Topics: Public diplomacy
After the presidential and parliamentary elections, Ukraine is believed to have obtained a historic chance to push forward the much-awaited reforms. Ukraine’s Western partners have continuously expressed their expectations that a strong mandate that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Servant of the People party have received will be translated into palpable and resolute reforms.
Zelenskyy’s seemingly sincere resolve and boldness to make ground-breaking transformations within the country and human-centred rhetoric on Donbas have resonated well in the West. The new government has been commended as the most reformist, capable, and technocratic Ukraine has ever had. Yet their record, and that of the new president, after the first months in power has been perceived as a mixed one and the concerns about monopolisation of power pile up. It is being watched closely if Zelenskyy’s charisma is converted into workable policies and genuine progress.
The presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine conducted in spring and summer
2019, respectively, were praised by allies of Ukraine as competitive, fair, and free and as
ones that demonstrated Ukraine’s commitment to democracy. The results of the
presidential elections were read in the West as a ‘reform appeal to the Verkhovna Rada’
and the ones that brought a strong mandate to the new president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy,
to carry out reforms in line with Ukraine’s commitments to the EU. After his Servant of the
People party got unprecedented majority in the parliament , this concentration of power
the new Ukrainian authorities have is referred to as a historic chance for Ukraine.
Western decision-makers see the unique ‘momentum’ in the current developments in
Ukraine and frame the present approach to the reforms as a ‘bold’ one. There is unanimity
among the partners of Ukraine that ‘it is essential to use the current momentum in the best
possible way’ . Hopes are expressed that under the new government Ukraine will prove to
be a reliable partner; the state will shed the image of a ‘captured state’ and transit to a
working model of democracy, as well as a capable military power able to resist Russian
The West’s judgment of the performance of the new Ukrainian authorities can be
described as cautious optimism, similar to the one Zelenskyy’s team enjoys at home.
Depending on to whom one speaks, they are credited for a seemingly sincere desire to
reset the power relations and transform the country, or criticised for the lack of experience,
maintaining vested interests, or even eroding the post-Maidan accomplishments.
Given the ambiguity of the electoral programme of the new president, certain steps of the
new team were observed with a relief. What concerns foreign and security policies, the continuity in Ukraine’s pro-EU and pro-NATO course has been taken as a good sign. It
was positively perceived that the new president of Ukraine had chosen Brussels as the
destination of his first visit abroad. It has been an important reassurance for the West to
see some competent people placed at the key governmental positions – in the Foreign
Ministry or in the office of the Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine for European and Euro-
Atlantic Integration, while other appointments (such as oligarch Kolomoisky’s former
lawyer, Andriy Bohdan, as the president’s chief of staff) were discouraging. In the eyes of
the West, the new government’s identity is schizophrenically split: into the part that favours
the ideals of change and the one that is susceptible to oligarchic influence.
President Zelenskyy and the new government are operating under multiple pressures.
Alongside with the Russian strenuous and all-pervasive coercion, sort of a war of attrition,
there are the pressures of a self-imposed agenda to deliver fast results, high, sometimes
conflicting public expectations, and expectations of the Western partners.
The main pressure is to deliver the anti-corruption reforms, which have become a
buzzword. These can easily be the key litmus test to assess the performance of the new
authorities. The West found President Petro Poroshenko’s administration committed to
some substantial reforms but half-hearted in addressing the corruption problem. This has
been the main scourge of the Ukrainian political system for years, rendering it largely
dysfunctional. Zelenskyy’s focus on anti-corruption measures as a main pillar of his
electoral campaign was perceived by Ukraine’s Western partners as the right diagnosis for
the system. The advancement of anti-corruption policies will be the main indicator to prove
the country is moving in the right direction.
The legislative pace of the new parliament has been called impressive; yet, concerns
about the insufficient quality and the disregard for the parliamentary procedures have been
openly voiced too. Given President Zelenskyy’s charismatic and individualistic style of
policy-making, concerns arise about the independence of the branches of power. It is clear
that Zelenskyy and his closest circle maintain an outstanding control over all branches of
power and attempt to keep the discipline and unanimity within their fraction in the
parliament intact. Zelenskyy’s comment during the infamous telephone talk with US
President Trump in summer 2019 that the Ukrainian prosecutor general is ‘his man’ was
seen by many as a symbol of the unhealthy monopolisation of power.
Even if the government has been labelled as the most technocratic government Ukraine
has had until now, it will certainly be a cause for concern to see the president treating the
government as merely executors of his wishes rather than independent policy-makers.
Zelenskyy was sworn in as a president who promised to restore the rule of law, but in fact
is distrustful of the norms, procedures, and institutions and tends to resort to manual
control where possible.
The EU has closely followed the reforms by the government: For instance, it has
supported the government’s plans to open the land market in Ukraine; it has also
expressed its critical position on the shortcomings of the draft law within the judicial
NATO allies have also reinstated their commitment to work with Ukraine towards the
objective of implementing NATO principles and standards with the tools available through
the Annual National Programme. Ukraine’s continued quest to join NATO was reaffirmed
through the clause in the statement of the NATO-Ukraine Commission in October 2019
that NATO stands by its decisions taken at the 2008 Bucharest Summit and subsequent
The West expresses hopes that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will bring life to the
deadlocked negotiations in the Minsk format. The exchange of prisoners between Ukraine
and Russia in September 2019 was perceived as a positive step forward and was even
boldly (and prematurely) called by some as a Russian-Ukrainian detente.
It brought a relief to Germany and France – Ukraine’s key partners in the Normandy format
– to see the shift from what was perceived as escalating and militaristic rhetoric of former
president Petro Poroshenko to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ‘reconciliatory’ stance on Donbas.
The ‘human-centred’ approach of the latter is in accord with these states’ perception of the
need to solve the Donbas conflict primarily through addressing people’s needs, alleviating
human suffering, building trust and reconciliation between the people on both sides of the
They exert significant pressure on Kyiv: Ukraine is expected not only to reciprocate the
Kremlin’s potential positive gesture on Donbas settlement, but to generate one, to
concede to the solutions that might pave the way for Russia to become more benevolent.
While it is stressed that these solutions should not jeopardise Ukraine’s sovereignty and
national interests, Ukraine and its partners might have a remarkably different take on what
is an acceptable compromise.
Paris and Berlin might be succumbing to the desire to increasingly frame the Donbas
settlement – after the ‘elections’ in the occupied territories are conducted – as Ukraine’s
domestic issue, provided Moscow demonstrates at least a slightly cooperative
demeanour. The protests over the Steinmeier formula all over Ukraine were partly caused
by the belief that Ukraine will be coerced into some kind of settlement detrimental to its
statehood while there is a growing tide in the West to normalise relations with Russia.
The growing rift of distrust between Ukraine, on one side, and Germany and France, on
the other, in the context of Normandy talks might pose an additional problem for Ukraine
when the new authorities’ ingenuity will be put to test. Zelenskyy has been quite open in
showing his lack of trust towards France and Germany, and this public display of his
sentiments might constitute a problem in itself. Western moves to accommodate Russia,
including restoring Moscow’s voting rights in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary
Assembly, French willingness ‘to bring Russia back to Europe’, and Germany’s stance on
the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline explain the apprehensions of Ukrainians.
In this setting, the US position that elections in the occupied territories could be held only
after the Russian military withdrawal, the ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’s’ forces are dissolved, and
Ukraine establishes control over its side of the Ukrainian-Russian border are absolutely
crucial for Ukraine. Even though US President Donald Trump has been willing to upgrade
relations with Russia on several occasions, the Ukrainian problem has been intervening,
including after the Kerch Strait incident in November 2018 when the Russian military
detained Ukrainian vessels and took Ukrainian sailors as hostages. Maintaining the US
support as a key ally able to balance the Normandy format has been a key component of
Ukrainian foreign policy.
Currently the Ukrainian-US relations appear to have been hit by a dangerous political
storm. The impeachment inquiry against President Trump, who, as it appeared, was
requesting Ukraine’s newly elected president to investigate the Ukrainian influence in the
US election in 2016 and help him expose his competitor Joe Biden, while allegedly
withholding military assistance to Ukraine, dragged the latter into the limelight of the
American domestic politics. Losing the US bipartisan support, becoming toxic and isolated
is an imminent risk the Ukrainian political establishment has to attempt to avoid by all
Zelenskyy is expected to break the preconceptions about Ukraine as irreparably corrupt
and Russia-dependent with concrete accomplishments. The concerns about the lack of
experience, monopolisation of the decision-making by president’s closest clique, and his
slim chances to fight the influence of the vested interests on the political system due to his
alleged ties to oligarch Kolomoisky are yet to be dismissed. It remains to be seen if the
new administration is capable of staying afloat under the multiple pressures from the
foreign partners, not merely negating the previous administration’s policies but offering
Publication “Ukraine: Great Expectation” is prepared within the project “Ukraine Elections in Focus”, supported by the Black Sea Trust, a Project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Black Sea Trust and its partners