As the drama surrounding the impeachment trial of American president Donald Trump increased, the approval ratings of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky plummeted. It is fair to assume that Ukrainian society was consumed in the international media spectacle of the Trump impeachment trial as their president was a central actor in the case. In reality, it was the contrary. Ukrainians made the rational decision to focus on their own internal issues that have long divided their society, rather than succumbing to the media phenomenon of President Trump. So why did Zelensky’s approval ratings plummet despite Ukrainian society’s lack of interest in one of the largest political scandals in recent American history? The answer lies within a swamp filled with corruption, war, and COVID-19.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has been struggling with endemic state corruption as it has attempted to transform into a market economy and democracy. Adding to the country’s burdens is the War in Donbass in the country’s east against pro-Russian separatists. The over six-year war has resulted in massive internal displacement, drainage of the country’s resources, and greater societal polarization. The renowned comedian Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to be the source of change the society yearned for. Zelensky held no apparent ties to the oligarchs and corrupt political elite and had already played a president on the television series Servant of the People where he changed Ukraine into a prosperous and united European nation.
Near Perfect Start
Volodymyr Zelensky began his presidency with unprecedented support in Ukrainian politics. In April 2019, Mr. Zelensky won the second round of the presidential election in a landslide vote with 73%, winning with the largest majority in contemporary Ukrainian history. Zelensky’s campaign platform was heavily based on his character image as a high school teacher turned corruption-busting President of Ukraine in the televisions series Servant of the People. Later in July 2019, President Zelensky’s political party Servant of the People won with a majority of 43%, the first single-party majority in modern Ukrainian history. Mr. Zelensky entered the political arena viewed as separated from the corrupt political elite and a fighter against corruption. For Ukrainian standards, Mr. Zelensky began his political career with a near perfect start.
The Downfall of President Zelensky’s Approval Ratings
The end of President Zelensky’s high approval ratings began in the midst of the early planning stages of the Trump impeachment trial. In September 2019, President Zelensky’s approval rating stood at a spectacular 74%, following the prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. The prisoner exchange was monumental as it gave hope to Ukrainian society that tensions between Ukraine and Russia were easing to the point that an end to the War in Donbass was finally in sight. Although, in the following months Zelensky’s ratings began to spiral downwards.
On July 25, 2019, President Zelensky and President Trump held the infamous telephone conversation that led to the impeachment inquiry of President Trump. During the phone call, President Trump alluded to unfreezing military aid for Ukraine that would help fight against pro-Russian separatists in the War in Donbass if President Zelensky abided to opening an investigation into President Trump’s political opponent in the 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden. After a whistle blower exposed that President Trump may have abused his presidential powers during the phone call with President Zelensky, the impeachment investigation and trial of President Trump began. However, the political drama which enfolded was not the factor which led to the downfall of President Zelensky’s spectacularly high approval ratings.
Between October 2019 and June 2020, President Zelensky’s support spiraled downward by almost 40 percent. The fall in approval ratings in October 2019 was partly due to President Zelensky signing the Steinmeier Formula, a peace deal for the War in Donbass which would grant ‘special status’ to the Donbass region and the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the demarcation line. Essentially, President Zelensky’s signature was viewed by many Ukrainians as an agreement on Russian terms, which is against the interests of Ukrainian society as the country is fighting a war in an effort to break away from Russia’s sphere of influence.
In November 2019, President Zelensky’s fall in support was reinforced by the passing of a draft law on land reform. The bill would remove the existing ban on sales of agricultural land, allowing for rapid privatization of over 500 state-owned companies. Many Ukrainians citizens were against the law as it could jeopardize both landowners and farmers of their ownership of land, due to their lack of resources for purchasing the land. As a result, the draft law was met by protests in the months following, ranging from farmers blocking highways with their tractors to a man setting himself on fire outside President Zelensky’s office.
As the planning of the Trump impeachment trial continued in December, Zelensky’s approval ratings continued to spiral downward. While international mass media was consumed with the planning of the controversial impeachment trial, Ukrainians were consumed with whether or not President Zelensky would defend Ukraine’s interests during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris, France which planned for peace talks on the War in Donbass. The meeting between the Ukrainian and Russian presidents failed to guarantee a ceasefire.
The year 2020 began for the United States with the impeachment of Donald Trump. While the world watched the trial’s drama enfold, the majority of Ukrainians disregarded the event. Top Ukrainian diplomat Vadym Prystaiko stated to the American government that Ukraine was “tired” of the trial and did not want to be “dragged” into its internal processes. Whereas a national survey on domestic concerns conducted across Ukraine contained not one single question related to the impeachment trial. Rather, Ukrainians were concerned about their own political turmoil.
Ukraine’s Internal Challenges
President Zelensky’s ratings continued to drop even after the end of the impeachment trial due to a range of factors that did not include Donald Trump. It can partly be explained by President Zelensky and his government unexpectedly drastically reshuffling the cabinet, including the appointment of a new Prime Minister of Ukraine. Adding to the disapproval was a lack of clear and consistent communication with the public during the Covid-19 pandemic. All the while, the War in Donbass continues in Eastern Ukraine while the country attempts to recover from a global health crisis.
So, there was one place where the Trump impeachment trial was not over sensationalized by mass media. Yes, there is a place where that exists – it is Ukraine. Ukrainians were focused on their own national affairs instead of becoming preoccupied with America’s political scandals over 7 000 kilometers away. More countries and national media outlets should follow Ukraine’s example and focus on their own national issues. This is especially relevant as the American election approaches and promises more of a Trump-media spectacle.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.
Enya Hamel is a researcher on counter-terrorism for the Defence and Security programme of GLOBSEC Policy Institute. She has also worked on projects related to European terrorism and Jihadism and co-authored two publications relating to the European crime-terror nexus. She is currently completing an International Master in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow, UK. She also holds a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Studies from Queen’s University, Canada. Her research interests include counter-terrorism, global security, comparative politics, social media campaign strategies, and post-Communist and post-Cold War transformations and developments.