Zelensky's Purge? Ukraine's latest internal battles show how hopes of the 2014 Maidan are fading in sharp turn to totalitarianism

Since Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, almost every president has, sooner or later, begun to take on authoritarian tendencies. Unfortunately, the country's current leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, is no exception.

His decision to lead the charge to dismiss the speaker of the country’s parliament on Thursday is clear evidence of this. Zelensky’s “Servant of the People” Party pushed out Dmitry Razumkov in a move that the top MP branded as illegal over disagreements about the country’s new law targeting oligarchs and banning them from political activity.

The decision highlights an increasingly heavy-handed style in Kiev and touches on conflicts over policies that hurt democracy and the rule of law. Last but not least, it shows Zelensky’s disturbing intolerance of any disagreement, even from former close associates within his own party.

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(L) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. © Reuters / GLEB GARANICH; (R) Dmitry Razumkov, former head of the party "Servant of the People". © RIA
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International media have been slow to pick up on Zelensky’s authoritarian tendencies, partly due to geopolitical and ideological bias. Ukraine is now aligned with the West (if in an often uneasy manner) and its post-2014-Maidan politicians have profited from sympathy for its declared reform aspirations (even while they often fail). In addition, the lazy habit of dismissing any criticism of Ukraine’s elites as “Russian propaganda” is still hanging around persistently.

However, make no mistake: Observers inside Ukraine – including those above any suspicion of sympathy for either Russia or Ukraine’s pre-2014 leaders – have been unsparing. Just a few days ago on Espreso TV, a station closely associated with the 2014-Maidan, talk show host and political commentator Nikolai Kniazhitsky spoke of “totalitarian” politics. As almost always when that term is invoked, as with the popular mischaracterization of contemporary Russia for instance, it is a bad case of hyperbole. 

However, Kniazhitsky is by no means alone with the essence of his complaint. Something smells very undemocratic in Zelensky’s Ukraine. Vitaly Portnikov, one of Ukraine’s most prominent political commentators with his own regular show, has been hardly less critical. For him, a recent congress of Zelensky’s “Servant of the People” party in the western Ukrainian spa town of Truskavets had one clear aim: To further consolidate power with the president and a small group of close associates as well as those oligarchs linked to them.

In an aside that may shock especially those Western “experts” whose Ukrainian is too weak to properly follow the country’s debates, Portnikov went even farther. No friend of Russia or Belarus at all, he nonetheless claimed that under Zelensky his country is beginning to resemble them. 

He dismissed the fact that Ukraine and Russia are in conflict as simply irrelevant by reminding his audience of some Cold War history: In the same manner in which the ideologically aligned countries of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union or China and Vietnam could be opponents, Portnikov argued, an undemocratic Ukraine and an undemocratic Russia could be politically similar yet remain hostile to each other. In which case, he also implied, as if to deprive naive Western “friends of Ukraine” of even their last illusions, the West would still support Ukraine, because, so the clear if unspoken message, geopolitics trumps values.  

Why are some pro-Maidan commentators so pessimistic? There is one possible reason we can rule out: Like every politician, Zelensky has always had opponents and critics. Perhaps these attacks on him are mere politics? Lies to damage his reputation with voters and supporters in the West? Unfortunately, no. Whether commentators are sympathetic to him or the opposite, the evidence of his authoritarianism is real, not a matter of mere opinion or rhetoric. 

Things, it seems, are turning out differently than was hoped for in 2014. One quick indicator of that fact comes from his own party. It is the “Servant of the People” parliamentarian Ludmilla Buimister who has publicly argued that the current situation in Ukraine resembles the early 2000s in Russia. By that she means that Ukraine is undergoing a recasting of its oligarchy, with some oligarchs reigned in but others promoted, depending on who plays nice with Zelensky and his team.

And this takes us back to the big falling-out between the president and Razumkov. After all, Razumkov is, at least as of now, not only a member of the “Servant of the People” party, but also a former close adviser to Zelensky. But now, Zelensky and the majority of “Servant of the People” are kicking him out of the speaker’s chair. In fact, like the badly unpopular kid in a high school of cruel and anxious teenagers, he has been excluded from party chats and wasn’t even invited to the big get-together at Truskavets, which instead served for massive agitation against him. How did they all get so scrappy with each other? 

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Members of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, Ukraine. © AFP / YURY KIRNICHNY
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In general, the main reproach against Razumkov is that he is, in the words of the leader of “Servant of the People,” “not a team player,” that is, too independent and not a reliable tool of the president. Yet another representative of that party has caricatured Razumkov’s insistence on respecting the parliamentary rules as a “Cold War of Rules.” But that is precisely how a speaker of parliament should act – as responsible first of all to the law, rules, and all parliamentarians, not only to the president and his party. 

That Zelensky and friends are clearly unable to live with Razumkov’s degree of doing things by the rules is a bad sign in and of itself. They entirely fail to distinguish between a party in a rule-of-law democracy, where all loyalties are conditional on laws and responsibility to the public, and the personal retinue of a charismatic leader, where obedience to that leader and conformism inside the group trump everything else. 

After several conflicts, the last straw, according to the head of the parliamentary “Servant of the People” faction, was Razumkov’s resistance against Zelensky’s law on oligarchs (in full, the law on the prevention of threats to national security associated with the excessive influence of persons with significant economic or political weight in public life). Or to be precise, his unwillingness to push it through parliament via rush procedures and without changes.

Indeed, Razumkov went as far as to submit the draft law to the European Union’s Venice Commission to obtain an assessment regarding possible human rights violations. 

Long prepared, much opposed, and finally rammed through parliament after a murky, dramatic, and failed assassination attempt on an aide of Zelensky, the essence of the law is simple: To create the power to officially decide who qualifies as an oligarch and enter those so identified into a register. Once on that de facto blacklist, they will be subject to a number of restrictions meant to curb their influence on politics. For instance, they would not be able to finance political parties.

In principle, that is not necessarily a bad idea. Ukraine, like many other countries – the single most egregious and globally damaging case is the US – suffers badly from the rich buying themselves not only nice things but also plenty of power. But the principle is not the issue. What matters is the details of such a law. And here, Zelensky’s critics are right when they point not only to fresh opportunities for corruption but to a fundamental, nasty flaw: the blacklist of oligarchs will be controlled by Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.   

That council is the institution through which Zelensky has realized his most authoritarian sallies, including censorship and repression of media under the cover of “information war” defense against Russia and the hounding of one of Ukraine’s major opposition politicians, Viktor Medvedchuk. Medvedchuk is very rich, no saint, and stands for a policy of seeking compromise with Russia. Yet none of the above justifies Zelensky’s abuse of national security and legal procedures in what should be a political struggle. Rightly not obediently supporting these measures, unsurprisingly, has also been held against Razumkov. 

That is why Zelensky’s critics are right. His oligarch law is not aimed at “de-oligarchizing” Ukraine, as he claims, but at giving him and his associates the largely unfettered power to put pressure on some oligarchs and exempt others, for instance backing Zelensky’s old benefactor, Igor Kolomoisky. In other words, this is a law not for abolishing but for re-organizing Ukraine’s oligarchy with the aim not of subjecting it to the state but to enable one particular politician and his party to marginalize some oligarchs and cooperate with others. 

Of course, Razumkov may have his own agenda. A young politician, born in 1983, perhaps he is out only for himself, accepting or even provoking conflict to raise his own profile? Or, maybe, he, too, is doing the bidding of oligarchs, namely those who stand to be targeted by Zelensky’s law? For instance, Rinat Akhmetov? 

Yet, even if we assume the worst about Razumkov’s rationale, the fact remains that he has acted legally, and while he may have his own aims, his actions can be explained by public interest. His opponents, including President Zelensky, on the other hand, have acted in an at best arbitrary manner that betrays extraordinary impatience with due process and any degree of compromise and cannot be reconciled with public interest. Because the latter would be better served by a law with the same principal aim but proper precautions against abuse.

There is no doubt that there is something very disturbing about the manner in which the president of Ukraine and his party have ganged up on the speaker of the country’s parliament, in several ways. First, we see the usual backsliding into authoritarian tendencies that has tempted almost every post-independence Ukrainian president. Second, this time it is especially bad, though, precisely because Zelensky came in with such a massive, indeed unprecedented electoral landslide mandate and enormous hopes of renewal. Third, Zelensky is in the fortunate position to have an absolute majority in parliament. In Ukrainian, this state of affairs is now called the “mono-majority,” that is, a majority without coalition building. 

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In a well-functioning democracy, having such a majority should not be a problem. Because in that context this position would not be abused to either disrespect the rights of the opposition or the rules of the game in general. Indeed, a combination of such a one-party majority and fair play could be ideal for Ukraine, producing a strong, effective government while preserving democracy and the rule of law. 

And that’s why it is so particularly galling to see Zelensky and his immature, retinue-like party squander this unprecedented opportunity. Instead of using it well, they are about to create the impression that democracy and effective rule by a solid majority simply cannot go together. Or put differently, that there is no alternative to Ukraine’s other flaw, eternally fractious, unstable coalitions. It is as if Zelensky, whose reputation will also suffer from recent “Pandora Papers” revelations, had now set out to impress a lesson of despair on his compatriots: You can have either chaotic inefficiency or authoritarian over-reach. But you cannot have efficiency and stable democracy. What a sad spectacle from a man who used to be funny. 

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