Volodymyr Zelensky’s campaign of bold promises landed him the keys to the presidential office. But it also raised expectations to an unprecedented level.
His campaign was filled with video addresses, vague statements on billboards, and attacks on his main rival, then-President Petro Poroshenko, whose shortcomings were Zelensky’s main strengths.
Zelensky was able to secure his victory by promising Ukrainians to stop the war, defeat corruption, and revive the country’s economy. A year after his inauguration, the Kyiv Post has combed through Zelensky’s campaign statements to see how far the president went to create the kind of Ukraine he described in his election platform.
Editor’s Note: Zelensky’s promises are drawn from his official election program published on the Central Election Commission website on Jan. 30, 2019; his video interview with Ukrainska Pravda news outlet on Jan. 30, 2019; his interview with RBC.ua on April 18, 2019; his presentation of his team on the 1+1 television channel on April 18, 2019; his debate with Poroshenko held at Olympic Stadium in Kyiv on April 19, 2019; and his rhetorical questions to Poroshenko highlighting the incumbent’s shortcomings.
- To free all political prisoners held in Russia and the occupied territories
Status: in process
Zelensky has been consistent in delivering on his promise to return Ukrainians imprisoned in Russia and in Russian–occupied territories of the Donbas and Crimea. On Sept. 7, Ukraine and Russia conducted their first-ever prisoner swap, in which they exchanged 35 people each. On Dec. 29, Ukraine conducted a prisoner exchange with Russian-led militants, bringing an additional 76 people home.
The latest prisoner exchange under Zelensky took place on April 16. Ukraine received back 20 people held hostage on Russian–occupied territories.
- To free 24 Ukrainian sailors
As part of the previous promise, Zelensky pledged to bring back 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia near the Kerch Strait on Nov 25, 2018. The Ukrainian sailors returned home as part of the Sept. 7 prisoner exchange with Russia.
- To create a TV channel for the occupied territories
A former media manager, Zelensky promised Ukrainians that he would create a Russian-language television channel for those living in the occupied territories. On March 1, a state-sponsored television channel named DOM (Home) began airing in Russian. Its target audience is people living in Donbas.
- To revive the Normandy Format and to include the U.S. and U.K
Status: partially done
Zelensky promised to revive the Normandy Format meetings between the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia, which aim to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. At the time of his election, the last meeting had taken place in October 2016.
Zelensky also promised to add the leaders of the U.S. and U.K. to the meetings.
Zelensky did revive the Normandy Format, and a meeting was held in Paris on Dec. 9. However, the leaders of the U.S. and the U.K. were not invited. There are no further plans to change the current format of the meetings.
- To stop shooting in Donbas
Zelensky’s promise to stop the shooting in Donbas is currently not happening. In the first 3 months of 2020, nearly 50 Ukrainian soldiers died in Donbas and around 200 were injured, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office.
During the first 3 months of 2019, 34 Ukrainian soldiers were killed on the war front and 222 were injured.
- To do everything to stop the war
Status: in process
The president is keen on fulfilling his promise to stop the war, making it his top priority. Since his inauguration, Ukraine and the Russia-led militants have disengaged arms and personnel in three different locations, conducted three prisoner exchanges, and held the first meeting between the leaders of the two countries in three years.
To resolve the conflict, Zelensky has proposed using the so-called Steinmeier Formula, under which the Russian-occupied regions would receive more self-governance after free and fair elections are held according to Ukrainian law. Additionally, the Minsk talks between Ukraine and Russia have been strengthened with high ranked representatives.
However, none of these actions have ended Russia’s war against Ukraine.
- To create a free and fair land market
The president’s initial promise was to create a fair and transparent land market. While fairness and transparency are hard to assess, Zelensky is credited for lifting the longstanding moratorium on selling farmland and greenlighting the creation of a land market in Ukraine.
Parliament passed the land bill on March 30, allowing Ukrainians and Ukraine-based companies to buy a maximum of 100 hectares of land starting on July 1, 2021.
- To substitute the corporate tax for a corporate gains tax
Among Zelensky’s initial economic promises was to introduce a corporate gains tax instead of the current corporate tax to promote the reinvestment of funds into companies and businesses. On June 30, Zelensky said that the International Monetary Fund is against the initiative. The idea was eventually scrapped.
- To secure the stability of PrivatBank
Zelensky ensured the stability and security of PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest bank, by promoting the adoption of a bank law that banned the return of the bank to its former owner, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.
The bank law was drafted by the government as a condition from the International Monetary Fund to receive a much-needed loan. The parliament was forced to change its bylaws to push the law through.
On May 13, 270 lawmakers voted for the law.
- To strip the Security Service of Ukraine of the right to investigate economic crimes
Zelensky promised Ukrainians that he would strip Ukraine’s Security Service, known as the SBU, of the right to investigate economic crimes. According to anti-corruption activists, this was often used by Ukraine’s intelligence agency to harass business.
Soon after his inauguration, Zelensky appointed Ivan Bakanov, his childhood friend, to lead the agency. No reform followed.
On Oct. 15, Bakanov submitted a proposal to Zelensky that would allow Ukraine’s intelligence agency to maintain its powers to oversee economic activity and postpone creating a parliamentary supervisory board to check and balance the powerful agency.
The European Commission criticized the draft bill based upon that proposal on Dec. 12. “The legislative framework for the fight against organized crime requires revision and improvement,” the Commission’s report reads.
The proposal was eventually dropped.
- To provide cheap loans to Ukrainians
Zelensky promised Ukrainians cheap long-term loans. On Jan. 14, the parliament approved the creation of the Business Development Fund and the introduction of loans with interest rates set at 5, 7 and 9 percent.
The loans are provided for 2 or 5 years and can be up to Hr 3 million ($210,000). According to the government, 462 loans have been issued as of May 15 for a total value of Hr 283.5 million ($10.5 million). Fifty-seven percent of all loans were provided to agrarian companies.
- To become an energy-exporting country
Zelensky’s promise for Ukraine to cover its own energy needs and later export energy to European countries was unrealistic from the start. Since Russia’s invasion of Donbas in 2014, Ukraine lost control of three-quarters of its coal mines, with the country’s coal production dropping from 84 million tons in 2013 to just over 30 million tons in 2019.
Additionally, Ukraine lost all its anthracite coal, which was the primary source of energy for Ukrainian power stations. Prior to the war, Ukraine was among the world’s top coal producers, exporting it to European countries. Now it imports coal from Russia.
As for oil and gas, Ukraine was never able to cover its internal demand and is heavily dependent on imports.
- To not appoint friends to government jobs
Zelensky’s promise not to appoint friends and people who lack qualification to top government posts failed from the very start. Two days after the inauguration, Zelensky appointed Bakanov to serve as first deputy head of Ukraine’s SBU security agency. He was confirmed to head the agency on Aug. 29.
Bakanov became one of the 30 people close to the president who received government jobs after Zelensky took office.
A total of 12 people from Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 production studio were appointed to a variety of government posts. Additionally, according to the non-governmental Committee of Voters of Ukraine, nearly 20 people who knew Zelensky personally received appointments into parliament, the President’s Office and central executive bodies or became members of supervisory boards and committees.
- To pass the law on presidential impeachment
Since Ukraine didn’t have an official process by which a president could be removed from office, Zelensky promised to pass a law on presidential impeachment. The law was registered by the president in parliament on May 29. In late September, the law was passed.
According to the law, the president of Ukraine can be impeached if he or she has committed a crime. Three hundred lawmakers must sign a petition to start the process. Seventy-five percent of lawmakers, or 338 people, must vote to remove the president for him to lose his office.
- To lift parliamentary immunity
Lifting parliamentary, presidential, and judicial immunity was among Zelensky’s top promises. In his later speeches, he mainly focused on lifting parliamentary immunity and subsequently delivered on this promise.
On Aug. 29, the parliament passed a law striping lawmakers of their protection from prosecution. The Prosecutor General is now allowed to charge lawmakers. Previously, the parliament had to vote to lift the lawmaker’s immunity from prosecution, resulting in multiple cases of lawmakers using the support of colleagues to escape a fair trial.
- To pass a law on prosecution for illicit enrichment
Before Zelensky took office, the Constitutional Court overturned Ukraine’s law banning illicit enrichment, a move that shocked many and angered the country’s Western partners.
Zelensky proposed a new law, returning criminal punishment for possession of property beyond the value of an official’s legal, declared pay. The law, passed by parliament on Oct. 31, suggests that those who acquired assets worth $4,000 more than their official pay for a given period can be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
- To not appoint people who fall under the law on lustration
Zelensky accused Poroshenko of forgetting about the lustration law, which bans people who held top posts under corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych from being appointed to government jobs.
Zelensky broke that promise a day after the inauguration when he appointed Andriy Bohdan as his chief of staff. Bohdan had worked in government under Yanukovych, serving as the government’s appointee on anti-corruption, and was supposed to be banned from government service for 10 years in accordance with the lustration law.
- To not hold talks with oligarchs behind closed doors
In one of his many Facebook posts, Zelensky promised Ukrainians that there won’t be secret meetings with Ukrainian businessmen. “No more midnight visits to the presidential administration and secret agreements,” wrote Zelensky.
As soon as Zelensky became president, he began meeting with oligarchs without disclosure. In late May, Zelensky met with oligarch Victor Pinchuk, whose father-in-law is former President Leonid Kuchma. Kuchma was later reappointed to represent Ukraine in the Minsk talks with Russia.
Investigative journalists found that Zelensky met with oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky on Sept. 10 and later with businessman Valery Khoroshkovsky.
Zelensky acknowledged that these meetings took place.
- To be clean of oligarchs’ influence
Zelensky promised to be independent of any external influence, especially from Kolomoisky. And while there is currently no direct link between the president and the oligarch, Kolomoisky’s influence over Ukrainian politics has been the main stumbling block of Zelensky’s first year in office.
Many people who worked for Kolomoisky or have business interests connected to the oligarch received seats in parliament through Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. People linked to Kolomoisky spearheaded the sacking of the former government and prosecutor general and are petitioning for a law that would allow parliament to fire Artem Sytnyk, head of the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine, who leads investigations into the oligarch.
- To fire lawmakers who vote for others in parliament
Zelensky promised to introduce a law under which skipping parliament sessions without a valid reason and voting in place of others would result in losing one’s parliament seat. Such a law was registered in parliament on Aug. 29, yet was never brought up for a vote.
Since then, several lawmakers were caught on tape voting for others in parliament. Among them are two lawmakers from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. They weren’t excluded from the party.
- To change the electoral system and get rid of the single-member constituencies
Zelensky promised to change the electoral system under which Ukraine conducts national and local elections. Currently, half of Ukraine’s lawmakers are elected through proportional representation and half through single-member constituencies.
The constituencies have long been a breeding ground for corruption, with local businesspeople using them to enter parliament and to protect their business interests. They often switch allegiances and support any government, allegedly in return for personal favors. Vote-buying in such districts is a common practice.
On Dec. 19, the parliament passed a new electoral code under which lawmakers are now to be elected through an open-list proportional representation system. Lawmakers are elected on party lists, with a 5 percent threshold for a party to receive parliament seats.
Additionally, the voter chooses who will represent the party in parliament. Party members who receive more votes can move up the list. On the local level, elections are held through a similar system.
- To not be involved in business and to not conduct business activity in Russia
Status: in process
Prior to becoming president, former comedian and producer Zelensky founded and co-owned nearly 20 companies. He promised to get rid of his businesses after the elections.
The most famous companies owned by Zelensky were the Kvartal 95 production studio, 95 Animation Studio, Kvartal TV and Green Family LTD, an offshore company registered in Cyprus that had business activity in Russia.
Zelensky’s first declaration as a government official, according to the law, must be published no later than July 1. However, even if Zelensky revokes his rights to all of his business possessions, there is no guarantee that he will have no ties to his former possessions, which are co-owned by his friends and long-time business partners.
- To relocate the government away from Bankova Street
Zelensky was vocal about his desire to move government institutions from downtown Kyiv to an open-space location somewhere outside the capital. On June 20, his office revealed a plan to move the president’s office to a Soviet-style building a few kilometers closer to the city center.
The project would cost Ukrainian taxpayers millions of dollars, while Zelensky said that no money from the state budget would be used.
The concept was later scrapped. As the president’s chief of staff put it: “It’s complicated.”
Social policy promises
- High salaries for schoolteachers and medical workers
Status: in process
Like many of his predecessors, Zelensky promised higher wages for schoolteachers and medical workers. According to former Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, as of Jan. 1, schoolteachers received, on average, a 9% salary increase, compared to last year’s figures. According to the State Statistics Agency, medical workers received a 14% larger paycheck on Jan. 1, year on year.
A year prior, salaries of both schoolteachers and medical workers increased by the same percentage. Schoolteachers and medical workers remain among the lowest-paid jobs in Ukraine, with both groups receiving around $250 on average.
Ukrainian medical personnel tasked with battling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are supposed to receive triple their monthly salary.
- To buy new equipment for Ukrainian schools and hospitals
Zelensky promised to provide equipment to Ukraine’s educational facilities and hospitals. But this promise is vague and impossible to assess. However, Ukrainian medical staff and non-government health organizations have criticized the government for failing to conduct medical procurement amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In March, Ukrainian medics didn’t have basic protection gear such as medical masks, gloves, and full-body suits. In April, nearly a fifth of the total COVID-19 patients were medics.
- To build an airport in every Ukrainian regional capital
Status: in process
Zelensky promised to equip each regional capital with a working airport. Prior to the restriction on air travel imposed by the government in mid-March, Ukraine had 12 airports accepting regular passenger flights.
No new airports were under development, while the reconstruction of airports in Odesa, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia had begun before Zelensky took office.
- To provide soldiers with NATO-level salaries
Status: in process
Zelensky promised soldiers higher wages. As of Dec. 1, the minimum salary for a Ukrainian serviceperson not taking part directly in the war is Hr 10,200 ($375), according to the defense ministry.
Soldiers on the frontline receive a minimum of $1,000.
The last substantial increase in salaries in Ukraine’s armed forces occurred weeks before the elections when then-President Poroshenko increased soldiers’ wages by nearly 30 percent.
Currently, salaries in Ukraine behind the frontline are lower than in all 30 NATO member countries.
- To raise pensions
During his debate with Poroshenko, Zelensky proposed that his opponent try to live off Hr 1,500 ($55), which Zelensky said was Ukraine’s minimum pension. Zelensky wasn’t far from the truth. Ukraine’s minimum pension at the time of his inauguration was only $2 more than he initially stated.
Under president Zelensky, pensions are growing at the inflation rate. Since Dec. 1, the minimum pension is Hr 1,638 ($60), while the average pension in Ukraine is around $110 according to the country’s Pension Fund.
- To reform the pension system and to introduce employment-based pensions
Ukraine is currently using the obsolete state-sponsored pension system under which the government’s Pension Fund is responsible for paying social benefits to retirees. The Pension Fund deficit, according to the 2020 budget, is Hr 172 billion ($6.3 billion) and is covered from the budget.
Prior to getting elected, Zelensky promised to reform Ukraine’s pension system and introduce an employment-based pensions system. Since then, no bills were drafted on the matter. In September, the then-head of the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine said in an interview that, in the near future, employment-based pensions won’t be adopted in Ukraine.
Promises concerning law enforcement agencies
- To support anti-corruption agencies
Zelensky promised to support Ukraine’s recently-created anti-corruption agencies, including the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), the National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP), and the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office.
However, Zelensky has been criticized on multiple occasions by anti-corruption activists for his inability to support such agencies and shield them from political harassment by tainted officials.
In 2018, Nazar Kholodnytsky, head of the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, was caught on tape helping officials accused of corruption to escape prosecution by warning them of upcoming investigative actions.
Today, however, NABU Chief Artem Sytnyk — praised by anti-corruption activists and foreign donors — is in the hot seat, with parliament expected to increase the list of reasons under which it can fire him, something his supporters view as an attack on NABU’s independence.
Ukrainian media outlets reported on April 29 that the head of the IMF mission to Ukraine sent a letter to Zelensky saying that Sytnyk’s ouster could have a negative effect on IMF-Ukraine relations.
- To find and prosecute the murderers of journalist Pavlo Sheremet
Status: in process
The killing of Belarusian journalist Pavlo Sheremet in downtown Kyiv in 2016 remains unsolved. Zelensky promised voters that he would find and prosecute the people responsible for his murder.
On Dec. 12, doctor Yulia Kuzmenko, musician Andriy Antonenko and paramedic Yana Dugar were arrested on charges of murdering Sheremet. On the same day, Interior Minister Avakov, then-Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka and Zelensky held a joint press conference saying that the case was solved.
On Feb. 25, Riaboshapka told the press that there isn’t enough evidence for the case to move to court. In an April 7 interview with Ukrainska Pravda news outlet, his successor, Iryna Venedyktova, said that her predecessor shouldn’t have jumped to a conclusion without a trial.
As of May 20, no official charges were issued. Kuzmenko and Antonenko remain behind bars, while Dugar is under house arrest.
- To find and prosecute those responsible for killing protesters during EuroMaidan Revolution
While debating with his opponent, Zelensky asked why five years after the 2013-14 EuroMaidan Revolution we still don’t know who murdered nearly 100 protesters.
However, the official trial, ongoing since 2016, collapsed under Zelensky.
In late December, five ex-police officers accused of firing at protesters during EuroMaidan were released by the Kyiv Court of Appeal as part of a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russian-led militants.
A few weeks earlier, the department investigating the EuroMaidan cases in the Prosecutor General’s Office was eliminated, and the cases were passed to the State Investigative Bureau. The bureau is led by Yanukovych’s former lawyer.
Then-President Yanukovych was ousted during the EuroMaidan revolution.
- To prosecute allegedly corrupt allies of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych
During his debate with Poroshenko, Zelensky asked why allies of ex-President Yanukovych, convicted of treason in absentia, weren’t being prosecuted. Since Zelensky’s inauguration, no top officials under Yanukovych have been prosecuted.
Furthermore, many officials returned to government service. Yanukovych-era Health Minister Ilya Yemets briefly served as health minister under Zelensky, the president’s former chief of staff was subject to the lustration law as a member of Yanukovych’s government, and the new head of Ukraine’s State Tax Service is also subject to the lustration law, since he was the service’s deputy head under Yanukovych.
- To prosecute allegedly corrupt allies of ex-President Petro Poroshenko
Status: in process
Instead, Zelensky is moving fast on his promise to prosecute allies of his political opponent Poroshenko.
Poroshenko’s political ally and business partner Oleh Hladkovsky, former deputy head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Committee, is on bail, while the former president himself is the subject of at least 13 separate investigations of the State Investigation Bureau.
The bureau is led by Yanukovych’s former lawyer, while the investigations were initiated at the request of lawyer Andriy Portnov, former deputy head of Yanukovych’s presidential administration.
- No bail for people accused of corruption
Zelensky promised to not allow government officials under trial for corruption to be released on bail. As of May 20, there were no changes to Ukraine’s Criminal Code, which allows bail for those accused of corruption.
Hladkovsky, accused of corruption, was released on Hr 10 million ($370,000) bail on Oct. 21.
- To prosecute those responsible for military losses near Ilovaisk and Debaltseve
Zelensky also made clear during his debate with Poroshenko that people must be convicted for Ukraine’s military losses near the towns of Ilovaisk in 2014 and Debaltsevo in 2015. These two events became Ukraine’s worst military losses since Russia’s invasion.
Officially, over 500 servicemen were killed during the battle.
“All investigations concerning Ilovaisk and Debaltsevo have been and are being investigated in the perspective of Russian aggression against Ukraine,” said Viktor Chumak, then-deputy prosecutor general said in a February interview.
The Ukrainian military command isn’t being investigated for those losses.
- To imprison allies if they are found guilty of corruption
Status: in process
Zelensky promised not to shield political allies from prosecution. As of May 20, no allies of Zelensky have been found guilty of any crime. However, the President’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak was accused of corruption by Servant of the People lawmaker Geo Leros.
Leros published video recordings in which Yermak’s brother Denys appears to be talking about selling government posts for money. Later, people who appeared on those videos gave interviews saying that Andriy Yermak took part in the same activity.
The Yermak brothers deny any wrongdoing and accuse Leros of politically motivated attacks. Investigations were opened into Leros and the Yermak brothers.
Zelensky openly supported Andriy Yermak and he kept his job. The Special Anti-Corruption Prosecution didn’t find that the Yermak brothers had committed any criminal activity and transferred the case to the National Police.
- To protect whistleblowers from prosecution
In his presidential program, Zelensky promised to protect whistleblowers reporting on corruption. A law that provides financial benefits and government protection for whistleblowers was passed by parliament on Oct. 17 and took force on Jan. 1.
However, while the law passed and the promise was de jure kept, the legal prosecution of Leros raises concern that the law won’t help those willing to report on people in power.
Ukraine’s SBU security service accused Leros of treason and of revealing state secrets. The SBU is led by Zelensky’s childhood friend Bakanov.
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