The next year will be extremely difficult for Volodymyr Zelenskyi. Zelenskyi personally bears all political responsibility for state decisions, economic and foreign policy. As a result, there is a systematic fall in his ratings. It is likely that, after the winter tariff crisis, key oligarchs will be actively involved in the competition against Zelenskyi, as the President failed to fulfil his obligations before them. We also should remember about agrarian oligarchs and farmers who have resources and influence on the grassroots level, and therefore oppose the opening of the land market. If land reform is launched, Zelenskyi will turn into enemy #1 for agrarian business. A separate track of internal exacerbation will constantly occur around the settlement of the conflict in Donbas, where Zelenskyi may agree on Putin’s terms, or act towards freezing the conflict with the risk of further escalation. The next 2020 year will pass in the light of preparations for the local elections. The parties will strongly compete with each other and coordinate actions to attack the “Sluha Narodu”. In order to successfully run in local elections, the leadership of the “Sluha Narodu” must urgently build a party that is now a virtual one. The possibility of holding early parliamentary elections in 2020 will depend on two factors. The first is the level of political ratings of the “Sluha Narodu” party. The second is loyalty and controllability of the mono-coalition to the President’s Office.
Oligarchs or reforms
Volodymyr Zelenskyi will have to give a definitive answer to society and Western partners in the coming year – whether the President remains with the oligarchs, or chooses reforms, modernization and cooperation with the IMF. The new authorities will not manage to cooperate with oligarchs, make impression of implementation of structural reforms and receive the IMF loans at the same time. Zelenskyi’s exclusive cooperation with the “favourite oligarchs” has already set the “offended” oligarchs up against the incumbent President. Thus, they have begun forming a broad political coalition in Parliament against the authorities. Ratings of Zelenskyi will remain high until the key oligarchs tune the panels of their TVs critically towards the “Sluha Narodu”. While Zelenskyi’s ratings are above 50%, none of the oligarchs tries to “kill” the ratings of Zelenskyi and his faction in the informational field. However, the informational neutrality on the part of the oligarchs is a matter of time. Oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi is still loyal to Zelenskyi. Despite the IMF’s position, Kolomoiskyi expects to receive compensation for “Privatbank” and plans to make money on the state in the future. As soon as the pragmatic Kolomoiskyi realizes that Zelenskyi will not fulfil all his political obligations, “1+1” will become the first channel to destroy the ratings of the “Sluha Narodu”. On the other hand, the new government cannot be left without the IMF’s financial assistance. Otherwise, the state will face a financial collapse. Therefore, we expect that Zelenskyi will enter an active phase of political aggravation and confrontation with key oligarchs in the new year. There is an opinion among the Ukrainian elites that soon enough Zelenskyi may establish political control over all law enforcement and anti-corruption bodies used in political struggle and pressure on business. It would be even more difficult to counteract the President who politically controls the SSU, the GPU, the Defence Ministry, the NACP, and even the SBI, the NABU and the SAPU.
War and peace in Donbas
Zelenskyi has two decisions on Donbas. The first is to fulfil Minsk agreements on Putin’s conditions providing for the federal Ukraine with a special status of Donbas and forget about Crimea. The second is to move towards freezing the conflict with the risk of further escalation. Each option will lead to electoral losses for the President. If Zelenskyi fails to become a President of peace, he will lose the support of some of the pro-Russian voters who are in favour of normalizing relations with the Kremlin. In such a case, political tensions with radicals and nationalists would be lifted. If Zelenskyi agrees to implement the Minsk agreements on terms of Russia (elections without border control and actual federalization of Ukraine), there is a risk of a new Maidan and even an armed coup (there is a lot of illegal weapons in Ukraine). Since Zelenskyi is a weak President in terms of resources and does not control the street, the second scenario carries far more risks than the first one. While the supporters of peace are passive and would not start protests, the radical minority is ready to take up arms and go to the Maidan. In fact, Poroshenko also won the election and began his term as President of the peace, but ended as President of war. Zelenskyi may also undergo such a transformation if he finally realizes that Putin is not ready to make any concessions or dialogue. In this context, the most likely scenario is that Zelenskyi will make certain political decisions (amnesty, continuation of the law on special status) and achieve direct exchange of prisoners of war with “DPR”/“LPR”. That would be all the progress. The current status quo will be maintained in Donbas and the conflict will continue developing in a low intensity format with a risk of escalation.
Possibility of the government reboot
The government of Oleksiy Honcharuk is prognosed to partially change for political reasons, despite its annual immunity. The President’s Office is dissatisfied with the actions of individual ministers and the Prime Minister who accumulates the negative and fails to demonstrate economic growth. In this case, Zelenskyi may try playing the game of former President Leonid Kuchma called “Good President and Bad Government”. However, there are doubts that this would work now. Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, Arsen Avakov (Minister of Internal Affairs), Tymofiy Mylovanov (Minister of Economic Development and Agriculture), Zoriana Skaletska (Minister of Health), Vladyslav Krykliy (Minister of Infrastructure) and Vadym Prystaiko (Minister of Foreign Affairs) may lose their positions in the coming year. A partial reset of the government would help bringing down the political steam. However, it would not systematically solve the problem of slow reforms, high tariffs, and poverty. These problems are of most concern to citizens. Most likely, in spring, Zelenskyi will try to involve the “Holos” faction in the coalition and offer it the key political positions in the government. If “Holos” agrees to such a coalition, it will save the Parliament from dissolution, and Zelenskyi – from the crisis of legitimacy and the burden of sole political responsibility. It is unlikely that the “Holos” will agree to such cooperation with Zelenskyi, although the party of Vakarchuk is unlikely to pass to Parliament again in the case of early parliamentary elections. The head of the President’s Office may also be replaced in the new year. Andriy Bohdan became too toxic and has a conflict image in both Zelenskyi’s team and the environment of big business.
Local and early parliamentary elections in the fall of 2020
There are very high doubts that Zelenskyi will be able to keep the mono-coalition under control and protect it from oligarchic influences. It especially concerns the majoritarian MPs. Centrifugal trends in the presidential faction are intensifying, and conflict between influence groups is increasing. Given the relatively high ratings, it is hypothetical that Zelenskyi dissolves Parliament in late July 2020. This would allow synchronizing the early parliamentary and local elections in the end of October 2020. If political reform is completed and the constitution is amended, the next parliamentary elections will be held under a new proportional system with the reduced parliamentary corps (300 MPs instead of 450). Technologically, Zelenskyi will be able to easily sell the new changes to a voter, as well as the fact that the President voluntarily renounces the mono-majority in Parliament for the sake of clearing the elites and implementing reforms. Zelenskyi needs early parliamentary elections to split and blur political responsibility, get a partner in coalition, and approach the next 2024 election cycle more confidently. If Zelenskyi keeps this Parliament, it will pull Zelenskyi to the bottom. Preparation for local elections in the UTCs, where competition will be especially fierce, is a separate challenge for the presidential party. Having huge state funding, the “Sluha Narodu” has to turn from a virtual project to a party with real supporters and primary organizations.