Volodymyr Zelensky is a man on a mission to take Ukraine out of the mire of corruption and conflict that has bogged it down for much of the 21st century. Following an election win that gave his government a historically high mandate, President Zelensky is now aiming to build a dynamic market economy with higher standards of living for its people. The former television comedian is a political outsider, and brings a fresh, energetic approach to tackling the biggest problems facing Ukraine today, including unemployment, the war with Russian-backed militias in the east of the country, and the need for sweeping reforms to make the economy attractive to investors. Here, President Zelensky explains the passion for national transformation that led him to enter politics, and why for him it is much more than a popularity contest
Seven months on from taking office after your remarkable victory in the presidential election, what have the biggest achievements been so far?
The main achievement during this period is that the people of Ukraine have chosen a new order, with a young and energetic team, who don’t only want to change Ukraine, but to make it a country that no one wants to leave. With our great team, we want to open the country – to open up for business. In the end, it is a selfish goal; we want to make Ukraine work for us and for our children. We want to live here, so we need a good investment climate. I don’t want to send money to other countries, so it has to be profitable to live and work in Ukraine. That’s the big goal we have, and we have five years ahead of us. The first step is to start working with people who want to achieve this. I think we have done this. Of course, we have made mistakes. We started with high ratings, but the most important thing is that we don’t mind those ratings going down if that’s the effect of taking hard but right decisions. In the first 2.5 months, parliament has adopted over 80 laws, mostly aimed at improving the investment climate and including some very difficult areas such as land reform, taxation and a huge privatization plan. We are out to destroy monopolies, such as those that exist in the gas sector and spirit production, and all of this at a time when people think their pay and pensions need to be multiplied by 10. But we think that unless we make these difficult and unpopular decisions, there will be no economic growth or job creation. Another very important decision was to unblock the issue of ending the war in Donbas. This is a demand of our society and very much a problem for our economy because we are spending a lot of money on war.
You have the support of the people and of parliamentarians, but what about the business community in Ukraine – can you also reconcile their interests?
If you talk to midsized businesses – not oligarchs or the small companies that don’t pay taxes – you will find that they support our decisions because we are moving toward transparency. Something that is really important is that we have put a stop to smuggling, and this can cause complications for small businesses, which don’t want to pass customs procedures and pay the taxes as they are struggling to receive certain goods. But transparency means that everyone must pay taxes and live according to the law.
What is the thinking behind your land reform?
No offence to any other countries, but nowhere is there so much fertile land as in Ukraine. But nor is there so much corruption in other countries. Opening the land market will help our Ukrainian farmers. Right now, the land they farm doesn’t belong to them, in a similar way that apartments in the Soviet era did not belong to the people living in them. We don’t think the state is a good regulator. There are thousands of examples where people don’t have heirs and the land reverts to the state. We want Ukrainians to have the possibility of buying land, so that they can launch enterprises there and work the land. If they cannot do so, then they can sell to someone who wants to work that land. Also, this means they will be able to get loans where now they lack collateral.
What has been the reaction of international investors following such a legacy of corruption?
We are in Europe. We already have an industrial heart. We have people with smart ideas and new technology. We are mentally connected to the land. But we have a lot of corruption. This has to go, and once we have transparency markets will work correctly. For many years, people around the world have heard about corruption in Ukraine, and investors act on emotion. So we are making changes. First of all, with the judiciary, so that when investors arrive they can see that their investments will be defended. I come from a business background, and I understand investors. I can promise that we will never again have such levels of corruption, and we will make great strides toward transparency. This is the moment to invest, because prices are low, in the markets and privatized sectors, and we will be giving out licenses to work in many sectors, such as gas.
In terms of relations between Ukraine and the US, what are the key intersections of interest that could allow the two nations to grow together?
The US is our strategic partner, and we are very grateful for the support we get as they came to us at a difficult time. Our youth has a very positive attitude toward the US, and we hope that more of our young people will be able to get a great education at American universities, which are among the best in the world. We are happy for people to go and gather experience, but we also want our diaspora in the US to be free to return, so we are working on a double-citizenship reform. We know that to win the battle against corruption we have to embrace digitalization. In this, we have a connection because Ukraine has many brilliant IT people, and the US is the world’s IT hub. Now Ukrainians tend to work for American tech companies, but we would like to see more Ukrainian companies so we can develop products here and sell them to the world. Today, we also cooperate in such spheres as space and nuclear power. We see more perspectives for investing in our oil and gas production, and real estate.
Describe how you want the international community and investors attending the Davos summit to perceive Ukraine?
One of the things we are proudest of is the Ukrainian people and their intellectual level, but many are in other countries, including Canada, Poland and Germany. If they leave because of unemployment, we need investors to create jobs so that Ukrainians will stay. Investors anywhere in the world always have two key questions: how is my money defended, and who will do the work? We have an answer to the second question: Ukraine has a lot of skilled people. But we need to provide a strong answer to the first question, and that is why we are presenting the reforms we have put on the table to boost enforcement of the rule of law. Now is a good time to invest in the Ukrainian workforce, because their skill level is high and costs remain low for the moment.
What do you find most rewarding and what is the biggest challenge of your current job?
This job is very difficult and has great responsibility; like a surgeon, one false move and lives are in danger. But I get happy with each small victory every day, and I spend my time thinking how to help Ukrainians. My biggest challenge is to make sure I achieve something every day. The most difficult part is that your life doesn’t belong to you anymore. I lack time for myself and for my family. I am missing my children growing up because I am spending so much time working for others. This is a big psychological challenge, to accept that I am working for people I don’t know personally while I am missing out on family life.