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What’s the verdict on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s first year in office?

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March, 4, 2020.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March, 4, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
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Today marks one year since Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been in office.

The former comedian, who had no political experience before winning an election by a landslide in April 2019, has had a “turbulent” first year in office, experts say.

Zelenskyy ran on a campaign to reform the country and end conflict in eastern Ukraine.

But his first year in office has been marked by several international crises from being at the centre of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial to responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

His first year in office was also marked by the Ukrainian International Airlines crash after it was shot down accidentally by Iran, killing 176 passengers.

The reviews of his first year are mixed: the most recent poll by Rating Group in Ukraine said that one-third of respondents in May 2020 assessed Zelenskyy's first year as “excellent or good” and almost 40% as “satisfactory”.

Yet in the same poll, at least half of the Ukrainians surveyed said the country was headed in the wrong direction. It remains to be seen how Zelenskyy will fare as his second year is sure to present even more challenges.

"It has been quite a rollercoaster for Zelenskyy especially taking into account that he’s a political novice," said Orysia Lutsevych, who manages the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House.

Conflict in the Donbas region

When Zelenskyy entered office last year, he inherited Europe’s only ongoing war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

The conflict first broke out in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, in a move widely determined to be in defiance of international law.

Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern region of the country tried to declare independence and fighting in the region broke out. The conflict was at a stalemate by the time Zelenskyy entered office in 2019.

Zelenskyy had made settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine a top priority for his presidency, but there has been little progress on advancing the peace process.

As recently as the end of April there have been attempts at dialogue between Ukraine, Russia, and European countries yet despite pulling back some troops in the area, clashes still break out.

Prisoner swaps with Russia

Nonetheless, there were some positive steps as Russia and Ukraine swapped prisoners towards the end of 2019.

The swap allowed more than 100 Ukrainians to return home, Zelenskyy has said. It followed a peace summit in Paris that marked the first meeting between Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I think a very big moment was the release of Oleg Sentsov who was a political prisoner in Russia and whose release was well received and was a very emotional moment. Millions of Ukrainians waited for this to happen and few believed that it was actually possible," said Lutzevych.

Zelenskyy was criticised however for releasing Vladimir Tsemakh, a suspect in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, back to Russian authorities.

Challenging domestic arena, but little anti-corruption action

Zelenskyy’s first year has been marked domestically by reforms put in place to allow the country to receive $5.5 billion (€5bn) in loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The country passed a banking reform law that prevents former executives of nationalised banks from reclaiming them.

Zelenskyy had tried to distance himself from bank tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky who had attempted to influence the vote through his connection with the president, reports Associated Press.

“It safeguards the banking reform and clean up of the banking system that took place,” said Lutsevych, but it took a long time to pass the reform.

Nonetheless, Zelenskyy's record on anti-corruption could be better, Lutzevych said, with more of an effort to reform courts and have independent law enforcement.

Experts say reform has been slow to come and several political shake-ups, including the ousting of Zelenskyy's prime minister back in March, raised questions about future reforms.

According to Transparency International, Ukraine ranks 126th out of 183 countries on corruption.

Central role in the political crisis in the United States

The Ukrainian president notably played a large role in the US president’s impeachment.

Donald Trump was accused of withholding aid from Ukraine until Zelenskyy would announce an investigation into Trump's Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son's ties to Ukraine.

As part of the impeachment process, transcripts of Trump’s phone calls with Zelenskyy were released including one call in which Trump asked him for a “favour” which was investigating Biden.

In the same phone call, the Ukrainian president agreed with Trump's complaints about European leaders not helping Ukraine.

“It took American and international attention away from the issues that mattered most to Ukraine and turned our country into a story about President Trump,” Zelenskyy wrote in a New York Times editorial published today.

“It was unfortunate for many Ukrainians that Ukraine was presented as this kind of corrupt country... this is exactly the problem with the rule of law that Ukraine has," Lutsevych said.

Coronavirus pandemic uproots Ukraine situation

Like many countries, Ukraine has been heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The country has had more than 19,000 cases and nearly 600 deaths.

But a shortage of personal protective equipment and slow testing at the beginning meant healthcare workers got infected and shined a light on the inadequacies of Ukraine’s healthcare system.

Now, managing the economic recovery for the country will be a very difficult task for Zelenskyy as he heads into his second year in office.