Mykola Kapitonenko, Associate Professor, Institute of International Relations, Taras Shevchenko National University, Kyiv, Ukraine
Outcome of presidential elections in Ukraine came as a huge surprise. Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy scored 73% of votes, winning by almost 50% margin against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Along with lack of experience, a new president will have to deal with peculiarities of Ukrainian political system, which places most of power into the hands of the parliament – usually controlled by oligarchs.
Having no representation in the Rada, on his inauguration day Zelenskyy tobok a decision to dissolve the parliament and order early elections on July, 21, three months before the original date. His decree is currently under examination by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, however all major political parties are already getting ready for campaigning.
In between the elections, Ukraine is going through a period of political diversity, while president is unable to influence the government, and there’s no coalition in the parliament. The Rada has already ruled out a number of president’s initiatives, most notably the one to change voting legislature. The parliament also declined dismissal of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defense, and Head of Security Service of Ukraine – all three being usually appointed by the president. Regardless overwhelming support of the voters, a new president is so far unable to significantly change state policies.
A number of pre-election trends can be identified.
The ruling parties are facing high chance of an overwhelming defeat. Former President Poroshenko’s party, Block of Petro Poroshenko, has been rebranded into European Solidarity and will be struggling to overcome a 10% mark. It relies on patriotic and pro-Western rhetoric with a special emphasis on Ukraine’s aspirations towards NATO and EU membership (abbreviation for European Solidarity in Ukrainian is the same as for European Union, ЕС). Party’s frontrunners include Poroshenko himself, head of parliament Andriy Parubiy, and vice-speaker Iryna Geraschenko, as well as leader of Crimean Tatars Mustafa Dzhemilev.
People’s Front, the winner of the previous parliamentary elections in 2014, has no chances to reach a 5% threshold. The party has split, with the current prime-minister Volodymyr Groysman setting his own Ukrainian Strategy project. It incorporated a number of current governmental officials, including minister of education Hrynevych, minister of culture Nyshchuk, minister of justice Petrenko, and first deputy minister of information policy Dzheparova.
Minor parties from the previous ruling coalition, Samopomich and Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko so far have no chances to get to the new parliament.
Instead a huge lead in opinion polls is held by Servant of the People, a party named after TV series and a movie, produced by Kvartal 95 Studio, founded by Zelenskyy and his friends, most of them are currently holding offices at presidential administration or will soon become members of parliament. The party has been registered in December, 2017 and has never demonstrated any financial activity, or – in fact – any activity at all. Following the landslide victory of Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the presidential elections in April, Servant of the People has become a top favorite to win parliamentary elections with a huge margin – current opinion polls indicate 45-48% of support. If that happens, president Zelenskyy will have broad opportunities to form his government and cement his dominance in Ukrainian politics for the following five years.
On the other hand, Opposition Platform for Life, one of the remnants of the former Party of Regions, is regaining supporters. They are currently placed second in opinion polls, although way behind the leaders. The party’s frontrunners include former members of parliament from the Party of Regions, as well as notorious Victor Medvedchuk, a friend of Vladimir Putin, who’s believed to be a key transmitter of the Kremlin agenda in Ukraine. It is highly unlikely that a pro-Russian party wins parliamentary elections in Ukraine for years to come. Neither it will be likely to be a part of a ruling coalition. But this particular party, as well as ideologically close ones, like Opposition Block, will demonstrate better results than in previous five years.
Yulia Tymoshenko will continue the struggle. Her Batkivshchyna Party, the oldest major political party in Ukraine, is running head-to-head with European Solidarity, which resembles the standoff of the two parties’ leaders during presidential campaign. But neither of them is competing for a victory, just for getting to the parliament. Forming a coalition in the parliament with Servant of the People may be a good option for Batkivshchyna, but the position of the prime-minister still looks too distant for Yulia Tymoshenko.
One could also expect surprisingly good results from another totally new party, Golos, headed by a frontman of Okean Elzy rock band Svyatoslav Vakarchuk.
While political battles are breaking out in Ukraine, the country remains weak. Poverty, corruption, lack of institutional capacity, and deficit of democracy remain unresolved or even unaddressed in recent years. That makes Ukraine vulnerable to external developments and geopolitical shifts. Most urgent issues on the agenda of a new president are concentrated in security area, including that of energy security. Future launch of Nord Stream-2 project will cost the country about $3 billion annually, which equals 2.5% of the GDP. Moreover, it will increase Ukraine’s dependency on natural gas supplies, either from Russia or from EU countries. Current architecture of energy security of the country may be totally ruined.
Weakness opens way to influences from various directions. Russian stake in Ukraine is still high. The Kremlin wants to see Ukraine out of NATO and EU, within its own sphere of political and civilizational influence. This will be hard to achieve, but by supporting pro-Russian parties, undermining institutions, cultivating specific outlook of the “Russian World” Moscow will continue to exert political pressure in Ukraine.
Although capable of maintaining anti-Russian sanctions, the European Union seems to be split over Ukrainian issue. Germany and France, parties to Normandy format, are likely to pressure both Russia and Ukraine with the view to create a zone of possible agreement and make the two states find modus vivendi. A period after Zelenskyy’s victory opens up a window of opportunity which, however, is unlikely to be open too wide and too long.
On the other hand, Ukraine’s neighbors to the West, most notably Poland and Hungary, may be expecting changes in humanitarian policies, especially in what regards historical controversies and language issues. Rise of nation-building rhetoric in recent years of Poroshenko’s administration contributed into deterioration of Ukraine’s bilateral relations with a number of neighboring countries.
Relations with US will be among foreign policy priorities for a new administration. Alongside a scandal with a cancelled trip of Rudolph Giuliani to Kyiv, which many believed to be a way of involving new Ukrainian leadership into American political conflicts, there’s a long-term partnerships between the two countries. It is based on a shared perception of a Russian threat to the regional security, as well as common desire to stop Nord Stream-2 project. Americans support Ukraine with money and weapons, and they are firm in non-recognizing annexation of Crimea. That is a basis for partnership, which is likely to continue under any conditions.
Ways of resolving conflict in Donbas remain in focus of public attention and at the heart of political life in Ukraine. The issue has been addressed by all presidential candidates, many of them talking about peace, but without specifying the details. Zelenskyy, as a presidential candidate, was one of those. He stated winning the peace as one of the top priorities. Without going into details while campaigning, he now faces the issue of drafting a long-term strategy of conflict management.
So far there is no plan. It looks like a new president understands, that any long-term of conflict resolution would imply a dialogue with Russia or even concessions to the Kremlin. This looks politically costly: public opinion in Ukraine remains sensitive to the Russian issue. On the other hand, many of those who voted for Zelenskyy, were hoping he will find a way to change the status quo which emerged under Poroshenko and most likely means freezing the conflict for decades. Resolving this dilemma would be crucial both for the success of Servant of the People parliamentary campaign and for future foreign and security policy of Ukraine.
First steps of a new president in foreign policy are sending mixed signals. His first visit was to Brussels, same foreign destination Victor Yanokovych picked for his initial visit in 2010. While meeting EU and NATO officials there, Volodymyr Zelenskyy rendered rhetoric of previous administration, key elements being aiming at NATO and EU membership and confronting Russia. At the same time, the head of presidential administration Andriy Bohdan put forward an idea of holding a referendum over possible settlement with Russia – which has been taken quite skeptically by most commentators in Ukraine. Another possible referendum, on Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations, was among pre-election slogans by Zelenskyy. This referendum now looks postponed or even dismissed given the emphasis which is put by the new president on recently adopted constitutional provisions, which state that NATO and EU membership should be Ukraine’s strategic course.
There is a growing pressure from public opinion and, to a less extent, from European partners to do something about the conflict in Donbas. No one knows exactly what, but the demand for changes is high. This pressure is likely to drive president Zelenskyy into a little bit different wording towards Russia, but will be enough for substantial policy changes? Meetings of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk have been resumed, with Leonid Kuchma reappointed as the head of Ukraine’s delegation. He stated that the blockade of uncontrolled territories should be lifted, and that a rule of not opening fire in return should be implemented. Following immediate critical remarks in Ukraine, he later explained that both should be implemented on a reciprocal basis and under a number of conditions. So far it looks that even slight modification of position would be politically risky. If that’s the case, any significant changes in Donbas settlement may only happen after the elections.