Ukraine President Zelenskyy is Playing with Dangerous Experiments - Paul Niland
2 May, 2020

Ukraine needs to become synonymous with "fight against corruption," says Kyiv-based writer and founder of Lifeline Ukraine Paul Niland.

But so far, with Ukraine's current and former presidents both fearing the disruption of the status quo, the world associates Ukraine with deep-rooted corruption, stalled reforms, and removal of anti-corruption officials from the office.

Why is it like this? And can current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy redeem himself and his declared goals of eliminating corruption?

Hromadske spoke with Niland to discuss this.

Paul, you've been discussing Ukraine and teaching outsiders about Ukraine for a very long time so you're the perfect person to tell us about reforms. I need you to start at the very beginning for me. Ukraine is a relatively new country, it has a relatively new constitution. Why do they need reforms already?

We have to go through a revolution to address the corrupt gang that was around [former president] Viktor Yanukovych who, of course, fled to Russia because you know that that's a place where the corrupt can find safe harbor. But the reason why reforms are needed is that corruption affects and infects every single part of life. There was the high-level corruption that we were experiencing throughout the Yanukovych years and prior to that, where oligarchs were being enriched and where things like the state procurement system were being abused and hand contracts to friends. All of those things that we saw were really the catalyst for the revolution and after the revolution – these were all things that needed to be addressed. 

But when I say that corruption infects all kinds of parts of society, one example that I like to give is, if you look at the death toll on Ukraine's roads, it's extremely high. That's because people pay for their driving licenses here rather than actually learn how to drive properly. The police needed to be reformed because the previous road police would simply allow any infringement of traffic rules to go unnoticed or unpunished. Because they were simply taking a bribe, you know, and that system worked all the way up, it was the traffic cops that were out on the street and they would kick boards up to the seniors and so on and so on and so on. So, the whole system was very, very broken and it needed to be reformed. 

One of the things that I like to say is... There was a recent discussion in the United States at the time of the impeachment of Donald Trump saying that, you know, Ukraine is synonymous with corruption. And, actually, I'd like Ukraine to be synonymous with fighting corruption because the things that we've done in the years since the revolution, like reforming the police, like bringing in a new transparent system of government, which is called ProZorro, like the e-declarations of politicians, and so on and so on. You know, what we've been doing steadily, in lots of different areas is finding ways to cut out areas where corruption used to thrive. And unfortunately, you know, the job remains half done.

One of the reasons is that in both the period when Poroshenko was president and sadly still today, we're seeing political influence over the prosecutor's office, and we still see a largely unreformed or completely unreformed judiciary. And so Ukrainian citizens and businesses, foreign investors alike, cannot count on the rule of law. The everyday citizen in their interactions with the new patrol police can – they're a good and professional organization. But anybody who runs afoul of oligarchs wanting to raid businesses, that kind of practice which is still come in place. There's no recourse through the courts that is dependable and reliable and the prosecutor's office chooses who to prosecute and chooses not to prosecute people who are close to power or people who are controlling various factions within Parliament still to this day.

The Ukrainian citizen is prone to protest. You experienced this in 2014. And a lot of reforms were brought into motion. Has this momentum stopped now with Zelenskyy? Considering the reshuffling of his cabinet in March and the people that he's fired and old faces that some citizens thought they would never again see in politics but they're back.

Yes, you're exactly right on all of those points. I think when Zelenskyy campaigned to become president and when his party was campaigning to get into the parliament, there were a lot of promises that were made, and then the initial turbo regime of reforms was churning out new laws all the time. But they were not properly thought through and that was the reason for some concern in the early days. The concern nowadays is exactly as you say. It is that there are many people who are coming back into positions of power...

Let me interrupt you there for a second. Paul, let's talk about the turbo regime. This is this breakneck speed that when he had the absolute majority with his Servant to the People party, that he was able to push through draft laws. There were a lot of worries, with Western observers thinking that these things weren't thought through, because the opposition is healthy, because it brings in other arguments. Now he had the opportunity to make a lot of changes. Now, there's rumors that he doesn't have complete control over Servant of the People and he might be losing his absolute majority. He could have pushed through the land reform this fall, this past fall 2019. And he ended up waiting, and people were worried that it wouldn't be successful. If he had so much control over his party and the absolute majority, why wasn't he pushing through more reforms in the fall?

So, again, that's a very astute observation. I did an interview on UA TV shortly after the parliamentary elections. And I said that I foresaw rifts coming with the Servant of the People party because they're not homogeneous. There isn't, amongst that group of newly elected politicians, there isn't a unifying ideology. There's not a single kind of political position or stance other than new faces. And so there was always the likelihood that there would be a splintering and a fracturing of the party sometime down the line.

But it's not just an assumption that possibly he has lost his majority in parliament. In real terms, he has. And the recent example of where Zelenskyy wanted to bring former Georgian president and former governor of the Odesa region, Mikheil Saakashvili, into government, make him the deputy prime minister and put him in charge of reforms and, bizarrely, negotiations with the IMF as well – that failed. That effort failed because there were not enough votes within Zelenskyy’s own party. Fortunately, in my opinion, because I was not impressed by Saakashvili’s record in Odesa. There were not enough votes in Zelenskyy’s party to be able to appoint Saakashvili and, you know, rather than taking that as a clear sign that he was barking up the wrong tree what Zelenskyy now appears to want to do is to appoint Saakashvili to his own team within the presidential administration instead. 

Having seen what Saakashvili did here when he was removed from his post in Odesa and he came back to Kyiv and was an out troublemaker... There was a period when he and Yulia Tymoshenko together gathered a group of veterans outside of Parliament and attempted to kickstart another Maidan and it was an extremely dangerous situation and an extremely foolish thing to do, but that's Saakashvili, and that's the way that all populists work. They find a grievance and, you know, they'll pull it that scab and, you know, veterans in this country have plenty to feel aggrieved about. There was a potential for real problems there with that gamble that came from Saakashvili, so why Zelenskyy is looking at him and why he wants to bring him back. I know that there's an old relationship between Saakashvili and the current head of the presidential administration, but to me it's just a dangerous move. But going back to the other point that you made about bringing people back in who should never have got anywhere close to returning to power, I think the most egregious example of that is Ilya Yemets who was appointed and, fortunately, only stayed in office for something like 28 days.

He was a former health ministry official under Yanukovych. When Zelenskyy had the reshuffle there a few months back, he was appointed health minister. And then sort about dismantling the international procurement process that was put in place in the early days following the revolution and really cemented by minister Ulana Suprun when she was in office. But what Yemets did was to attempt to get his own person put in charge of procurement and, you know, that's not code. I mean that clearly would have led to instances of corruption. 

And while Yemets was digging his heels in while he wanted to get his own person for their own financial interests appointed to that post, Ukraine was doing zero purchasing of the necessary testing that we need to have and the personal protective equipment that we need to have to deal with and get in front of the coronavirus pandemic. 

So, for a three-week period, because of an experiment to bring back a former Yanukovych-era official who should have not been allowed to do so because of the lustration law, we lost three vital weeks in preparation for dealing with COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic. 

So there's all kinds of dangerous experiments that Zelenskyy is playing with right now and a lot of reformers like the former head now of the prosecutor general's office – they've been sidelined. And Max Nefyodov who was one of the creators of the ProZorro government procurement system, he's just been booted out of his position as well. And, you know, it's a very worrying time.

READ MORE: Ukraine's Customs and Tax Services Heads Nefyodov and Verlanov Dismissed

Let's go back to Yanukovich, let's put a pin in that. You had written an article in 2015 because some women on the street were interviewed by the Kyiv Post saying that nothing had changed after Yanukovych left. Zelenskyy ran his entire campaign critical of Petro Poroshenko. Has anything changed for Zelenskyy? Would you be as benevolent towards Zelenskyy now as you were towards Petro Poroshenko in 2015?

So with both cases with Poroshenko and with Zelenskyy, I gave them both the benefit of the doubt and in both cases as well. It was a majority of the Ukrainian population That elected them with Poroshenko he was the first person to win a Ukrainian election in the first round with Zelenskyy the margin by which he defeated Poroshenko to become president was enormous. You know, you have to give them time, you have to see how they progress. But with Poroshenko, we saw a point where there was a stalling of reforms. There certainly were reforms we mentioned earlier on the e-declarations, ProZorro, etc, etc. You know, there were a lot of good reforms that came in the early part of the Poroshenko administration and  Zelenskyy has moved to do some good things you mentioned earlier on the opening – although diluted – of the land market. There are things happening, there is progress, but in both cases, the absolute roadblocks have been in that joint level of the bodies that need to function properly so that we have rule of law, and they are the prosecutor's office and they are the judiciary. And, you know, both of those things are not tackled. 

And the reason why they're not tackled – and this is the key thing to understanding in general corruption in Ukraine as it relates to politics and political players – is that pretty much they're all guilty of something. So we're at a place in time where it's like a house of cards. And this is why I said earlier on – it's an important thing, one of the best things that have happened in Ukraine in recent years is that we've seen so many new faces come into parliament with the last parliamentary elections. But the kind of compromising materials that, you know, Lyashko would have on Tymoshenko, that Tymoshenko would have on Poroshenko, that Poroshenko would have on [pro-Russian MP Vadim] Rabinovich – they're all interrelated. 

And if you start to prosecute people for political-level corruption, then one turns on the other, and they turn on the next and they turn on the next and they turn on the next. This is the key now to changing this country fundamentally, it’s grabbing a hold of those institutions, and it needs to be a requirement from civil society. That must change. We have to have reform and Ryaboshapka, the former prosecutor general, when he was appointed – and he was only in office for six months – one of the first things that he did and this never happened on the Poroshenko, but one of the first things that he did was was he To the body as a whole, and he said, all of these people who work in this institution, they all need to be examined, they need to be looked at for their educational qualifications to be in that job. And they need to be looked at as well for their lifestyle and the signs of enrichment that doesn't commensurate with the kind of salaries that they earned. And Ryaboshapka started firing people...

READ MORE: The Legacy Left by Former Prosecutor General Rouslan Riaboshapka

And then he got fired. Let's talk about that a little bit because he was lauded by Western observers. And it seems to me that probably one of the most dangerous things for members of the Zelenskyy administration is to not be supported by the West. Everyone that is looked at as someone with solid credentials by Western organizations have seemed to be losing their job. Why is that?

That's a really interesting point that you hit on. One of the strongest groups that's lobbying in Ukraine and has been for some years is the group of G7 ambassadors here. And they've made a lot of very direct statements and, you know, their diplomats and sometimes the language is necessarily so quite undiplomatic and very, very direct. But another source of pressure on Ukraine and the reason for the pressure is key to understand, it is to reform, to continue reforming. The other group that is key is the IMF and the EU as well. So if you look back, for example, one of the great successes and huge changes to lifestyles of many Ukrainians was when the European Union dropped the visa requirement for Ukrainians to go and travel there for work and leisure and short-term business trips. 

But what many people don't realize is that the EU held Poroshenko and [former Prime Minister of Ukraine Arseniy] Yatsenyuk at the time they held their feet to the fire. And the requirement to get the visa-free regime was that Ukraine would pass a series of, I think it was, 143 laws that were all around reform. And if you look at who is supported in government by these institutions, the comments that come from the G7 ambassadors group, the kind of requirements from the IMF, including land reform, for the next tranche of much-needed support, and the EU as well, you're seeing that the key alignment there is reform, reform, reform.

Let’s talk about this in terms of political strong-arming, though. Because we always talk about how Russia is putting Ukraine under pressure. Is it possible the slow reforms in the fall, were these new parliamentarians actually shocked that what they thought about having their own sovereignty was heavily influenced by what the IMF wanted them to do, what the EU wanted them to do? And that that explains for how they slowed down, even though they had the turbo regime in the fall?

Okay, so, to finish my last thought, which actually is important for answering the question that you asked... If you see those bodies that are pushing Ukraine to reform and you see the administration of Zelenskyy or Poroshenko pushing back against people that are being heralded by those bodies, what the clear message there is that reforms are being stalled, reforms are being held up, and they're being held up for reasons of not wanting to change the status quo, not wanting to restrict certain people and their access to corrupt flows of money. So one thing, for example, that's not been addressed at all is about a month ago, the brother of the new head of the presidential administration was caught on tape offering to sell positions in state-owned enterprises. There's been no pushback, there's been no addressing that issue whatsoever. And that clearly was another part of corruption. 

READ MORE: Servant of the People MP Leaks Video Seemingly Implicating Brother of Presidential Chief-of-Staff in Corruption

But to answer the question about sovereignty, I look at that through a different kind of prism as well, and a lot of late in certain populist movements. The idea of sovereignty has become abused. And Ukraine is a sovereign country, although it's been encroached upon, obviously, by Russia's occupation of parts of the Donbas and Crimea, but the idea of sovereignty for the sake of sovereignty is a narrative that's been taken advantage of right now, in various countries. But what most countries accept is that there's, there's a pooling of sovereignty for the greater good. That's the whole point of the European Union, how certain things are shared, certain burdens are shared between the block so that they can act as one for the good of each individual member state of the European Union. And Ukraine's sovereignty is supported by these institutions that are asking us for more reforms, and the ultimate beneficiary of the reforms – and this is the key point at the end of the day – are the citizens of this country. They're moving towards leading a better life with higher standards of living with more protections of, as we mentioned earlier, their interactions with law enforcement, should such a thing be necessary. When you look at, for example, ProZorro and the savings that are made through that procurement scheme – it’s an international award-winning model that was created in Ukraine out of necessity that's being looked upon by other countries now saying, “Ukraine's got that right, we should copy that.” And ProZorro is saving – it's certainly not perfect, there are flaws and people are using workarounds – but ProZorro saves the state budget a billion dollars a year. And that's a billion dollars that is saved to taxpayers. And that's a billion dollars that could, for example, be invested in the much-underfunded healthcare system of the country. It could be invested in better roads, better road safety throughout the country, all those kinds of things. Right. The pushback on reformers is, rightly, something that Ukraine's partners are being very vocal about, and the ultimate beneficiary, again, is the average Ukrainian citizen.

 Let's talk a little bit about COVID-19. You're not in the studio today because of this. We can't avoid talking about it. Has COVID-19 changed the trajectory of the Zelenskyy presidency at all? There seems to be a little bit of reluctance to, maybe, fulfill the IMF requirements. But now with the danger, the COVID-19 pandemic, economic turndown, it's really necessary. Is it playing a role in the decisions for the anti-Kolomoisky bill and the land reform bill?

It's playing a role in everybody's decisions everywhere throughout the world, it is a global pandemic. There was talk of not needing the IMF tranche and, again, that's politically driven. And one of the key things that you mentioned is the anti-Kolomoisky law, and I saw the parliament yesterday passed a bill allowing them to fast track that after certain parliamentarians put forward 16,300 and something amendments to the bill that they wanted to be considered in real-time every single one of them individually one on one. It was a blatant and obvious filibuster. But Parliament fast-tracked that yesterday. The coronavirus has refocused everybody – and I'll say I've not really ever been a fan of Boris Johnson going back to the days when he was [the U.K.] Foreign Minister before he was Prime Minister – but his own experience with being hospitalized with COVID-19 seems to have sharpened his focus and I I've listened to the statements that he's made in the last couple of days. He's still fallen short of the mark, but certainly much better. So, you know, COVID-19 is has refocused us all.

Before we started this discussion, I was reading a very long piece by Bill Gates talking about lots of different international elements for trying to find a way through this and what that entails and how long it's going to take… In our case, here in Ukraine, and I noted a couple of days ago what the daily death toll has been. The relative number of deaths that we have compared to other countries shows that the right moves were made earlier on in closing up, in going into lockdown, in insisting on social / physical distancing, it seems that we got it right earlier on. I'm concerned that in the last few days, I'm seeing more and more people saying that the quarantine is starting to be ignored. And there are more and more people traveling and gathering – and I don't know whether people think that masks make us, you know, Superman and immune, or whatever. 

But going back to the question about the effect on Ukraine and the decisions that are being made here – it has focused things, because necessarily it had to, and we'll see in the coming weeks how we're able to return to whatever the new normal is going to be with certainly some restrictions. But I think it's a good rule of thumb that countries that have closed down earlier address this early... South Korea hasn't closed down but with their experience with SARS, they move very fast to test and to isolate and to trace contacts and leave it managed to keep society functioning, albeit at a reduced rate, but they've kept society functioning. But countries that moved fastest and moved earliest will see a smaller number of infections and a smaller number of deaths therefore. And therefore they'll be able to come out of the other side of this. Albeit they will be a closed community with limited international travel. 

But those countries that acted fastest – New Zealand being the prime example – are moving out of this much sooner with much less economic impact as well. And you know, it reflects the low level of Ukraine's economy that we needed to move very, very fast, not only from a humanitarian perspective, with minimizing the number of deaths, but to have avoided a massive economic shock that the country simply could not afford. There was no messing about. There was no space to second guess or judge what might or might not be the optimum moment for going into lockdown because it simply needed to happen, the country could not have taken a massive economic shock, the likes of which the United States is experiencing right now with 30 million people having lost their jobs and the the loss of GDP. I think it was 4.9% over the last quarter – they've moved very, very slowly. And you know, it's reflected in 1.1 million infections and closing on 65,000 lives lost now over there.

/Interview by Kari Odermann

/Text by Maria Romanenko