Commentary: The problem is Zelensky himself, not his friends | Comments from DW Reviewers and Guest Writers | DW

The dismissal of the head of the Security Service of Ukraine Ivan Bakanov and Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova became a real political sensation in Ukraine. In a war, when it is natural to expect maximum consolidation from the authorities, such a step looks like a demonstrative reprisal against people who are in the inner circle of Vladimir Zelensky. The basis, as the president himself explained in his video message on Sunday evening, July 17, was numerous facts of treason from high-ranking officials of the SBU and the prosecutor’s office in regional offices in the territories occupied by Russia after February 24.

Determination at first glance

So what, then, does it mean that there are no inviolable among the closest associates for the president when it comes to the security of the state? Has the war forced Volodymyr Zelensky, who has surrounded himself with friends and former business partners since becoming president, to rethink his principles? Hardly. After all, Zelensky’s decisive disciplinary measures against his entourage look only at first glance.

Eugene Teize

Eugene Teize

The morning after Zelensky’s statement, the Office of the President clarified that there was no talk of dismissing these officials, but that they were only suspended from their duties while the facts of high treason in their departments were investigated. What happened in the presidential administration during the day on July 18, whether he listened to criticism – most likely, we will never know. But events suddenly began to develop at lightning speed. In the evening – a day later after the release order – the president submitted proposals on the dismissal of Ivan Bakanov and Irina Venediktova, on the morning of July 19 they were considered by the relevant committee of the Verkhovna Rada, a couple of hours later, the deputies dismissed both at the plenary session.

It is not serious to say that the investigation announced by the Office of the President was carried out in half a day. But after the throwing of the head of state, many questions remain. One gets the impression that the former comedian, who after the Russian attack rose in the eyes of the whole world, becoming a courageous leader of the nation, suddenly “deflated” when it came to the need to take political responsibility for the failed work of his entourage.

General treason

Ukrainians learned about the possible facts of high treason in law enforcement agencies in the first weeks of the war. But it took the president several months to demonstrate to the public his reaction to this problem. Especially egregious were the facts of treason in the Security Service of Ukraine. One of the treason suspects is Brigadier General Andrey Naumov, head of the SBU’s main internal security department, who fled the country on February 23, the day before the start of the Russian invasion. The same Naumov, who made a lightning-fast career in the Security Service precisely after this body was headed by the now dismissed Ivan Bakanov.

What other investigation did Zelensky need to draw conclusions? Already even this shameful for the Security Service of Ukraine in the conditions of war, the case is enough to dismiss Bakanov.

Imitation of decisive conclusions

However, the problem is not Bakanov, but Zelensky himself, who appointed him. Instead of immediately admitting that it was a mistake to appoint a friend and former business partner to a position that was key to the security of the state, Volodymyr Zelenskyy at first seemed to be simply trying to imitate strong conclusions. The president and the head of the SBU are jointly responsible for the failed cleansing of the special services from corrupt officials and traitors. By dismissing Bakanov, Zelensky, albeit belatedly, still draws conclusions about the results of his work.

However, his throwings make one doubt whether the president understood his own mistake: that it was not worth appointing a person with whom he grew up in the same yard and has been friends with families since the age of five to lead the special service. In such appointments, it is difficult to find another motive than the desire to control the security forces through one’s own person. This, albeit to a lesser extent, also applies to Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova, who has been Zelensky’s loyal ally since the early days of his political career.

Reforms can no longer be delayed

Much indicates that the dismissal of people from his inner circle is a forced step by Zelensky under pressure not only from public expectations, but also from Western partners. It is significant that in his July 17 video message, the President not only announced the dismissal of Bakanov and Venediktova, but at the same time announced that he expects the competition to elect a new head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office to be completed as soon as possible. The head of this key department for the fight against corruption has not been elected for almost two years. The ambassadors of the G7 countries in Ukraine repeatedly demanded to do this as soon as possible in their general statements. Volodymyr Zelensky has long ignored the demands of his partners, as well as criticism of the lack of political will to complete the reform of the SBU, which should strip the special service of atypical powers and reduce corruption risks in this bloated body, which in Ukraine has traditionally had reputational problems.

Volodymyr Zelensky can no longer ignore the calls of Western partners, as it was before the war. Without weapons and money from the United States and the European Union, Ukraine would have long been bankrupt and would hardly have resisted the onslaught of Russian invaders. So the reforms that are needed to strengthen the country will finally have to be completed right during the war. To do this, key departments should be headed by the best professionals, and not presidential childhood friends.

Author: Eugene Teize, columnist for DW

The comment expresses the personal opinion of the author. It may not coincide with the opinion of the Russian editors and Deutsche Welle in general.

*This version of the commentary was updated by the author when translating from Ukrainian, taking into account the dismissal of the head of the SBU Ivan Bakanov by the Verkhovna Rada. The commentary was originally published in Ukrainian on the afternoon of 18 July.

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