Zelensky must choose battles wisely to avoid a political Mexican Standoff

Zelensky must choose battles wisely to avoid a political Mexican Standoff


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One evening in the hot summer of 2015 anyone who was someone in the political circles in Kyiv gathered at the residence of Simon Smith, the UK ambassador, as he was moving to his new post. The years of service in Ukraine were probably not the quietest in the long career of the British diplomat.

That night the entire Ukrainian political class met on his lawn to celebrate the ambassador. The colourful group featured several members of the cabinet. In attendance were many parliamentarians.

The ambassador and his staff were smoothly working this diverse group to get through the often-confusing spectrum of opinions among the Ukrainian political elites. The gathering made it painfully obvious that since independence, political parties in Ukraine have failed to push genuine and competent leaders to the forefront of politics.

As an expat, I was new to the country and to that mix. At the time I was just freshly bruised from my conflict with then Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, which I did not survive politically having to leave the Cabinet without being able to achieve much. A few days before the ambassador’s farewell party, I had joined a team led by ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili tasked with breaking up Odessa’s mafia, which runs the port-city of one million people from the shadows.

Holding a glass of whiskey in his hand in a way that only Brits know how to, the Ambassador approached me saying: “I have been following you. You remind me of John Kennedy”.

At hearing this I was beaming with joy, as I have been idealizing JFK since my childhood.

“I do not mean this as a compliment though” the ambassador continued. “He was not smart in how he was picking his fights, and you also know how he ended?” The ambassador’s warning refers, of course, to Kennedy’s assassination and tragic death in November 1963.

Continuing his advice, the ambassador then said “You should appreciate where you are and not rush into fights. Be more like Lyndon Johnson. Try to make deals!” Now referring to President Johnson’s notorious ability to play politics and push through progressive legislation where the idealist John F. Kennedy did not succeed.

As Ukraine has been struggling to democratise, the revolution seemed like a failed opportunity for new political elites to come to the fore. Watching these old politicians gathered on the lawn and chatting with western diplomats demonstrated no fundamental changes in this unexciting group and their styles. For the lack of better leadership, the West had to accept them as their interlocutors. But how could one make any deals with these people?

After navigating this political landscape in Ukraine for just over a year, I reflected on the Ambassador’s advice. I read about how the United States cooperated with the Italian Mafia during World War II to advance the war effort against Mussolini. I was trying to understand when it could be morally acceptable to collaborate with criminal elements and make political deals with sleazy ones to promote the progressive agenda.

In the end, it was more of a compromise than I could ever make. I did not follow the advice, and in 2016 I left the country, stripped of my Ukrainian citizenship by President Petro Poroshenko. Shortly before that, I had been forcefully thrown out by thugs from the Odessa city hall meeting where I tried to challenge the mafia’s grip on power in the city. Some of our team members were beaten and some aides had their cars burnt. A few years later one of our team was shot in a murder attempt. At the time we were often on the news but had achieved little.

That brings me to President Zelensky and the Ukrainian elites. The new president has inherited a complex political landscape. All those people, including the oligarchs, are still around and remain powerful.

The problem in Ukraine is that historically, whatever you touch, you have a Mexican standoff, where everyone has something on everyone else. This allowed them to balance out the domestic politics. If history may be of any indication, when there is a systemic threat, such as a reformist agenda, they unite, and everyone concentrates their firepower on the source of that threat. When it is eliminated, they go back to their familiar business.

Zelensky is now positioning himself to challenge that status quo. His victory on 21 April brought some changes to the system already, but much more is yet to come if he wants to break it. The loyalties are undermined now by the new gravitational forces. At times, he looks like a perfect outsider capable of seriously challenging the old system. If so, he will soon be under some serious fire. In which case, anyone who wishes radical changes in Ukraine needs to support him.

Zelensky has pre-emptively started the political storm. His first move was to dismiss parliament and to announce early elections, moving them to 21 July. He fired the prosecutor general, the powerful head of the security service, as well as several generals and senior security officers across the country. Together with them, 15 heads of the regional state administration had to go. He gave the Cabinet and the prime minister a chance to resign. Sending a message that he is not going to be soft on Russia, he exchanged some barks with the Russians and the Donbass separatists, who regularly trade artillery volleys and small arms fire with Ukrainian troops along a 500-kilometre “contact line”.

He is in the process of making his team and advisory appointments, introducing his list of candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections using his (not-yet-active) political party “Servant of the People”.  The list features largely unknown members of his presidential campaign, athletes, and activists. It includes no single member of the current parliament to signal that Zelensky wants to change Ukrainian political elites. He will need to make sure not to inherit the outdated internal governance system typical of other Ukrainian parties that are dominated by and revolve around individual leaders.

On his first foreign trip as president, Zelensky went to Brussels where he met with Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, Federica Mogherini, and Jens Stoltenberg. He reassured them that his foreign policy and commitment to European integration will not change.  He may have even tried too hard as in his exchange he apparently used verbatim an entire passage from the EU integration speech delivered just a few days earlier by his predecessor, Poroshenko. The latter immediately accused Zelensky of plagiarism. This may be the softest attack that Zelensky will face in the next five years.

Good signals do not always translate into progressive policies and legislation, though. Convincing the friendly EU and NATO leaders may have been the easiest item on Zelensky’s “to do” list. He soon found out that parliament was not ready to go without a fight and legal claims have been filed to challenge his decision. The parliament also refused to accept the PM’s resignation, just as it is still to accept Zelensky’s nominations that require parliament’s approval.

In the meantime, the media is still controlled by the Ukrainian oligarchs. Once they feel that their power is disrupted, they will start harassing and trying to damage the reputation of Zelensky and his team. He has proven that he can do public speaking. Now some tough political negotiations are ahead, especially if the Constitutional Court decides that the 21 July election is unconstitutional. And then, of course, there are conversations to be held with the Russians, as well as domestically with the pro-Russian forces, nationalists, and the mafia.

With all that, soon Zelensky will need to look for a balance of swift actions and political compromises. His leverage in the negotiations is backing from the West and the polls that show his party has a chance to win an outright majority of votes. He should be advised to be smart about picking his fights, look for political compromises and be encouraged to make deals. He should never negotiate out of fear, but should never fear to negotiate.

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