Reformatting the Ukrainian Political Landscape

The inauguration of Vladimir Zelensky was indeed somewhat different from the inaugurations of his predecessors. The procedure wasn’t the main thing that was different. It was standard, although it lacked celebrations and festive receptions. Zelensky’s inaugural speech stood apart from those given by his predecessors because he gave it in Russian, and announced the dissolution of parliament; calling on members of the government to resign as well. Judging from the facial expressions of the MPs, the announcement came as a complete surprise to many of them. In general, the speech Ukraine’s sixth president gave followed a populist narrative: Zelensky is a representative of the people, and opposes the corrupt elite of society.

Whatever the views of the new Ukrainian president are regarding the foreign policy of the country as a whole, especially with respect to the problem of the armed conflict in the Donbass, he cannot do anything yet. Zelensky does not have a majority in parliament, and an attempt to force deputies to adopt a new electoral law that could radically change the Rada’s composition and, possibly, get a majority for the Zelensky’s party in the early parliamentary elections, obviously failed. Zelensky does not have "his own" government. And he cannot even make appointments to such important positions as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prosecutor General or Minister of Defence; he has no such support.

During the election campaign, Zelensky avoided a coherent position on many key issues of Ukrainian politics, hoping not to alienate any of the groups of his potential voters. Now he is faced with the task of winning early parliamentary elections, and, as before, he would like to send different signals to different audiences, without fear of appearing contradictory. However, after the parliamentary elections we will see another Zelensky, with a clearer course. Regarding foreign policy, I’m pretty sure that Zelensky’s planned course of action will not be welcomed in Moscow. Of course, there will be no cardinal reversal of Ukraine. However, there is one nuance that is worth paying attention to.

Already during the presidential election campaign, Zelensky’s statement that it was necessary to fight for people in the Donbass, and not just for the territory, was perceived as a signal of readiness to search for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, given the background of Poroshenko’s bellicose rhetoric. So far, Zelensky does not demonstrate a desire to conform to the strictly Russophobic mainstream of the previous government, although he and representatives of his team still characterize the Russian Federation as an aggressor country, and the uncontrolled territories as occupied ones.  Of course, this is enshrined in a number of legislative acts.

The current or re-elected Verkhovna Rada is unlikely to approve the autonomous status of the unrecognised republics, as required by the "Complex of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements”. Political radicals still control the Ukrainian streets, and any attempts to implement the political aspects of the Minsk Agreements will meet with fierce resistance, up to and including forceful confrontation. In this situation, if Zelensky really wants to achieve a settlement of the Donbass problem, he will not get the sufficient support from a majority in parliament, even if he manages to obtain a majority of the seats. Here, a referendum could be a significant resource. As we know from sociological research data, the majority of Ukrainian citizens are in favour of a peaceful resolution of the crisis and are not opposed to the Donbass returning to Ukraine with a special status. Of course, much will depend on the specific wording of the question that will be submitted for a referendum vote, if, of course, one really takes place. But if it happens, the position of Zelensky seems to find understanding and support among the majority of the citizens. If one was put to vote, not only would the MPs find it easier to vote for reconciliatory laws regarding the Donbass (special status, amnesty, etc.); Ukraine’s international partners would also be likely to have fewer fears that Zelensky will yield to Russian pressure.

At the same time, one should be aware that there will be no speedy return to opportunities for the development of the sort of Russian-Ukrainian relations which the countries had before 2014. We need to think about how to build these relations, taking into account the remaining opportunities and current mutual interests. Zelensky’s statement that apart from the border between Ukraine and Russia, the countries have nothing in common suggests that the Ukrainian president is not yet fully aware of the full range of Ukrainian interests that are oriented in the “Russian direction”.

The situation in Ukraine is developing very dynamically; the process of reformatting the Ukrainian political landscape has already been launched, as evidenced by the crushing defeat of Poroshenko. How this reformatting will transpire is not quite clear. So far, the "cavalry attack" against the Verkhovna Rada, which Zelensky undertook immediately after his election, has failed. This means that the opposing sides may become involved in “trench war”: the president will lose the initiative and the country will remain in its sluggish current political crisis, without clear prospects for an outcome. However, it is unlikely that the presidential decree on early elections to the Verkhovna Rada will be cancelled by the courts, so Ukraine once again faces a rapid election campaign, this time a parliamentary one.

Ukraine’s New President Will Be a Challenge for the West, Too
Mary Dejevsky
The election of a new President in Ukraine, who is very much an unknown quantity, could pose at least as much of a challenge for the West as it does for Russia. Some of that caution was reflected in the EU countries’ messages of congratulations which seemed less ecstatic than might have been expected.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.