In the most sweeping reshuffle of his government since he took office last May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fired his Cabinet and appointed a new prime minister earlier this month. The announcement comes at a tricky time, as the government is considering several reform measures that are seen as important to winning much-needed investor confidence. In an email interview with WPR, Steven Pifer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, discusses the factors behind Zelensky’s move and why the new Cabinet will need to work hard to prove it can bring about real change in Ukraine.
World Politics Review: Why has Zelensky chosen to reshuffle his government at this time?
Steven Pifer: Some analysts suggest Zelensky made the personnel change due to concern over his declining popularity. Elected with 73 percent of the vote last April, his approval rating has fallen to just under 50 percent—still high by Ukrainian standards. Overall, the new Cabinet ministers lack the reformist credentials of their predecessors, and the new prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, is a relative unknown. The change has given rise to concern that the country’s oligarchs, who continue to exercise outsized political influence, are reasserting their position after Zelensky’s initial pledges to rein them in.
That, combined with the inexplicable timing of the reshuffle, has rattled Ukrainian reformers and Western investors. Zelensky took office last year amid high hopes that his presidency could make a dramatic breakthrough and put Ukraine on a path of economic growth and reduced corruption. When I visited Kyiv in late October, Ukrainians I spoke with were cautiously optimistic about what Zelensky and his government could achieve. The Cabinet reshuffle moves the needle sharply in the direction of caution. Indeed, some analysts fear the president is not committed to real change, and that he will simply muddle through as president without making the breakthrough that Ukraine needs. He will have to work hard now to quash those concerns and meet the expectations of Ukrainian voters.
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