“I was on the streets for the Orange Revolution when I was in my last year at university in 2004, and I was on the streets again in 2014. So, the 10-year mark of when we tend to mount revolutions is approaching,” said Inna Sovsun, an opposition lawmaker for Ukraine’s liberal pro-European Holos party.
And she suspects there’s another political upheaval on its way.
Sat in a café overlooking Kyiv’s Independence Square, where nearly a decade ago hundreds of thousands of frustrated Ukrainians protested and toppled Viktor Yanukovych — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s satrap — the 38-year-old mother-of-one, whose partner is now serving as a combat doctor in Bakhmut, spoke about the the possibility of another Maidan.
The 2014 Maidan Revolution had unforeseen consequences, of course, setting in motion events that have led Ukraine to where it is today — defending itself against a Russian invasion ordered by a revanchist and resentful Putin. And much as that color revolution had repercussions, so will the war, which is forging a strong sense of nationhood and raising huge expectations of a better future — expectations that will be hard to meet.
Sovsun isn’t alone in seeing another upheaval on the horizon. A former Ukrainian cabinet minister told me matter-of-factly, “You know, Maidan could happen again.” Asking not to be named so he could discuss sensitive topics freely — like many other lawmakers, reformers and civil society leaders — he was circumspect in speaking out publicly for fear of undermining the war effort and providing propaganda fodder for Russia.
“This war has triggered great hopes, and people will be very impatient for change,” he said. “They will want money and justice and the completion of the reform they demanded back in 2014, and they will want them quickly.”
And while navigating the tempestuous postwar political waters would be difficult for any leader, according to the former minister, it will be especially so for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as he’s become part of the problem — a leader with autocratic tendencies.
That may sound surprising, looking in from the outside. After all, for a year now, Zelenskyy has been lauded as the embodiment of Ukrainian resistance, and even an icon of democracy. He’s still applauded for declining America’s offer for a ride out of Kyiv when Russian tanks were a menacing 60 kilometers from the capital, and his inspirational wartime rhetoric and spellbinding oratory have been instrumental in persuading the United States and Europe to back Ukraine in its existential hour of need.
Zelenskyy’s leadership, communication skills and indomitable spirit garner praise at home in Ukraine too. His poll numbers are sky high — only the army polls higher. But seasoned observers say his 84 percent approval rating is the result of a rally-round-the-flag sentiment, and they predict his numbers will plunge once the existential threat has gone — much as they did soon after the populist comedian-turned-president was elected by a landslide in 2019, having promised to defend the interests of the people against the rich and the ruling class.
Unfortunately, Zelenskyy was unable reprise his role as TV’s “president of the people” in real life, his support at one point plummeting to just 11 percent, after sacking a reform-minded prime minister, stacking his government with friends and former business partners, and getting nowhere with his anti-corruption drive. Instead, the Ukrainian president was accused of becoming increasingly autocratic and flouting laws by issuing presidential decrees to sanction foes, all in the name of battling Russian aggression — but, according to some critics, also with an eye toward disrupting his political opponents.
Four months before Russia invaded, Zelenskyy and two close associates were also implicated in offshore financial activity. Based on the Pandora Papers — a cache of documents revealing the offshore activities of political leaders and other prominent individuals worldwide — the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project disclosed that the Ukrainian leader had established offshore companies before becoming president but continued to profit from them after taking office. Zelenskyy, for his part, denied any money laundering or illegality with the funds.
Reproach for his prewar record is not for now, political opponents say — but after the guns have gone silent, there will be questions regarding events leading up to the war, and why Zelenskyy ignored stark intelligence warnings from the West about the high probability of a Russian invasion and failed to put Ukraine on a war footing much earlier.
Now and again, however, those questions are raised even in the middle of the war — the issue last flared up in August, when a cascade of public criticism followed Zelenskyy’s remarks on why he downplayed the warnings of an imminent attack, claiming he had to because Ukrainians would otherwise panic, flee and trigger economic collapse.
Opposition politicians and civil society leaders interviewed by POLITICO said Zelenskyy will also be under the gun over how he and his tight-knit team of old pals and onetime business partners have governed during the war — in a way not dissimilar to how they did so before the invasion, trying to establish a “managed democracy” with one dominant party.
“Of course, we need to support the government, and we need to remain united,said Mykola Knyazhytsky, an opposition lawmaker from the western city of Lviv. “But I worry about the future of democracy in my country. Even in wartime, there must be political opposition, the democratic process must continue, there must be parliamentary oversight,” he said.
Like others, Knyazhytsky noted that Zelenskyy’s taking advantage of presidential wartime authority and martial law to grab more power, to control the television media, to sideline parliament and to disregard legislative oversight on how government funds are being disbursed — and to whom — and whether its beneficiaries are business allies of the Ukrainian president or companies tied to members of his ruling party.
Some also fear the global adulation Zelenskyy’s now receiving is feeding a folie de grandeur. “He thinks he’s the number one politician in the world and that Joe Biden is way, way below him, and even further down [are] leaders like Macron and Scholz,” the former minister said, adding that it isn’t healthy and augurs badly. Like others, he mentioned that the Ukrainian leader seems to begrudge sharing the stage or the limelight, much like an actor wanting all the best lines, while a former Zelenskyy aide said his office is always scouring polling data to check no one is eclipsing him.
According to critics, this determination to be an undiminished protagonist may go some way in explaining why Zelenskyy is spurning calls to form a coalition government, or a government of all the talents in Ukraine, during the country’s hour of need.
But Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics who is also a former minister of economic development and an informal adviser to the government, dismisses the claim that Zelenskyy has an autocratic streak. “Fundamentally, Zelenskyy responds to what people want . . . In my view, Ukraine is very lucky to have him. I think previous presidents would have capitulated in the first few weeks of the war and negotiated,” he said.
According to Mylovanov, Zelenskyy is building a nation-state and thus has no choice but to bypass institutions because too often they’re captured by vested interests. “No one knows what bigger perspective Zelenskyy has in mind. I think he has changed his views over the last three years on the job as he learns and as he understands the broader perspective and the forces at play. I think, in many ways, he understands more than most of us,” he added.
And in January, during one of his nightly television addresses, Zelenskyy had indeed assured Ukrainians that “there will be no return to the way things used to be.”
But those remarks came in the middle of a corruption scandal surrounding illicit payments and over-inflated military contracts, which led to a string of resignations and dismissals of several senior Ukrainian officials — including five regional governors and four deputy ministers. The scandal came to light after an investigative journalist published details of fraudulent contracts when the government failed to act.
Meanwhile, Zelenskyy’s assurances don’t assuage some veteran observers of the country either. “We have not seen significant enough efforts to address corruption — although perhaps with one important exception,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat who has considerable experience in Ukraine. “I think they really are trying to prevent diversion of any of the massive Western assistance they’re receiving. I believe they do understand the risks, if there were to be a major scandal.”
But the former diplomat said that what struck him in recent meetings with opposition politicians and civil society leaders in Kyiv was how, “on the one hand, they truly appreciate Zelenskyy’s strength as a war leader,” but are “deeply worried also about corruption and his authoritarian style.”
“In their minds, there is going to be a reckoning as soon as the war ends,” he said. “And I think that’s probably going to be true.”