A year ago, RBK-Ukraine ran an interview with one of the leaders of then Opposition Bloc (now Opposition Platform — For Life) Serhiy Lovochkin. Commenting on chances of presidential candidates back then, he called Yulia Tymoshenko “the leader of the race, but Hrytsenko could beat any candidate in the second round of voting.” Lovochkin also said that the second round could as well see “the single southeastern Ukraine representative, Yuriy Boyko.”
Lovockin’s estimates were not too far from reality. According to sociologists, if Anatolii Hrytsenko made it to the second round of voting, he would have beaten the ‘traditional’ runners, and Yulia Tymoshenko had long kept her leadership positions with the Ukrainians. Also, Yuriy Boyko won 11.68 percent of votes in the first round of election. Boyko could have competed with Petro Poroshenko (15.95 percent of votes) for making it to the second tour, if not for his ‘divorce’ with Rinat Akhmetov’s group and Oleksandr Vilkul’s candidacy (he won 4.15 percent in the first round of the election).
But the setup of the race had been broken by its leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyi. First, he pulled the majority of votes away in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine and won hands down in all Ukraine’s regions excluding the Lviv.
A period of political uncertainty followed. As of today, the newly elected president hasn’t announced his first appointments after the inauguration. These appointments, however, including heads of the National Security and Defense Council head and the General Staff, will be the first serious marker and predeterminants of the political agenda. In addition, Ukrainian political circles are actively discussing the possibility of dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and announcing early parliamentary election. In his recent interview for RBK-Ukraine, Zelenskyi confirmed he’d been considering this scenario. In addition, the president elect will have to decide on reappointment of regional heads and the leaders for law enforcement agencies belonging to the president’s power vertical.
— So has the vote return come as a surprise for you?
— Absolutely not. It was predictable. We had good sociology, forecasting, and simultaneous ballot counting up and running.
— Are you happy with the campaign?
— As for me, this campaign has seen three winners: Volodymyr Zelenskyi, Yuriy Boyko, and Ihor Smeshko. So we’re here in the command office of a winner (Lovochkin was interviewed in the Opposition Platform headquarters — ed.).
Yuriy Boyko won over two million votes, running first in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. All of it — despite technical candidates, administrative pressure, and mud slinging used against us.
— Still it looks like your rating was helped out with Boyko and Viktor Medvedchuk’s visit to Moscow before the first round of the voting.
— Well, our rating was ‘helped out’ not only with that visit. Our success has been mostly based on consistent political stance, unique productivity of Yuriy Boyko, efficient teamwork of our cohort, and correct campaign strategy.
Currently, we are the only real opposition to the current political government, the opposition that is based on ideology. The programs of Boyko’s top rivals, i.e. Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, and Zelenskyi, repeat each other. NATO, Tomos, takes on history, approaches to the settlement of the military conflict in the east — all of them sounded as if dictated by a single source.
— What do you personally think of Boyko and Medvedchuk’s visit to Moscow?
— It’s a brave and responsible act, first of all. But more important, this is Russia demonstrating its readiness to talk with Ukraine, to cooperate, revive economic ties, jointly work towards peace in the Donbas. The meeting of Boyko and Medvedchuk with Russian leaders showed that there is a potential for a dialogue. I would like this dialogue to bring more results in the near future. It affects security and living standards of people not only in the Donbas but also across Ukraine.
— What kind of president will Volodymyr Zelenskyi make, in your opinion?
— I hope he will make a successful one. Zelenskyi’s victory resulted from the people’s protest against what’s been happening over the past five years. It was a period of endless mistakes; some of them were made with evil intent, others — due to the leaving government’s mediocrity or inactivity. Their mistakes have led to the state’s economic weakening, people’s immiseration, deindustrialization, loss of its export capacity and transit perspectives. 75 percent of voters have supported the president elect — this is a huge expectation imposing huge responsibilities upon him. It sets the bar very high regarding the new president’s acts.
— In your opinion, how independent is Zelenskyi?
— I think he is independent. He’s the one responsible for what happens next to the state and in the state.
— But still, is he affected by a certain business group?
— Chances are the new government will not take on this business group. I think it’s a big deal in itself, because they’ve been waging a real war with the leaving regime over the past few years. It wasn’t easy: the regime would use selective justice against those businesses over political reasons.
For instance, Dmytro Firtash’s business group has spent the past five years under a strong pressure of the leaving regime. They suffered unfairly in numerous aspects, starting from gas transportation tariffs set below cost to artificially create debts and ending with dumping of imported fertilizers aimed at closing Firtash’s factories in Ukraine. You remember the attempts of commandeering TV channels, muting the TV signal, fighting with the contents, an arson attack, blocking...
I really wish that those in power stopped waging politically motivated wars with business groups and started making rules. The rules that are transparent and fair for all.
— The president elect has faced a staff shortage, just like his predecessor did. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there are two bench strengths in Ukraine: an ‘orange’ camp and a ‘white and blue’ camp. It looks like Zelenskyi will not approach the ‘orange’ ones as they’ve been in the office for the past five years. So he will likely turn to your party.
— Volodymyr Zelenskyi might choose of the two staff strategies: an inclusive or an exclusive one. We saw an example of exclusivity in 2014, when People’s Front made Poroshenko exclude everyone from the public administration except for their people and ‘their’ foreigners. We can see the outcomes of it now.
I believe the president elect should prefer inclusivity — including as many strong players to the public administration as possible. He needs to interest all of them in his success and that of the country.
Of course, Zelenskyi will have troubles with ‘buying’ allies from Petro Poroshenko Bloc and People’s Front — they’ve been in the office for the past five years and became his top rivals at the most recent election. But I would certainly make professional level a priority, not their political background. The country needs the highest concentration of power and intellect possible in order to get out of the war and the crisis. This makes me feel certain about the need in the inclusive approach. The new president must invite experts from all teams and make them work together for the sake of the Ukrainian state. He is best placed for that now.
— Won’t that ruin his rating?
— It might affect his rating, but not for long. The rating of the president elect, as well as his legacy will only be ruined with bad and inefficient governance. This will ruin not only the phenomenon of Zelenskyi, but also the hopes of the 75 percent of the people who voted for him.
— Do you have any presence in the Z team?
— I want him to succeed. I would like to see him creating efficient governance system and prosperity for the Ukrainian people.
— Do you believe Zelenskyi will be able to have a deal with Putin?
— I believe the president elect has no limitations upon him. He should dismiss the political climate and do his best, use his best art of making politics, in order to achieve the best results possible in the shortest terms. Those who’ve been credited with a lot usually have little time to prove their competence.
— Do you see a coalition under Zelenskyi in current parliament?
— Will he be allowed to replace ministers?
— Dramatic changes are only possible if the structure and membership of the ruling parliamentary coalition changes. For that, the president elect will have to tell the public that he’s a part of the coalition of Yatseniuk and Poroshenko, the top objects of his criticism during the campaign.
— Thus, he won’t be able to make a single decision?
— Decisions ‘for the president,’ including personnel decisions, will be of ad hoc and sporadic nature. Chances are the president elect will be doomed to a confrontation with the current parliament composition.
— Will Zelenskyi become an authoritarian president?
— I don’t think so. With his powers limited and on the backdrop of confrontation with the parliamentary quasi-coalition, the president elect has next to no leverages over the situation, especially with the economy. Over the past four months, the population’s debt for utility services rose by 29bln hryvnia, or 74 percent, and has reached over 69bln hryvnia. People simply cannot afford current utility fees. The general fund budget lagged the plan by 8 percent in Q1 2019, which is 16.1bln hryvnia. All of this is taking place against the ongoing war and a huge foreign debt. This year, Ukraine is to pay $7.5bln, with peak payments due in May and September.
The deficit of the Pension Fund has reached 55bln hryvnia, which also looks threatening on the backdrop of the budget underperformance. All of this looks like a deep economic crisis. This is what the president elect should be handling, although with no real powers and tools.
— Several new political projects have emerged recently. PM Volodymyr Hroisman will likely run on his own, like UDAR party. Do you think they will bite off the 15-percent Poroshenko pie or do they have any chances to grow as independent political parties?
— Vitalii Klitschko and his UDAR party definitely enjoy a significant political potential. He is now focused on Kyiv, but he surely has strong chances to return to the national scale.
Regarding Volodymyr Hroisman, his party’s parliamentary rating, confirmed by sociologists, is above the threshold. I think the prime minister might as well bring his own faction to the parliament.
— Does Poroshenko have any political perspectives?
— The most recent five years in economic terms resulted in the increase of the foreign exchange rate, prices, tariff rates, the cost of human lives, the millions of migrant workers, the foreign debt. Millions of Ukrainians live below the poverty line. Poroshenko and his party will be held responsible for that during the parliamentary campaign. As of now, they are above the threshold, but it’s still unknown what will happen to them before the campaign kicks off.
— Do you believe that Poroshenko’s rating has been haunted by migration?
— No, the regime of Poroshenko has been haunted by futility and commercialization of the power. In fact, the ‘Donetsk guys of 2010’ had been replaced by ‘Vinnytsia and Chernivtsi guys 2014’ diluted by unskilled foreigners.
Foreigners in the government of Ukraine are a separate matter; they generated more damage than value. As was apparent after, the main reason for inviting them was to serve as a cover-up for the greedy and exclusive government. But they failed. I’m pretty sure that ‘foreigners scheme’ will not work under Zelenskyi as well. In most cases, foreigners recruited to Ukraine are poor professionals, hence unclaimed in their home countries. They are not held liable for what they do here — one can simply pack their stuff and leave, just like the guy who headed Ukrzaliznytsia did. We should organize professionals who are Ukrainians.
— Are you ready to the parliamentary election in case it’s held earlier?
— We’ve had good results, and current sociological assessments offer even more, so we’ll be competing to take the lead. The presidential election outcome has sent us a clear signal that our party’s agenda has wide support among people, with peace being it main point.
— Are you negotiating an alliance with Rinat Akhmetov?
— No, I’m not negotiating with Rinat Akhmetov, but I am in favor of an alliance, philosophically speaking. His team comprises people who share our ideology, our stance on war and peace, noninterference with church affairs, the right to speak mother tongue and hear it. We have no ideological split between us. All the differences we had revolved around their support of President Poroshenko.
— Please tell us about your relationship with Victor Medvedchuk.
— Generally speaking, Victor acts in four capacities: as an ambassador of Ukraine in Russia, a Russian ambassador in Ukraine, a personal negotiator of the presidents, and as a member of the negotiating team in Minsk. He can tackle many issues of the bilateral relations. It’s a resource of great significance. We are gathering a powerful party that will be able to improve things. Let’s see how it goes.
— Is there a conflict between you two?
— No. None.Follow @serhiylovochkin