In Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won 73% of the run-off vote, unseating incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Watching from the United States— this was a tale that was unnervingly all-too familiar.
Before becoming the President of Ukraine, Zelensky was a famous comedian and actor who had never been in a political office before. Zelensky starred in a popular Ukrainian sitcom, Sluha Narodu, where he (ironically) played an “ordinary” school teacher who suddenly became the President of Ukraine. He also starred in a variety show called Kvartal 95, where he commented on the state of Ukrainian politics by mocking politicians with jokes that satirized their corruption. Before he came into office, he even faced backlash from Ukrainian politicians like Parliament Member Oleg Lyashko, who stated that Zelensky should be “banned from performing in Ukraine”, due to the crude manner of the jokes that he would make about top Ukrainian officials.
Zelensky campaigned as a “Servant for the People” (also the name of the T.V show he starred in, and the name of Zelensky’s political party), and won over the votes of over 13 million Ukrainians. He promised many things to the Ukrainian people while on the campaign trail, including ending the war between Russia and Ukraine, fighting corruption in political spheres and law enforcement agencies, and buying new equipment for hospitals and schools in Ukraine.
However, it has been almost three years into his presidency: none of these major promises have been fulfilled, and his popularity ratings have decreased to 30%. As a result, it can be argued that Zelensky has not decreased instances of corruption in the Ukrainian government— instead, he has increased corruption through autocratic behaviors such as favoring blind loyalty over competence in appointments and politicizing the executive branch by prioritizing gatekeeping over openness.
Executive appointments favoring blind loyalists
When running for president, Zelensky promised to not appoint army friends and other close confidants to elected positions. However, since Zelensky took office, 30 people close to him— friends, previous co-workers, and previous Kvartal 95 employers— have been elected to positions in the Ukrainian government.
A worrying sign of autocratic leadership is when a politician rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game , and begins to favor blind loyalty over competence. Competence is important in a democracy because policy-oriented leaders get things done, and are more likely to be accountable for their actions as they seek re-election.
When Zelensky appointed long-time friend Ivan Bakanov as the head of the Servant of the People Party two days after his presidential inauguration, the president missed out on appointing more conditionally loyal staff members, who would have advised the president more honestly and fairly in order to protect them from errors.
This kind of appointment would also have been more in tune with what conditions would look like under a “normal” democracy— where high-level political appointees are preferred as compared to unqualified officials. This is because politicians like Ivan Bakanov, who are friends with Zelensky, are more likely to be less concerned with seeking better outcomes for Ukrainian citizens, as opposed to someone who does not have the comfort of relying on a friendship to maintain political power.
An increasingly politicized executive branch and gatekeeping
After former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich was deposed in the 2014 Ukrainian Maidan Revolution, Petro Poroshenko signed a lustration law into effect. This detailed that any civil servants who worked under Yanukovich, or who were active members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union before 1991, would not be able to work in public office for up to 10 years after their removal.
When campaigning against Poroshenko, Zelensky argued that Poroshenko did not follow this law. However, a day after his inauguration, Zelensky appointed Andriy Bohdan as his chief of staff— backpedaling on his criticism of Poroshenko, as Bohdan had worked under Yanukovych as an anti-corruption government appointed official. In 2019, Zelensky then expanded the lustration law to also include civil servants who worked under Poroshenko as well.
He also promised that he would not hold talks with oligarchs behind closed doors, and began to do so right after he became president. While he did eventually acknowledge that he does do this, gatekeeping and the idea of “smoke-filled rooms” still undermine democracy and can lead to citizens having less trust in government officials .
What this means for Ukraine and for Zelensky
Democratic backsliding is defined by elected leaders coming together to undermine democratic institutions and cultures from within . An important feature of this phenomenon is when changes are made in formal political institutions that significantly reduce the capacity of citizens to make enforceable claims upon the government .
In Zelensky’s case, while he has delivered on some initial campaign promises— such as changing the electoral system to get rid of corrupt single-member constituencies, lifting parliamentary immunity, and passing a law on presidential impeachment— he has also increased corruption and distrust in government through his non-deliverance of campaign promises and shady tactics that can be seen as autocratic and selfish.
Before he became the President of Ukraine, Zelensky would laugh at and mock corrupt politicians. Now, as the actual president of Ukraine (who is not on a T.V. show), it seems as though Zelensky values strengthening his own personal power by following executive appointments and laws that favor him, even if he is made to seem hypocritical and dishonest. It is not Zelensky’s fault that Ukraine is not a complete democracy— however, he can not be credited with helping to increase Ukraine’s democratic index rating, either. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “Subverting Democracy,” in How Democracies Die, 72-96. New York: Crown Books, 2018.  Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1: 5-19. John Hopkins University Press, 2016.  Ellen Lust, “Political Leadership”, in Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Yale University, 2015.