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Zelenskyi’s second year. VoxCheck analysis of the President’s lies, promises and rhetoric

Photo: depositphotos / palinchak
20 May 2021
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Resounding hirings and firings, communication failures and unfulfilled promises are what the first year of the Zelenskyi presidency is remembered for. But has the President made amends? Was his second year better?

There were victories, no doubt. For example, three pro-Russian TV channels were shut down due to the sanctions imposed by the NSDC, formally headed by the President, with sanctions also imposed on the assets of MPs Medvedchuk and Kozak for financing terrorism. The prosecutor’s office now accuses the pro-Russian parliamentarians of treason. The fight against disinformation, too, can finally become more systemic – the centers for countering disinformation within the NSDC and the Ministry of Culture have started to operate. 

However, there were also shortcomings in the work of the head of state. VoxCheck analyzed how often the President lied during his two years in power, how he kept his election and inaugural promises, and how Zelenskyi’s rhetoric about the war and external partners changed.

How often did the President lie during the two years?

VoxCheck began to monitor Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s statements even before he announced that he would run for president on New Year’s Eve 2019. Thus, from the end of 2018 until today, we have fact-checked about 100 factual statements made by Zelenskyi. You can find most of them in our Anthology of Deception online database.

If we analyze only his period in office, the President told the truth in 37.2% of the quotations that we recorded. 15.1% of the fact-checked statements are overstatements, and 17.4% are manipulations. The President lied in 18.6% of cases.

However, the President’s rhetoric often includes factual statements that cannot be assessed using official open sources of information, so they remain “without a verdict”. During the two years of Zelenskyi’s presidency, we recorded about 8% of such statements in his speeches. Another 2% are technical errors, i.e. slips of the tongue.


In our piece about year one of the Zelenskyi presidency last year, we already analyzed some of the President’s lies and manipulations of 2019 and early 2020. In this article, we highlight the most critical mistakes contained in the President’s speeches of the second half of 2020 and early 2021.

 For a long time, both the President and the Servant of the People team spoke about the ceasefire in the JFO zone that started on July 27, 2020, as one of their most outstanding achievements. However, it is difficult to call it a real ceasefire or the regime of silence as the OSCE SMM is constantly reporting shelling and bombings.

Thus, the President stated in September 2020: “You all know most details. There has been silence for 42 days”. 

It is not true. In the first month of the ceasefire alone, the OSCE reported 830 violations of the regime of silence. As of May 18, 2021, OSCE SMM reported at least 28.5 thousand violations of the silence regime since the beginning of the “ceasefire”. 

The biggest challenge for the President and the entire government last year was the COVID-19 pandemic. Zelenskyi, however, managed also to manipulate and lie about the pandemic. Thus, speaking before the Verkhovna Rada in October 2020, the President said:

“The masks were last purchased in 2007, and they’ve long expired. We (the government – ed.) quickly tackled the deficit. First, we organized deliveries of masks, tests, disinfectants, suits and ventilators from China and South Korea. And later we expanded and established large-scale Ukrainian production”.

It is a manipulation exposed by us in this article.

Firstly, not only the government but also private companies and volunteer organizations helped tackle the shortage of protective equipment. And secondly, the authorities’ actions were accompanied by numerous failures. For example, the OPU purchased PCR tests unverified by the Center for Public Health (CPH). In April 2020, Zelenskyi himself came to meet the Mriya aircraft that was delivering protection for Ukrainians. It turned out, however, that the flight had been paid for by the Epitsentr chain whose cargo was mainly being transported from China. Under Illia Yemets as head of the Ministry of Health, protective equipment for physicians was purchased with a five-week delay. And under Maksym Stepanov, the Ministry of Health paid an unreasonably high price for biohazard suits. Furthermore, as of October 21, at the time of the President’s speech, the Ministry of Health had not yet purchased any ventilators at the expense of the COVID-19 Response Fund.

At the same time, Zelenskyi lied about healthcare reform in his long interview for four TV channels in October, which we fact-checked in this article: “To all those talking about ‘healthcare reform rollout’. You know, as the saying goes, you can’t catch a fish in the Dead Sea. What rollout and what are we talking about? The reform has its pros and cons, but the main disadvantage is that the country was absolutely, one hundred per cent not ready for COVID-19″.

For starters, no country in the world was ready for the COVID-19 outbreak, and the only question was how quickly and efficiently the governments responded to it. Secondly, secondary care reform officially started only in April 2020 (although de facto, it started later, with part of reform “hung up” due to quarantine), and it primarily concerned a change in the funding principles. That is, its purpose was to provide hospitals with development tools. With additional funding due to reform, health facilities could also meet some of their needs during the pandemic.

In 2021, we analyzed Zelenskyi’s interview for “Axios on HBO”. Zenenskyi’s question to Joe Biden had the greatest public resonance: “Mr. President, why are we still not in NATO?”

It is also a manipulation. NATO accepts new members by consensus of all members of the Alliance. The United States is only one of the Alliance’s 30 countries. A candidate country must meet a number of criteria set out in the North Atlantic Treaty to join directly. Commitment to the principles of democracy, social justice and economic freedom is fundamental.

No promises, no apologies. How does the President keep his promises?

A year ago, we analyzed Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s most prominent promises made in the first year of his presidency. For example, Zelenskyi’s promise to launch the second phase of health reform on April 1, 2020, was iffy. Because further statements made by the President and the already former Minister Maksym Stepanov threatened reform. However, based on 2020 results, we saw that reform has remained in place and continues.

This year, we remember and analyze some of the President’s election promises, as well as promises from his inaugural speech.

“Certainly, there are many other troubles making Ukrainians unhappy besides the war. There are the startling utility tariffs…”

In his inaugural speech, Zelenskyi promised to reduce tariffs. It is difficult to assess whether this promise was fulfilled or not because the promise itself was populist. The President has no influence on utility tariffs. They are set by the Cabinet of Ministers, local authorities, and in the case of gas, tariffs are affected by the market and regulatory restrictions.

As of August 1, 2020, the gas market began to operate in Ukraine allowing consumers to choose a supplier offering the best conditions and prices, while suppliers could set their price.

How can someone even change their gas supplier online? We tell about it this article.

However, already in January 2021, the Cabinet of Ministers set the maximum price at which companies can sell their gas, namely UAH 6.99 per cubic meter. This happened because some companies sharply raised their gas prices after the start of the heating season, and the consumers did not know how to switch to a cheaper supplier.

In May, the NCSREPU decided that only annual contracts can be concluded with suppliers. No matter the supplier, their May price for you will be fixed for the entire year, and such a transition will happen automatically. The new scheme will run until April 30, 2022. The only exception is when the price is reduced. But it cannot increase during the year.

“It’s healthcare whose improvement is mostly discussed by those who’ve never stayed with their child in a regular hospital ward.”

Zelenskyi meant that health reform initiated under the previous government did not aim at improving healthcare. Yet despite this and other criticisms against health reform that we discussed in the previous block, secondary care reform began in April 2020 and continues this year.

New packages and more money: what has changed with health reform in 2021? We tell about it in this piece.

It is too early, however, to assess the reform’s effect. At the time of the inaugural speech, with only primary care reform underway, such criticism of the reform was unfounded, to say the least.

“A program to promote a healthy lifestyle. The introduction of a mandatory free annual medical examination.”

Zelenskyi did not fulfill this promise. The medical examination is mandatory only for some population groups, i.e. those engaged in hazardous employment or unsafe working conditions, servicemen, and those under 21 years of age. This requirement has been in force since 1994, and the law on medical examination was last amended in 2012.

Besides, health reform focuses on disease prevention. Family physicians and generalists (primary care reform) provide healthcare services to patients, including preventing disease, reducing the need for hospitalization, and improving quality of life.

“We’ll build a country of other opportunities. Where everyone is equal before the law, with fair and transparent rules of the game. The same for all. To make this happen, those who will serve the people must come to power.”

A few minutes after this part of his inaugural speech, Volodymyr Zelenskyi announced the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada of the VIII convocation (although from a legal point of view, it was a dubious decision). 424 new deputies were elected in the parliamentary elections, with 254 from the presidential party “Servant of the People”. But are they all really servants of the people?

For example, MP Yurchenko was suspected of organizing a criminal scheme. Yevhen Shevchenko, visiting Belarus to see dictator Lukashenkо, and Maksym Buzhanskyi have been actively promoting anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russian and pro-Soviet messages.

The President also brought Oleksandr Dubinskyi to Parliament, on whom the United States imposed sanctions for involvement in Russia’s foreign influence network. He was expelled from Servant of the People on February 1, 2021, after being in the presidential faction for nearly a year and a half. Neither journalistic investigations into Dubinskyi’s connections with Kolomoiskyi nor the MP’s fortunes and the fake news he spread about “prostitutes on the Maidan” were obstacles. 

These MPs repeatedly became the focus of our fact-checking. To see their lies and manipulations exposed, watch the fact-checking videos on our YouTube channel.

“(Let’s build) Ukraine, where fireworks are only fired at weddings and birthdays.”

The President also did not fulfill this promise. Although the regime of silence allegedly began to operate on July 27, the militants and the Russian military have been systematically violating it. Since the beginning of the “ceasefire” in Donbas, the OSCE SMM has reported more than 28.5 thousand ceasefire violations. The average daily number of shelling has, however, decreased compared to 2020.

“(Let’s build) Ukraine, where it’ll take you one hour to open a business, 15 minutes to get your passport, and one second to vote in the election on the Internet.”

The President only partly fulfilled this promise.

You can now open an individual entrepreneur automatically online in Diia by simply filling out the application in 10-15 minutes and waiting a few seconds for it to be processed. Previously, it took up to 2 working days for the state registrar to review your application. But the procedure for registering a limited liability company on average takes over six days (Article 6).

You cannot obtain a passport in 15 minutes. Currently, you can only register in the electronic queue, but you still need to apply for the document at a local SMS branch/department, an administrative service center or a SOE Document passport service center. You also need to go through fingerprint scanning. It takes 20 working days to issue a passport, or seven working days if you need it urgently.

The last elections in Ukraine took place on October 25 and were held following the customary procedure, i.e. at polling stations and using paper forms. It is not possible to vote online at the moment, Diia only offers the possibility to register and support petitions. The Ministry of Education refers to it as “the first phase of implementing e-democracy.”

“My first bill is “On People’s Rule”. In it, we’ll establish together a mechanism whereby only the people of Ukraine will set the main tasks for the government through referendums and other forms of direct democracy. In modern Ukraine, this should happen with the maximum use of the latest technology.” 

The President fulfilled this promise belatedly. The first presidential bill was “On Amendments to the Law of Ukraine On Public Procurement”, with the bill “On People’s Rule” coming to the Verkhovna Rada from Zelenskyi only on June 9, 2020 – a whopping 17 months after the President’s first bill. 

“People are the highest value. The state is for the people, not the people for the state. Respect for human dignity should become a basic principle in the activities of the state. Reforms should have a positive effect on each person, not just on ten families.”

Andriy Antonenko, one of the suspects in the murder of journalist Pavlo Sheremet, spent over 500 days in custody and Yuliia Kuzmenko 7 months. Their guilt has not been proven. In August 2020, Yuliia Kuzmenko was released from custody to be held under 24-hour house arrest. Although, according to the Criminal Procedure Code, the total term under house arrest cannot exceed six months, Kuzmenko has been held under it for 9 months, with the period of her arrest being extended for another 2 months on May 19. Furthermore, there are vast inconsistencies in this case, which we covered in our fact-checking piece about Arsen Avakov. 

“You just have to stop shooting”: how the President’s rhetoric about the war and external partners changed

The key competencies of the presidential post are national security and representation in the international arena. Therefore, in this section, we analyzed how the President’s rhetoric changed with regard to key subjects falling within his remit. These include cooperation with the EU and the IMF, his position on Crimea, the Normandy format talks and, of course, the war with Russia.

Overall, the President believes that Ukraine should join the EU and NATO. However, Zelenskyi’s rhetoric on this issue has changed somewhat over the years. 

Thus, in a famous interview for Gordon in December 2018, Zelenskyi said that “he does not visit uninvited” and he was convinced that the EU should invite us. During his 2019 election campaign, the president-to-be stated that movement towards the EU and NATO, enshrined in the Constitution under the former government, was a political decision made without consulting Ukrainians. However, already in 2020 and 2021 – probably when Zelenskyi as president already saw the benefits of European integration – his position changed somewhat. He is now expecting specific requirements for Ukraine from the EU, as well as Ukrainians’ understanding of when and how these requirements could be met to become a member of the EU.

On cooperation with the EU

2018 2019 2020 2021
My opinion is this: I never pay a visit when I’m not invited. Never. I don’t want to feel flawed. I don’t want to feel like second class. <…> we’re for any union on condition of not losing our country’s independence, great! Well, who’s waiting for us and where? Let them tell us. Is the EU knocking on our door saying: “Guys, please, we want you, why are you refusing [to come]?” Well, no.” “Joining the EU or joining NATO – yes, we’re heading there. My personal opinion is that I’d like  Ukraine to be in the European Union and NATO. This is my personal opinion, but I’m sure that these are serious issues and the political decision made by us, you know, right, in the Constitution of Ukraine that… we’re moving towards the EU and NATO, I think it was just an election thing, and yet it’s a question to be asked of Ukrainians.” “I think the EU really wants a partnership with Ukraine, it really wants Ukraine to be in the EU. Not all EU member states want that, it’s true. <…> And I’ve asked many European leaders to tell the Ukrainian people how to act, step by step, in order to become a member of the EU, and when Ukrainians receive this answer, they’ll say how long it’ll take, whether they’ll be able to do it and when. There should be a clear understanding that we all want it now. As for whether Europe wants us or whether we want to be with Europe: I think we just have to become a country that Europe really wants to be its part. “What do I expect now? I’d very much like Europe to have a 100% understanding of how they assess Ukraine. If they see Ukraine in the European Union, they need to say so openly. It’s not like in the future, Ukraine makes this first thing, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth… And if any country’s security is its membership in the Alliance, then we need to take steps towards the MAP… and towards the EU.”

Zelenskyi’s position on the IMF before and after his election as president has changed drastically. In his interview for Gordon in December 2018, Zelenskyi, who was not even officially a presidential candidate at the time, said that the IMF conditions were too strict and rates high. And that was not true because the IMF rates have been one of the lowest among the available finance options. However, already as president, Zelenskyi emphasized that we need the IMF “like water.”

About the IMF

2018 2019 2020
“The conditions are tough there. Well, they say that without it, we’ll default and so on. Well, it’s actually an economic issue. <…> Well, it’s possible to revise the conditions. First, their interest rates are very tough. Why, you have the right to revise the conditions for any… first of all, according to any moral and ethical rules. Not that you’re special that we get a lower interest rate than others, but we’re special in that we get a higher interest rate.” Cooperation continues. The International Monetary Fund is always a reliable partner for  Ukraine in times when we need support, and Ukraine, for its part, will also remain a partner adhering to its obligations. Unfortunately, we’re currently having a delay in passing reform bills that our citizens, businesses and financial community have been waiting for for years. “Can a person go without water for a week? And why? The situation with the IMF is the same. <…> Now it’s like blood for the body, right. For the human body.”

 

 

Zelenskyi is perhaps most criticized by society for his statements about Russia. Thus, in 2019 and occasionally in 2020, the President called Russia “a difficult neighbor” and “that side.” Recently, however, the statements about Russian aggression and Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders have become much clearer in the President’s rhetoric.

About Russia

2019 2020 ( here and here ) 2021
“We understand that we have a very difficult situation, we have catastrophically difficult neighbors.  <…> Right, nothing doing, of course, you need to talk with representatives of the Russian Federation.” “For the sixth year in a row, we are defending our sovereignty from Russian aggression.”

“Ukraine must always know the price of the other side’s “promises”.

“A large number of Russian troops are concentrated near our state borders. Russia officially calls it army exercises. Unofficially, the whole world calls such things “blackmail.”

Zelenskyi’s understanding of the Normandy format talks also changed drastically. In the same interview for Gordon in 2018, Zelenskyi proposed to “get together somewhere in the middle” and assured the interviewer that he could come to terms even with “a bald devil” [i.e. anybody]. In 2019, then-candidate Zelenskyi suggested that “you just have to stop shooting.” And in 2020, President Zelenskyi acknowledged that ending the war was not as easy as he thought.

About the talks’ format

2018 2019 2020 (here and here)
“Our goal is to save people.” So I discard any option like “we’ll go there with our army”. <…>. I’m even ready to come to terms with a bald devil to keep even one person from dying. I guess this would be the first step. The first step: ceasing to shoot and developing your country.” 

 

“It’s necessary to really stop shooting, in the first place. Just stop shooting. <…> We understand that we have a very difficult situation, we have catastrophically difficult neighbours. We thank, of course, our Western partners and their sanctions and the Minsk agreements in general. Right. They aren’t working. We need to expand the negotiating table.” 

 

“We’ve started on the path to peace by starting a dialogue with Russia, a country that didn’t communicate with the previous government. <…> we also held a meeting of the leaders of the so-called Normandy Four to agree on a path to peace.”

“Everything is moving forward, but not as fast as I expected. But now a ceasefire. There’ll be a meeting in the Normandy format. How much longer will it take? I don’t know. I think that we have a high chance of ending the war based on the outcomes of the second Normandy meeting. When? As soon as possible. I want to believe that this will happen this year. <…> I know that no one will be able to end the war faster than me.”

 The President’s position on Crimea has not changed either: Crimea is Ukrainian, and we must get it back. However, as with the EU, Zelenskyi has realized after two years as president that this issue is more difficult than it seemed at first glance. If in 2019 he was categorical that we would not cede Crimea because it was our land, already in 2020, he said that the issue of Crimea was difficult because Russia was not willing to talk about it. In 2021, the issue of Crimea was recognized by the President to be one of the toughest. Although, in his interview for HBO in February (fact-checked by VoxCheck in this article), the President still argued: “If I’d been president back then, we’d all have died in Crimea, but not let the “little green men” through.”

About Crimea

2019 2020 2021
“We don’t give up  Crimea, this is our territory, this is our land. <…> It can’t be [like that], this is our land. ” 

 

“When it comes to Crimea, the situation, I think, is even more complicated. I’ll be honest with you; I’ve thought about it a lot. <…> Russia doesn’t want to talk about it, we understand all that. We shouldn’t have let them take away Crimea.” “That’s one of the most difficult issues. People who don’t live in Ukraine sometimes say that everything is clear with Donbas, it’ll come back, but Crimea won’t ever come back. Other people, even in Ukraine, say that you’ll return Donbas but as for Crimea – perhaps, only under a new president of the Russian Federation. I live in a different paradigm. For me, Crimea and Donbas did not go anywhere, and they are definitely our territories.”

 

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