Ukraine’s government doesn’t have the best reputation, either domestically or abroad. And as the coronavirus crisis continues, the Ukrainian government has been under fire for not doing enough to help Ukrainians. Author and political commentator Yuri Polakiwsky believes that the crisis has shown the government’s lack of leadership in handling the coronavirus, and that more action is urgently needed in order to stem the situation. We spoke to him about his criticism of the government, and about what he believes their next steps should be.
We’ve had conversations in the past talking about how [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy really counts on his ratings. What is he going to do? Someone who really counts on popular opinion, when he has to do some unpopular things because of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. It makes sense for people to shelter in place. In the last few days, the deputy minister of health has made things more strict in Kyiv and around Ukraine. How does someone who counts on popular opinion make people initially unhappy, because no one likes to shelter in place?
The Achilles heel of the president is the fact that he wants to be liked and ratings are important to him. There’s no doubt about it. I was invited to a think tank in mid-November under the guise of bringing suggestions to the president. And at that meeting, in which I was not a participant but mostly as an observer, were people from the presidential administration. And all they talked about was “How do we increase or maintain the ratings of the president?” So it was more of a PR preoccupation. When I left that meeting, I went for a walk and I bumped into a businessman from Donetsk, and he said to me, and this is how I would categorize it – “We don’t want them talking. We actually want to see things done”. And that’s the criteria people have. Do you get things done?
Now, regarding the coronavirus, my concern here is that – does the president have people around him that would provide him with various options? The president has to create a scenario whereby he attracts people – whether they be in government, in business – that would give him options as to how to approach this crisis. And what I’ve seen, in the last minister who was just fired, what I’ve seen is that they are not providing options to the president. I want to say this, that what you’re going to see now is not a health care matrix response to the coronavirus crisis, but because they’re limited in their options – and they are behind, they lack resources – what you’re going to see is a military or police matrix here. So what they’re going to do, and they’ve already moved to this – Cabinet [of Ministers] just signed a decree yesterday or the day before – is that we’re going to quarantine and shelter in place. So that is going to be the option. Basically they’re going to limit the movement of people to make sure that they are in their homes. So they wanna suppress the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, that’s the only option. And that should be a level of concern for many.
Now you’re in a unique position. You’re a political observer, you’re a member of the diaspora – a lot of the politics that I, as a foreigner, see, is very Kyiv-centric. What’s going on in the rest of Ukraine?
This is a great question. I have researched and talked to a number of people, especially in the western provinces. There are two things that come up: number one, you find that the solutions that are being provided or the services that are being provided are very Kyiv-centric. I’ve talked to politicians and administrations: people there are demanding help in coordination, in coordinating efforts, meaning that they want not simply to be consulted, but they want help and coordination with it. One of the biggest problems, without a doubt, is the lack of coordination beyond Kyiv. And it’s going to be some of the western [regions] that are going to be hardest hit. But the key thing is – you can even see it, on video with health care workers decrying the level of resources available – but the key complaint is the lack of strategy and strategic coordination beyond the Kyiv [region]. And this is, again, the result of not having the right people. You don’t have the right people advising the president towards particular actions. Even though they're very limited in the amount of resources, I read this morning that in a country of 35 million people, only 4,000 have been tested. This is way behind the curve.
We’ve got an economy where people really need to work during the day so they can eat at night, so they’re out on the streets, they’re not sheltering in place. On the other hand, [Zelenskyy] is asking everyone to shelter in place, and Ukraine is known for hitting the streets when they’re not happy with politicians. How are these things going to balance each other out in terms of COVID-19?
I think the key thing is that in the next, I would say eight days, maybe two weeks, you’re going to see people who are going to be running out of money, people who are going to start getting hungry, and the key element is how is the government going to respond to this? Also, you know, Ukrainians don't want to be inside, and they’re going to be a little bit rebellious. I’m not so much concerned with political protests as much as I am concerned about “Will the government act fast enough to make sure that people who are either poor – this is a very poor country – whether people are going to have enough to eat?” And they have to pass some type of law quite quickly to make sure that there’s money put back into the economy through giving people money so they can eat. That’s my biggest concern.
Is timeliness really a thing here? Right now we just had a land reform bill passed that took 19 years, you have legislation going through with the bank that should have happened in November. [Zelenskyy’s] mono-coalition is weakening, is he going to be able to get things done that need to be done for the coronavirus? Or do you have any suspicions that he might turn Ukraine into a Hungarian model, where they might declare martial law and start making laws that way?
I’m a hopeful guy. I don’t think that the Parliament will act fast enough. That’s my concern. Hopefully – is it possible? Yes. Will it happen? No. And this is why I’m warning people. And I think that I’m warning people to say that there will be this suspension of movement of people. That will be the biggest concern and that’s what they’re preparing for. When President Zelenskyy was asked “Who was the best performing minister?” he said “The Minister of [Internal Affairs] Arsen Avakov.” There will be suppression, there will be repression, I have a fear for that. I fear that because Ukraine definitely – people in Ukraine have definitely said that “we’re sick and tired of authoritarian oppression.” That’s what the Maidan was for. “We want to go towards democracy, we want to go along this road, we want change, we want economic justice, political justice. We want reform and justice in the legal system.” And so I think there’s a possible extreme response from the government that will impede progress of the transformation of society into a modern democratic state. That’s my big concern.