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Zelenskyy’s Version of Perestroika and the Role of the Oligarchs

Mykhailo Minakov


As a student of the post-Soviet human, I am amazed to see how often political processes in contemporary Ukraine resemble those of its Soviet past. One such resemblance I see is between Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s policies and Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Here I use the word “perestroika” (literally “reshaping” or “rebuilding”) as a term for a political action that offers an alternative to the usual choice of revolution or reform, between overthrowing everything and starting anew or molding what one has into a different shape. In this context, then, revolution denotes an event of radical innovation and a new beginning in politics (or some other sphere of human activity). Reform, by contrast, is a change within a given political regime aimed at making it more effective and viable. Perestroika is in between.

When Gorbachev started to change the Soviet Union thirty-five years ago, he had in mind reforms, especially industrial, economic, and political. But he soon learned that the Soviet system could not be reformed and he needed perestroika, something more than reform. In essence, he tried to open up the political and socioeconomic sectors to innovation while keeping intact the ruling regime. Thus he enforced some controlled political liberalization, some media freedom, called glasnost, some limited religious and economic freedoms, and the “new thinking,” or a new approach to foreign relations. However, these steps were naïve and contradictory. And these contradictions ultimately led the USSR to self-destruct.

Zelenskyy electorally won on all political fronts in 2019. The mere fact of his victory introduced a Khrushchev-style thaw to Poroshenko-era ideocratic politics. Diversity of opinion has increased in the mass media, along with a more openly critical stance on the national government. Zelenskyy’s first cabinet, that put together by former prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, was an outsider to systemic corruption, and the business community seemed to be happy with it. Inter-church conflicts also appeared to quiet down. And a hopeful belief that young people without political, policy, or administrative experience could bring lasting change to the system has been driving Zelenskyy’s perestroika of 2019–early 2020.

Beneath all this, however, the essence of Zelenskyy’s perestroika lies in the attempt to tease apart two parts of Ukraine’s political system, the democratic façade and the shadow oligarchic state.

In my book Development and Dystopia, I analyzed how post-Soviet political systems evolved into a specific chiasm of formal and informal power institutions. There I showed that the formal façade of Ukraine was constructed as a set of weak democratic institutions that were under the invisible—yet undeniable—control of informal institutions. The main informal institutions were organized as oligarchic clans. These clans constantly competed, both among themselves and with sporadically independent government agencies, for control over official structures. The official structures included parliamentary factions, judges in courts, senior officials in the cabinet, governors, mayors, and so forth. Thus, by the time Zelenskyy entered the picture, Ukraine was a pluralist semi-free polity in which democracy was mixed with competitive authoritarianism.

The more I study it, the more I am convinced: the perestroika of Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019 was actually directed at separating the formal institutions from the impact of the informal underworld. Unlike his predecessor, Zelenskyy did not belong to a clan, his own or any other. With the presidential administration under former chief of staff Andriy Bohdan, he tried to create a balanced system of clans, all held at arm’s length, that would not be able to intervene in the actions of the formal institutions. The policy of “new faces” was conceived to bring into parliament and the cabinet people with no connections to the clans. The new president-led, single-party majority in government would function as a formal organization ensuring that the president’s agenda was supported by the Rada. Inexperienced but honest ministers would guarantee the ministries worked for the public good. A prosecutor general whose thinking was aligned with the president’s and who respected the rule of law would direct new and old law enforcement agencies to achieve a more just society in Ukraine. All these desiderata were expected to become part of officially sanctioned constitutional amendments and laws (and often these amendments are not of a liberal democratic nature). In this way the government would actually start working according to formal rules and for the public good.

Unlike Gorbachev, Volodymyr Zelenskyy turned out to be a fast learner. Simple solutions proved not to work in the dire conditions of Ukraine’s reality. One cannot make peace just by stopping the shooting. And one cannot rebuild the Ukrainian state just by ignoring the informal groups that own vast portions of the nation’s economic wealth, still financially support many MPs, judges, and mayors, and control the mass media.

The recent personnel changes in the offices of the chief of staff, cabinet, and prosecutor general might actually reflect Zelenskyy’s learning from the experiences of 2019. Now the new head of the presidential administration, Andriy Yermak, will have to find a new way to cope with Ukraine’s crises by negotiating deals with big business. President Zelenskyy’s March 16 meeting with Ukrainian tycoons was dedicated to exploring ways his government could cooperate with the private sector on the most pressing national challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and economic issues. The new cabinet is in the hands of people who, like Prime Minister Denys Shmygal and Minister of Economy Igor Petrashko, are the “new faces with brains and hearts” sought by Zelenskyy and have broad experience working for oligarchic corporations, Ukrainian public establishments, and Western companies. Simultaneously, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, approved on March 17 by the Rada and the first woman in the post, is expected to exercise a “strong hand” in keeping the oligarchs (both supportive of and rival to Zelenskyy) and other informal groups under strict control.

Many experts have already negatively assessed Zelenskyy’s overhaul of the administration: they lean toward viewing the change of cabinet and prosecutor general as a sign of the oligarchs regaining their usual role. I do not necessarily find the personnel changes to be a sign of the administration’s defeat by the oligarchs. From the perspective of the oligarchic clans, the new cabinet remains the president-controlled executive. However, the new cadres on the presidential staff, in the cabinet, and heading up the law enforcement agencies may reflect a change of tactics in dealing with big business on Zelenskyy’s part—and he might be more open to striking compromises with them—but with the prior aim of his perestroika firmly in place: to prevent the oligarchs from misusing public institutions. It remains for the future to reveal whether the concessions lead to a return of (oligarchic-controlled) business as usual or whether they contribute to advancing Zelenskyy’s brand of perestroika, but with new means and at a different pace. And lurking on the periphery is the biggest question of all: whether Zelenskyy’s perestroika might end in failure, just as Gorbachev’s did.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Mykhailo Minakov

Mykhailo Minakov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Focus Ukraine Blog
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more