Volodymyr Zelensky was sworn in as Ukraine’s next president on May 20. The popular comedian won a landslide victory over the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, by accumulating a critical mass of protest votes across the country. In his inaugural address, Zelensky disbanded the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament), called on members of the government to free their positions “for somebody who will care about future generations and not just about the next elections,” and asked the legislature to use the last two months before the early elections to adopt a new Electoral Code. This much-awaited legislative package would introduce a system of electoral open party lists, define criminal liability for illegal enrichment, and abolish the immunity currently enjoyed by members of parliament (Radio Svoboda, May 20).
Conducted amidst heightened political tensions, the inauguration was followed with keen attention by Ukrainians and outside observers. During the campaign, Zelensky shied away from articulating a vision for his future policies, arguably because of his self-admitted unpreparedness regarding many issues and as part of a strategy to instead focus on popular dissatisfaction with the previous administration (see EDM, February 11; BNE IntelliNews, May 8). Thus, his inauguration speech was expected to fill in this discursive vacuum and to serve as a barometer signaling the direction of potential policy changes.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s campaign underscored a struggle against Ukraine’s “internal foe”—what he labeled as the dysfunctional and corrupt regime. His stance on the external enemy—Russia—and the concrete steps he was going to take vis-à-vis Russian aggression remained obscure (UAWire, March 22; BNE IntelliNews, May 8). In his inauguration speech on Monday, Zelensky made a few noteworthy comments on these issues, but his remarks still fell short of elaborating any details. Speaking before the Rada, the newly sworn-in President Zelensky instead focused on reconciliation and the need to embrace the diversity of Ukrainian society, declaring that there are no “better” Ukrainians—no matter whether they are from Uzhhorod or Luhansk, Chernihiv or Simferopol. He also repeated his oft-mentioned idea about the need to win the hearts and minds of people in Crimea and Donbas since, in his opinion, the previous administration did not do enough to cultivate their allegiance to Ukraine (President.gov.ua, May 20).
This is not the first time that Zelensky criticized Poroshenko and the current political elites for conducting nation-building in a divisive manner. Yet, Zelensky’s stance on the language law Poroshenko enacted just before finishing his tenure was ambiguous. As president-elect, he denied a law was needed to establish Ukrainian as the sole state language (see EDM, May 16). And on many occasions, Zelensky implied that Poroshenko’s approach toward the country’s Russian-speaking population was exclusionary and his identity politics hawkish. The incoming president criticized the law subtly, suggesting that certain “incentives” or positive examples of Ukrainian language use publicly would be more effective than punitive measures (Ukrainian Weekly, April 26).
In his inauguration speech, Ukraine’s new head of state promised that achieving a ceasefire in Donbas would be his top priority, and he asserted that he was ready to engage in dialogue with the other side in order to reach a resolution of the conflict—though, importantly, not at the cost of losing territory. He expressed his willingness to restart the conflict resolution process and to stop the bloodshed: “It was not us who started the war. But it is us who have to finish it. We are ready for the dialogue. And the first step for this dialogue could be the return of all Ukrainian prisoners” (President.gov.ua, May 20). Expert reactions to these pronouncements have differed: some viewed this as a new chance for a Donbas settlement, while others saw it as dangerous appeasement because Zelensky did not mention Russia even once (Voice of America, May 20).
Zelensky had long indicated that, as president, he would rely on Ukraine’s traditional allies. And he and his team maintained that it is necessary not to merely talk about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) military standards but to actually implement them (see EDM, May 1). In his speech, he opined that Europe starts in the mind and is a way of thinking. As widely expected, he paid tribute to Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic course, although mostly in passing. And notably, what had become ritual references in the previous administration’s remarks regarding Ukrainian aspirations to join the European Union and NATO were missing altogether in Zelensky’s address (President.gov.ua, May 20).
That said, for many Ukrainians who were apprehensive about Zelensky’s seemingly nebulous views regarding Donbas, his inauguration speech contained certain reassuring messages. Some particularly strong passages—such as regarding his decisiveness to bring settlement to the conflict in Donbas but not at the expense of Ukrainian interests—inspired rounds of applause in the parliament, including from cabinet ministers. And there seemed to be a striking continuity on foreign and security policy between the new president and his predecessor.
Ukraine faces a multitude of challenges, and despite Zelensky’s apparently sincere zeal to bring radical changes, he may be in some ways politically hampered not only by his lack of experience but also his alleged ties to previously self-exiled and now returning oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy. So will Zelensky be able to rise to the occasion (Icds.ee, April 23, 2019)? Public expectations have set a high benchmark for the new head of the state, and his performance will be screened closely. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has already tested his fortitude by issuing a decree that will simplify the procedure for issuing Russian passports to residents of occupied Donbas (see EDM, April 25, May 1, 2). This announcement added to the apprehension in Kyiv as it brings to mind unavoidable parallels with the occupied territories of Georgia, where Russia employed the same “passportization” strategy as a way to freeze the conflict and to secure its say in Georgia’s future.
Zelensky’s decision to disband the Rada was an expected move, though many parliamentarians and experts consider it a violation of legal procedures (Rada TV Channel, May 20). With Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman announcing his resignation (Zn.ua, May 20), Ukraine may be entering a period of transitional political volatility. Various political forces, including ones with openly revanchist agendas, are likely to try to capitalize on the public frustration during the parliamentary elections, as well as seek to fill the presidential team’s many still-vacant ranks.