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Trump’s request for a ‘favor’ could really hurt Ukraine’s president and his agenda

Here’s how Zelensky’s anti-corruption campaign matters for international politics.

- October 6, 2019

The revelation that President Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a “favor” presents a challenge to Zelensky. He needs to convince domestic and international audiences that his agenda on reform against corruption isn’t just a campaign promise. Whether he passes or fails this test will affect Ukraine’s relations with European allies, future U.S.-Ukraine relations and European security more broadly. Here’s how.

Why reforms in Ukraine are more than just a domestic matter

Since its independence after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine has been a pivotal state in European and Euro-Atlantic post-Cold War architecture. It’s located between the enlarged European Union and NATO to the west and an increasingly anti-Western and assertive Russia to the east. Its citizens are divided over whether the country should orient itself toward Russia or the West. As a result, Ukraine has been a battleground of conflicting Western and Russian interests, and its leaders have leaned east or west based on short-term political calculations more than by geopolitical visions.

But by the end of the 1990s, it became clear that, to quote Ukrainian former president Leonid Kuchma, “Ukraine is not Russia.” Unlike Russia, which under President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly authoritarian, Ukraine has sustained a competitive political system. Incumbent presidents have lost elections; all presidents faced robust opposition to their attempts to consolidate political power; and blatant attempts to usurp power produced mass protests that kicked autocrats out of office.

Until Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and, later that year, started and backed an armed separatist insurgency in the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine also managed to preserve peace despite a great deal of linguistic, regional and ethno-cultural diversity while several other post-Soviet nations, including Russia, endured bloody ethnic conflict.

Yet the country remained highly corrupt and economically weak. Political pluralism did not bring economic success. That allowed Putin to keep pushing the narrative that economic well-being and social stability come from a “managed democracy” under centralized political control — and that robust political competition brings economic woes and social instability. Further, this narrative counters the charge of corruption with the argument that democratic opposition is equally corrupt.

If Zelensky can deliver on his campaign promise to eradicate corruption and establish the rule of law, Ukraine’s example would undermine one of the pillars of Putin’s narrative.

Is Zelensky’s anti-corruption agenda for real? Some actions suggest it is.

Zelensky, a former comedian, won a landslide victory in the presidential election in April. He catapulted to office on an anti-corruption platform — and, in an interesting twist, on his fame as an actor who played a corruption-fighting president in a TV series. Upon taking office, he dismissed parliament and forced snap parliamentary elections. In those July elections, his newly formed party, Servant of the People, won an outright majority in the legislature.

As a result, Zelensky found himself in an unprecedented position in Ukrainian post-Soviet political history: He controls the presidency and has an outright majority in the legislature. That means his party doesn’t have to form a coalition with other parties to form the government or pass legislation. This is a great opportunity for implementing reforms — and a great temptation to abuse power.

So far, the evidence is mixed on whether Zelensky’s anti-corruption agenda is for real, or if the anti-corruption rhetoric will in practice lead to a politically motivated administration of justice, as has too often happened in Ukraine.

On the one hand, local anti-corruption activists and international agencies praise many policy measures his administration has initiated and the legislature has quickly passed or will probably pass in the near future. For instance, one set of measures empowers anti-corruption bodies, including launching the High Anti-Corruption Court that will rule on corruption charges against top state officials. Other reforms aim at better regulating such corruption-laden industries as customs, gambling and illegal amber mining. And other regulations make it easier for law enforcement to investigate government officials and legislators.

But other actions raise eyebrows

First, many observers have sounded alarms about whether some of Zelensky’s appointments suggest he’s doing the bidding of corrupt oligarchs, especially billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky. In particular, Zelensky appointed Andrii Bohdan, formerly a personal lawyer of Kolomoisky’s, as his chief of staff.

According to Ukrainian media, U.S. special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker strongly urged Zelensky not to appoint Bohdan. Some observers argue that appointing Bohdan violated the 2014 lustration law, which barred senior officials of President Viktor Yanukovych from serving in future Ukrainian governments. However, Ukraine’s Supreme Court refused to examine a complaint over the illegality of Bohdan’s appointment.

Second, Zelensky’s administration has behaved questionably toward the news media. Journalists have formally asked for an apology after being shoved aside when trying to question him. Zelensky has refused to hold an open news conference or to answer tough questions, aiming to instead communicate with citizens directly via social media. In fact, Bohdan claims journalists are “corrupt” and need to “purify” themselves.

Finally, some of the rapidly adopted legislation that centralizes power to the president and his appointees in law enforcement could undermine democracy. For instance, Zelensky dismissed the Central Electoral Commission before expiration of its term. In the new commission, Zelensky’s party controls 12 of 17 seats, raising concerns about its independence. And the prosecutor general, whom Zelensky characterized as “100 percent my man” in the phone call with President Trump, received broad powers to exercise direct control over personnel and policy decisions throughout the prosecutorial system.

Whether Zelensky roots out corruption matters for international politics

If the West withdraws support from Ukraine, Russia could gain more leverage in the country — which could be a problem for Europe and the United States, given the country’s important geopolitical position. So it may be no surprise that even though E.U. leaders, given their considerable investments, treated as ingratitude Zelensky’s “1000 percent” agreement with Trump that the E.U. is not doing enough to help Ukraine, E.U. support to Ukraine is expected to continue. The United States also authorized more military aid to Ukraine since the scandal broke.

If Zelensky can reduce corruption, that would make it easier for the West to support Ukraine, as support will reward a strong record as well as the strategic location. Ukraine’s anti-corruption success could also inspire Russians to reach for real, instead of managed, democracy, and democratization in Russia could greatly reduce tensions with the West.

Ukrainian lawmakers may wish to learn from the United States about how legislatures can check presidential abuse of power. Maybe the next reform initiative could be a whistleblower law.

Oxana Shevel (@OxanaShevel) is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University.