39% would support him in the first round of elections if they were to be held now. Moreover, up to 75% would be ready to vote for him again in round 2 if he was paired with any major rivals.
In general, if we talk about president's achievements over the year, I'd note that Zelensky became an impetus for renewal
However, once again, public assessments economic developments and those of the state in general are mostly critical. Half of Ukrainians believe that the developments are leading the country in the wrong direction. At the same time, Zelensky's ratings remain high. A real paradox here.
So how could this be explained? Ukrainians, especially Zelensky's supporters, have been seeing his pro-active stance. They see that he's trying, seeking to resolve the problems that have mounted. Wherever he succeeds, people take note. For example, they recall his personal role in the release of hostages or the efforts to tackle the coronavirus.
In general, if we talk about president's achievements over the year, I'd note that Zelensky became an impetus for renewal. We've seen the most sweeping change of senior officials since the 1990s. And this is important because the country had begun to slide into stagnation. Ukrainians wanted to see new faces, and Zelensky delivered.
On the other hand, the new faces brought along disappointment. Both Ukrainians and Zelensky himself are disappointed in many. The President saw it wasn't enough to be a "new face". Officials have to be more efficient and more honest. Not all rookies turned out to be like that. And this was a real downer for Zelensky. Now he's looking for the new cadres (which is noticeable) who would be more effective, more experienced in office rather than just new ones.
Another disappointment for Zelensky was a failure to quickly settle all pressing issues. One of the promises he just couldn't live up to was to bring peace. For six months, he had been putting pressure on Putin, Merkel, and Macron to hold the Norman Four summit. This he managed to achieve. But it turned out that negotiations weren't enough. He was yet to get concessions from Russia, which turned out to be a much bigger problem.
Zelensky has retained a certain safety cushion of people's trust even despite criticism
Zelensky's personal efforts to this end aren't enough – Putin's good will is also needed. Zelensky, apparently, harbored illusions about Putin; perhaps, he believed it was possible to persuade Putin and achieve peace. But it turned out that Putin isn't that malleable. The path to peace appeared to be longer and more difficult than Zelensky expected.
The president faced exactly the same problems in fighting corruption. His team promised high-profile arrests, but ... It turned out that our law enforcement system was slow, sluggish, and bureaucracy-ridden. Zelensky was even forced to sack a number of law enforcement chiefs. He did try to get this cart of issues out of a deep puddle, but this didn’t work at first dashing attempt. Now he is forced to choose another tactic – a slower, although systemic, siege and the search for effective means...
Wherever he could do something in a quick move, he succeeded. But wherever it was required to seek compromises, resources, wherever it took time, he didn’t.
Now he has a new problem that has severely limited his capacities – the corona crisis. This changed plans for the second year of presidency. Instead of looking for tools to accelerate socio-economic development (something he had sought), he will have to fight, along with the government, to minimize the effects of the crisis.
The fact that Zelensky stays out of any shady, let alone scandalous situations, plays a huge role
As we can see, achievements and drawbacks are closely intertwined. But there is a criterion for assessing the results of the president's performance over these 12 months – what voters think of him. And, judging by the latest polls, they don't consider this year a failure. Zelensky has retained a certain safety cushion of people's trust even despite criticism. Where assessments are more critical, Ukrainians see that the problem is not only about Zelensky (people retain a more positive attitude to Zelensky than to other top officials). Perhaps they realize that he had no political experience and no team prior to the election campaign – he only had to form the core of that team after he won the election The fact that Zelensky stays out of any shady, let alone scandalous situations, plays a huge role. We did see reverberating scandals involving ministers, MPs, the presidential office chief's brother… Zelensky evaded all of those. Ukrainians see that he doesn't personally embezzle anything and neither is he personally involved in corruption. This surely plays in his favor, although criticism keeps mounting.
So this year was not a failure for Zelensky, although it was a tough one. It was a year of certain personal disappointments and the rejection of many of his illusions, the year when he gained experience.
Volodymyr Fesenko is a political scientist, head of the board of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies