In 2021, Volodymyr Zelenskyy crossed the equator of his first presidential term. And this year was marked by radical changes in the activities of the head of state.
The whole country saw a clear change in Zelenskyy's behavior during the latest press marathon. The motto of the event was: "I am the president, Misha (investigative journalist Mykhailo Tkach)." Zelenskyy in 2019 swore by the opposite opinion: "Each of us is a president."
It seems that Zelenskyy has been proving to everyone around him for a whole year that he is the president in this country. From the imposition of sanctions against Viktor Medvedchuk's channels by the decision of the National Security and Defense Council in February to the war with Rinat Akhmetov and the suspicion to Petro Poroshenko at the end of the year.
"Good [cop] with fists," one of Zelenskyy's associates described the new Zelenskyy in 2021. And although all of Zelenskyy's opponents were able to see the president's "fists" this year, it wasn’t always the proclaimed "good."
In this article, we recall the main political events and trends of 2021.
NSDC. The event of the year
"I will never close any channels in my life, I have no rights, I have no authority," Zelenskyy said in September 2019. However, on February 2, 2021, the National Security and Defense Council, headed by the President, imposed sanctions on Medvedchuk's ZIK, NewsOne and 112 TV channels. After that, they disappeared from the air.
The only member who did not support the decision of the National Security and Defense Council was Dmytro Razumkov. At that time - head of the parliament. The reason for the sanctions was the information of the Security Service of Ukraine that the formal owner of these TV channels, Taras Kozak, an Opposition Platform - For Life MP, was involved in a scheme to supply coal from the occupied territories, which contributed to terrorist financing. The speaker believed that there should be criminal liability for this, not sanctions.
Medvedchuk's associates accused Zelenskyy of political massacre of opposition TV channels and began threatening him with impeachment. This moment was remembered by Vadym Rabinovych's Soviet war song in the parliament: "Arise, great country."
The country did not arise against the closure of Medvedchuk's channels. Moreover, this decision of the National Security and Defense Council allowed Zelenskyy to stop the trend of falling popularity. Therefore, the President’s Office decided to continue applying the sanctions mechanism. Medvedchuk and his wife, smugglers and “thieves-in-law” have already fallen under them.
Zelenskyy himself joked that the country had its "Black Friday". Influential Ukrainians began to fear a regular meeting of the National Security and Defense Council at the end of the week.
"The National Security and Defense Council was the revelation of the year. And the political demonstration that the chair itself is irrelevant, only those who occupy it matter. If we talk about Danilov's predecessors, not all of them could effectively manage this body," said Mykola Davydyuk, director of the Polityka think tank.
However, over time, the decisions of the National Security and Defense Council came under fire. First of all, because, in fact, the Security Council began to replace justice. Because by law, sanctions against Ukrainian citizens are possible only in cases of terrorist activity. In order to compare the decision with the law, Zelenskyy called smuggling "economic terrorism against Ukraine."
Later, questions began to arise as to how certain people were included in the sanctions lists, why individual citizens were not subject to sanctions, and some were removed from the drafts altogether.
After his resignation, former Interior Minister Arsen Avakov began publicly criticizing the National Security and Defense Council. He said that members of the Security Council did not receive enough information about the participants in the sanctions lists. Instead, the president's team accused Avakov that the minister stopped voting for sanctions when he saw his acquaintance, businessman Pavel Fuks, on this list at one of the meetings.
"2021 is a year of sanctions. We have never had NSDC sanctions against domestic players, especially such as Viktor Medvedchuk. This is a significant trend, which was unprecedented and influenced the political process and provoked other events," sums up political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko.
Medvedchuk. Fall of the year
Sanctions against Medvedchuk's TV channels quickly led to a drop in the influence of Putin's family friend.
Initially, Medvedchuk disappeared from the information field. Formally, the media of closed TV channels tried to launch a new channel. But it was taken off the air within hours. Medvedchuk tried to use two other TV channels - First Independent and UkrLive - at the hands of his colleagues. However, in late December, the National Security and Defense Council imposed sanctions against them too. After that, Medvedchuk's media remained only on YouTube.
Opposition rivals in the pro-Russian field have also benefited from this. At first, Yevhen Murayev's NASH broke into the leaders among news TV channels. However, Akhmetov's Ukraine 24 TV channel soon took the lead. Former Medvedchuk's media people - Vasyl Holovanov, Natalia Vlashchenko, Volodymyr Poluyev and Anna Stepanets all joined the channel.
"We have a practically redistributed media map," concludes Mykola Davydyuk, director of the Polityka think tank.
It is worth noting that Inter - the TV channel of Medvedchuk's allies from Opposition Platform - provided information on sanctions in a balanced way. And this clearly underlined the political split in the political force. If Medvedchuk's group has been trying to fight Zelenskyy all year, Serhiy Lyovochkin's wing of Opposition Platform has assumed a moderate position. They did not even come to court when Medvedchuk was remanded in custody in criminal cases.
Instead, Putin himself stood up for his mate. Thus, at one of the meetings of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, the President of Russia announced the cleansing of the political field in Ukraine. "Someone is selectively blamed for working with Russia in the economic sphere," Putin said. However, he did not mention Medvedchuk.
This happened in May, when Medvedchuk received the first suspicion of treason and attempted looting of state resources.
Medvedchuk's problems did not end there. In late May and early June, Bihus.Info journalists published the so-called "Medvedchuk tapes." They feature the politician's telephone conversations with Russians and representatives of the Donbas occupation authorities, which date back to 2014. In particular, the supply of coal from the occupied territories.
Medvedchuk said the records were forged, while Bihus.Info journalists assured that these were records of Ukrainian special services.
No less than Medvedchuk, the appearance of these tapes did not please the team of Petro Poroshenko. Because Putin's friend assured his interlocutors that he was dealing with the then-president. Poroshenko's direct speech is not heard on the published recordings.
In October, Medvedchuk received a second suspicion. This time it was a matter of purchasing coal from the occupied territories. Then it became clear that soon in this case, law enforcement officers may come for Poroshenko.
Medvedchuk himself spent more than half a year under house arrest.
Poroshenko. The case of the year
Petro Poroshenko began to worry about his fate in February immediately after the sanctions of the National Security and Defense Council against Medvedchuk channels. In the same month, the former president announced the purchase of the Pryamyi TV channel, which was already informally associated with Petro Poroshenko. Thus, he tried to protect the channel from the sanctions list.
As for Poroshenko, Zelenskyy's team changed tactics in 2021. Earlier, dozens of cases were opened in which the predecessor was involved. Now they have launched a discrediting campaign to tie Poroshenko to everything pro-Russian. Above all, to Medvedchuk.
"It seems that Zelenskyy needed Medvedchuk for an information attack not so much on the Opposition Platform, not so much on Russia, as for the attack on European Solidarity and me personally," Poroshenko himself said in the spring of 2021.
At the end of the year, Poroshenko was served a notice of suspicion of buying coal from the occupied territories. Investigators accuse the former president of treason and promoting the activities of terrorist organizations "L/DPR". And Medvedchuk is considered an ally.
Back in May, Zelenskyy was asked if he would be Poroshenko's verdict, as promised in the debate ahead of the 2019 elections. "I have already sentenced him. He just doesn't want to realize what has happened," the incumbent president said at the time.
"Speaking of the case of the year, Poroshenko ‘won’ in late 2021. Maybe not even handing over the suspicion, but how he escaped," said Mykola Davydyuk, director of the Polityka think tank.
However, Poroshenko's party members are convinced that their leader did not run away, but went on a business trip, which was combined with New Year's holidays.
Avakov and Razumkov. Resignations of the year
Among these two resignations, it is difficult to single out one that is more significant in 2021. Therefore, we remember the departure of both the minister and the parliament speaker. Especially since they have two things in common. These are the sanctions of the National Security and Defense Council and the law on oligarchs.
Razumkov did not support the sanctions from the beginning. He explained his position by saying that if there is a corpus delicti, there should be criminal liability, not sanctions by the National Security and Defense Council. The president's team viewed the speaker's actions as allegiance to pro-Russian media and politicians and disloyalty to the president.
Avakov called sanctions against Medvedchuk's TV channels a "borderline solution" and supported restrictions on Russian propaganda. However, he later became the second person who did not vote at the National Security and Defense Council for sanctions.
Also, both did not support the desire of the President's Office to fight the oligarchs through the relevant law.
Avakov was the first to be asked to leave. The relevant request was voiced by the President. In the summer, both sides asserted that they parted ways without conflict.
Razumkov's conflict with the President's Office is a long-standing one. It began in 2019, when on the first day of the newly elected parliament Razumkov refused to put to the vote all the "wishes and dreams" of Bankova Street.
Later, the dissatisfaction of both parties only accumulated. When the speaker began to block the passage of the law on oligarchs, the President's Office decided to dismiss him.
After that, Zelenskyy concentrated all power in his hands. Although opponents prefer to say that it is not Zelenskyy, but Andriy Yermak. And the new speaker, like the prime minister, became deputy heads of the President's Office for Relations with MPs and Ministers, respectively. And so the country became an "Office-Presidential Republic."
However, Razumkov's resignation has caused new problems for the president.
First, it manifested the actual disintegration of the single-party majority. The votes of the Servant of the People faction did not suffice for Razumkov's dismissal, they had to seek help from others. Later, some of the "servants" joined Razumkov's inter-factional union and stopped voting with their faction.
Zelenskyy's second problem was the emergence of a real competitor in the presidential election. Polls immediately began to show that Razumkov could beat Zelenskyy in the second round. However, the speaker does not have the support to get to the second round.
Though he does have such ambitions. "Earlier, it was said that no Rada speaker ever became the president. Today we removed this fuse," Razumkov said immediately after his resignation.
Also in the fall, rumors began to spread about the possibility of a political union of Avakov and Razumkov. "Servants" even coined the name of this association: "Raya Bloc" - Razumkov, Avakov and Yatsenyuk. However, now it seems that the former speaker is trying to build a separate political force.
"Razumkov became an independent political figure, entered the top five. This is a change in the political landscape. He is the only new face to appear in the last two years," political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko concludes.
Akhmetov. War of the Year
Rinat Akhmetov has always sought approaches to presidents and befriended them. It was the same with Zelenskyy: the richest Ukrainian gave ambulances to the president's team for PR, provided informational support through his own TV channels.
However, in early 2021, the relationship began to deteriorate. Zelenskyy decided to rid the country of the influence of the oligarchs. At first, Akhmetov was given signals, hoping that he would understand the hints.
"Surnames don't matter here. These are Medvedchuk, Kolomoisky, Poroshenko, Akhmetov, Pinchuk, Firtash. One thing is important: are you ready to work legally and transparently, or do you want to continue to create monopolies, control the media, and influence deputies. The first is supported. The second is coming to an end," Zelenskyy said in one of his video addresses.
The first sign was a $183,000 fine imposed by the state on Akhmetov's company.
Then the tension in the relationship only grew. The President’s Office decided to draft a law on oligarchs.
"When the text appeared, it became clear that there was nothing like it in world practice. The bill is evaluated differently. It goes beyond classical legal standards. But it did significantly influence the political process," said political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko.
Akhmetov immediately replied that he was not an oligarch, but the biggest investor. In turn, the National Security and Defense Council announced that, according to the criteria of the law, 13 people can be recognized as oligarchs. The potential “oligarch” must meet at least three of four criteria: participating in political life, significant media influence, owning a monopoly, and assets in excess of $80 million.
Thereafter Akhmetov’s media changed the editorial policy from loyal to Zelenskyy and his team - to critical. Zelenskyy turned to more and more decisive warnings. "It's better not to start this game. Because in addition to your artificial deficit, our deficit is quite real. Deficit of patience. And when the state runs out of angelic patience, a hellish period will commence for some," Zelenskyy said in one of his video addresses in the fall.
After that, Ukrayinska Pravda reported on the so-called "Vilnius conspiracy." Allegedly, Akhmetov met with Arsen Avakov, Savik Shuster, Dmytro Gordon and Yevhen Komarovsky in Lithuania, where they pondered who could replace Zelenskyy.
A few days after the meeting in Vilnius, the president went to a press marathon and said that there were attempts to involve Akhmetov in a "coup."
Recently, Akhmetov’s business encountered new problems. The state has raised the excise tax on ore, Ukrzaliznytsia has raised tariffs on transportation, and the government has not paid its outstanding debt for green electricity. And PG Irina Venediktova stated that there were 200 cases against Akhmetov's companies.
Also in the context of this confrontation, the desire of the President's Office to manage the Rada and Dom TV channels, which are financed from the budget, should be assessed. The first is transformed into informational, the second into national. These channels should help in the information confrontation with Akhmetov.
"The conflict of the year is the war between Akhmetov and Zelenskyy, who parted brass-rags and started fighting. But, obviously, this hasn’t turned into a fight to the death. Each of them has an additional plan, which aims to deal a significant blow to his enemy," sums up the director of the analytical center Polityka Mykola Davydyuk.
* * *
In 2021, Zelenskyy went on the offensive on all political fronts. The main political figures, Poroshenko and Medvedchuk, were hit by "good with fists". And the war with the oligarchs grew into a confrontation with the richest Ukrainian - Rinat Akhmetov. And the number of opponents is growing every month.
Currently, magnates Viktor Pinchuk and Ihor Kolomoisky remain loyal to Zelenskyy. However, they may move to the other side, when in May 2022 the National Security and Defense Council will begin to announce the names in the register of oligarchs. Especially if the trend of growing dissatisfaction of Ukrainians with Zelenskyy's presidency continues.