KYIV – President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s rating has fallen sharply, according to the most recent surveys. It plummeted from 73 percent in September to 52 percent at the end of November. Nevertheless, he still appears to retain significant backing and to enjoy impressive support for his attempts to activate a peace process with Russia.
As the end of 2019 approaches, several recent public surveys reveal what the key concerns and hopes are.
The first half of the year was preoccupied with elections. First, the two rounds of presidential polls, on March 31 and April 21, followed by parliamentary elections on July 21. A political newcomer, Mr. Zelenskyy scored a landslide victory over the incumbent, President Petro Poroshenko, by a margin of 73.22 percent to 24.45 percent of the votes, and his Servant of the People party captured a majority of 254 of the 424 seats contested.
Mr. Zelenskyy kept his program vague, but he promised change in two key areas: curbing corruption and opening up the system, and making ending the war with Russia a priority. His victory, however bitterly resented by President Poroshenko’s followers, was interpreted by most observers as not simply a protest vote against the old ways, but as a re-empowerment of the stalled reform process. The results appeared to reaffirm the ideals of the Revolution of Dignity that had become obscured in a reform process that had increasingly appeared half-hearted and even insecure.
While it was hard to test Mr. Zelenskyy’s sincerity in this regard, the easiest way for his opponents to attack him, a Russophone of Jewish origins who had made his name as a comedian and political satirist, was to question his patriotism and readiness to defend Ukraine’s vital national interests. This has remained the case and has reached its apogee as Mr. Zelenskyy prepares to meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time at the Normandy format summit in Paris on December 9 of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.
So what have the surveys shown us?
First, what was the situation at the end of August after the first 100 days of the Zelenskyy administration? According to a poll conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation along with Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the majority of respondents, 71.5 percent, saw the achievement of a ceasefire in the Donbas as the priority for the new presidential administration, with improvement of living standards second at 44.2 percent, followed by lowering utility bills, 21.5 percent; punishing corrupt officials, 18.1 percent; curbing the influence of the oligarchs, 13.4 percent; improving health care, 13.3 percent; unifying the country, 6.5 percent; and returning Crimea, 5.8 percent. At this early stage, around 23 percent of the respondents rated the first steps taken by President Zelenskyy and his team as positive, 39.8 percent as mostly positive, and only 3.5 percent as mostly negative.
On September 17, the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies reported even higher ratings for the Ukrainian president. According to its survey, almost 80 percent of Ukrainians trusted him and some 62.1 percent of respondents believed the new government’s actions would improve the situation in the country. The president’s performance was positively assessed by 70 percent of respondents (negatively by 9 percent). The case of the new Cabinet of Ministers had a 45 percent positive rating (8 percent negative), and the newly elected Verkhovna Rada was rated positively by 44 percent (10 percent negative).
A poll conducted in the second half of October by Ukraine’s Rating agency produced another surprise. Respondents were asked to name the main threat to Ukraine. Some 36 percent cited a full-scale war with Russia, but 56 percent pointed to the mass outflow of Ukrainians from the country. About 45 percent say that economic decline and impoverishment are the key threats. Much lower down the scale, the devaluation of the hryvnia, collapse of the state, dictatorship, anarchy and mass riots were also mentioned.
In November, new surveys appeared to confirm that the honeymoon period for the Zelenskyy administration was coming to an end. Frustration with the fact that no quick results were being produced, emerging scandals within the Servant of the People party and incessant fire from political opponents were all seen to be taking their toll.
The signs were evident in the results of a new poll published on November 11 by the Razumkov Center. The share of respondents who consider the current government better than the former one had decreased to 43 percent from 48 percent, of those who believe that the new government is worse than the previous was up to 12 percent from 8 percent, while the percentage of those who believe that the country’s incumbent leaders are no different from the former ones was up to 30 percent from 27 percent.
Nevertheless, according to this survey, 37.5 percent of respondents believe Ukraine is developing “in the right direction” (the result was 57 percent in September and 45 percent in October), while 35 percent say the direction is wrong (17 percent in September and 29 percent in October). Forty-eight percent of respondents say that the situation in the country has not changed since the beginning of 2019. A deterioration of the situation is noted by 26 percent of respondents, while 15 percent see improvement.
Some 50 percent of those surveyed complained in particular about inflation and rising bills. But respondents more frequently noted improvement rather than deterioration in the following areas: freedom of speech (20 percent and 14 percent, respectively), democracy (17 percent and 14 percent), defense capability (19 percent and 16 percent), and Ukraine’s international image (25 percent and 22 percent).
Paradoxically, although they are eager for change, almost half of Ukrainians believe reforms should be gradual. According to another survey conducted by the Rating group in late November, only around 30 percent of respondents are convinced changes should be made quickly and radically, 43 percent believe that reforms should be implemented gradually, while another 18 percent of respondents are sure the reforms should be suspended until the situation in the country stabilizes.
According to this survey, over half of those asked believe Mr. Zelenskyy to be more effective than Mr. Poroshenko. Fifteen percent of Ukrainians are of the opposite opinion, while 22 percent said that nothing has changed. Thirty-four percent of respondents believe that the current Verkhovna Rada is more effective than the previous one, while 17 percent consider it less effective. Only 27 percent think the current government of Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk is more effective than that of his predecessor, Volodymyr Groysman; 30 percent of respondents saw no changes.
But the biggest news came on November 25 in a Kyiv poll carried out by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation along with Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. It revealed that Mr. Zelenskyy’s rating had decreased by 21 percent in two months, with a 12 percent fall during the last two weeks of November.
Nevertheless, according to the same poll, on the eve of the Normandy format summit, over two-thirds of respondents support Mr. Zelenskyy having direct talks with Mr. Putin if it helps resolve the conflict in the Donbas. Meanwhile, 15.1 percent oppose this, 2.6 percent say they are indifferent, while 7.3 percent could not answer. A clear majority of 59.2 percent, support the decision to withdraw troops from the contact line.
Separately, respondents were asked what priority actions should be taken by President Zelenskyy and his team. Some 73.7 percent believe a ceasefire must be achieved in the Donbas; 13.1 percent support steps to return Crimea; 4.6 percent are in favor of establishing cooperation with Russia; 8.8 percent are for strengthening the Ukrainian Army; and 9.9 percent are in favor of the country’s unification.
Surveys conducted in November also showed that around 57.9 percent of Ukrainians do not support the privatization and sale of farmland – one of the hottest topics of the day. They are also not in favor of legalizing gambling, though 48 percent accept the preservation of classic numerical lotteries.
Mr. Zelenskyy’s further ratings will depend greatly on the results of the Normandy format summit and on progress in pursuing reform and combatting corruption at home.