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Kyiv mayor accuses Zelenskiy of authoritarianism, ending Ukraine’s political truce

Vitali Klitschko has criticized the Ukrainian president for monopolizing power and not preparing the country for the Russian invasion

Vitali Klitschko
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko records a video outside a building hit by a Russian missile in Kyiv on June 24, 2023.Roman Pilipey (Getty Images)
Cristian Segura

The political truce in Ukraine is over. The unified front has been broken as the country contemplates a bleak future on the battlefield. The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of holding too much power and leading the country towards authoritarianism. “We will no longer be any different from Russia, where everything depends on the whim of one man,” Klitschko told the German weekly Der Spiegel last Friday.

Ukraine’s tumultuous political life came together the day that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. But almost two years later, the tension can no longer hide behind tired patriotic messages of unity. Klitschko — who has been the mayor of the capital for nine years and was also a presidential candidate — has given two interviews that signal a new phase in Ukraine’s political life.

The mayor of Kyiv has taken advantage of the growing unrest that is gaining ground in society. In his interviews, Klitschko criticized Zelenskiy for having made multiple mistakes, the main one being not preparing Ukraine for an invasion. “People wonder why we weren’t better prepared for this war, why Zelenskiy denied until the last moment that it would come… or [how] the Russians could get to Kyiv so quickly,” Klitschko told the Swiss edition of 20 Minutes on Saturday.

The former heavyweight boxing champion and opposition leader made similar comments in a September 2022 interview with EL PAÍS: Zelenskiy did not believe that a Russian invasion was possible until a few hours before it took place, denying warnings by U.S. intelligence services that a Russian attack was imminent.

Klitschko, above all, accused Zelenskiy of monopolizing power and relegating the government and the Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, where his party has an absolute majority, to the background. According to Klitschko, the only counterpower left in Ukraine, an increasingly centralist country, are the city councils. Der Spiegel also spoke with MP Oleksiy Goncharenko, the best-known voice of European Solidarity, Ukraine’s main opposition party. Goncharenko complained that decisions about an entire country were being made by Zelenskiy and his right-hand man, Andriy Yermak. Goncharenko also criticized Zelenskiy for his the iron-fist control over the media, specifically, the uniform news programs that were created after the beginning of the war: “The leader is comfortable with the fact that there is no criticism and that he controls much of the media.”

Kyiv mayor supports head of the army

Klitschko also addressed the issue that has caused the great discomfort in the presidency: its difference in opinion with Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Last November, the general told The Economist that there was no sign that the situation on the front would change in Ukraine’s favor and that the country had to prepare for a long-term war. Zelenskiy publicly dismissed Zaluzhnyi’s claims, arguing that the front had not reached a stalemate and that Ukraine did not need negative messages. In this dispute, Klitschko supported the general: “He told the truth,” Klitschko said, speaking to Swiss publication 20 Minutes. “Some may not want to hear the truth [but] we can’t lie to our people and partners indefinitely.”

When asked if he wanted to be president, Klitschko avoided answering the question, claiming that in the current situation he must remain loyal to Zelenskiy. In a hypothetical presidential and legislative elections, polls still show the current president and his party, Servant of the People, with wide support. The presidential election must be held in March 2024. The elections to renew Parliament should have been held in the fall, but according to the Constitution, an election cannot be held under martial law.

Guerra de Rusia en Ucrania
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a visit to the Kharkiv front, Thursday, November 30, 2023.Anadolu (Anadolu via Getty Images)

In the summer, Zelenskiy’s team discussed whether it was a good idea to hold presidential and legislative elections, after reforming the Constitution. But while Zelenskiy would likely win the election, polls indicate that the population is against heading to the polls due to the challenges that would limit the plurality of the vote, such as the fact that territories occupied by Russia would be unable to vote and neither would millions of Ukrainians who have moved abroad. But in the United States — Kyiv’s main financial and military supporter along with the European Union — more voices are calling for Ukraine to make an effort to demonstrate its commitment to democracy. For Zelenskiy, the problem is that the more time passes, the more his approval ratings fall. The Economist published last week a survey which showed only 30% support for Zelenskiy, compared to 70% for Zaluzhnyi.

The Economist also reported that Zaluzhnyi has been pressured by the Ukrainian presidency to limit his public interviews. Sources close to the commander-in-chief told this newspaper last April that the president’s office demanded Zaluzhnyi avoid talking to the media in a bid to curb his popularity. Other military sources on the country’s southern front say that the president’s team has demanded Vitalii Kim, the governor of Mykolaiv who is another popular figure in Zelenskiy’s party, to reduce his public appearances.

Meanwhile, corruption cases and poor military results on the front are undermining Zelenskiy’s popularity. The Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in June has come to nothing, and the enemy is advancing on the Donetsk and Kharkiv fronts. The population is tiring of making sacrifices to continue fighting against Russia, according to surveys. Both Klitschko and Goncharenko are more nationalist politicians than Zelenskiy, and are even less inclined to concede anything to Russia. But there are other politicians who support opening peace negotiations who are gaining notoriety. The most prominent of which is Oleksii Arestovich, Zelenskiy’s former confidant.

Decisions based on reason, and not emotions, are difficult to make while Russian forces remain in Ukraine. That said, 60% of the population is still in favor of fighting until the Russians are pushed out from the entire territory, according to a Gallup poll released last October. Russian atrocities continue to occur, as evidenced by the viral video of the execution of two Ukrainian soldiers who had surrendered in a trench on the front. The Ukrainian army has authenticated the footage, and the Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation into a possible war crime.

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