Foreign policy did not become a top priority during either the presidential or the parliamentary election in Ukraine in 2019. With the focus on European and Euroatlantic integration debate, all other burning issues, such as relations with neighbours, building up international support against Russian aggression, relations with diaspora, and promotion of the Ukrainian image abroad, are almost absent among the concerns of the new political establishment. New methods of diplomatic interactions, lack of trust in diplomatic corps, tactics of short-term success instead of a long-term foreign policy strategy are the trends that negatively affect expectations for positive changes in a short-term perspective.
The president of Ukraine has the primary responsibility for managing national security and foreign policy; however, during the 2019 presidential campaign none of these issues framed a political debate or became crucial for the voters’ decision. If the then President Poroshenko had placed his management of relations with the EU and NATO at the centre of his campaign, presenting himself as the main protector of the European choice and of the state against Russian aggression, his opponent Volodymyr Zelenskyy until the second round of the elections had not paid any significant attention to the topic, even allowing factual mistakes about the state of affairs.
In February 2019, the parliament adopted amendments to the constitution, committing Ukraine to seeking membership of both the EU and NATO, thus, creating a backup in case the new president would decide to reverse the Ukrainian foreign policy choice or would be weak enough to agree to the Russian intentions to neutralise Ukraine. However, as the elections results demonstrated, Ukrainian voters have been predominantly occupied with the domestic agenda.
As a political novice, President Zelenskyy lacks knowledge of foreign policy and defence issues and is only just beginning to build ties with leaders abroad. It has started to improve after the inauguration, with professional diplomats being appointed as the minister of foreign affairs and the vice-prime minister for European and Euroatlantic integration. However, classical diplomacy was still overshadowed by the inner circle members’ activities, especially in the spheres of relations with the USA and negotiations with Russia.
The latest developments demonstrate that the new team still does not trust career diplomats, underestimates foreign policy instruments and mechanisms, including multilateral formats. The US president impeachment inquiry demonstrated miscalculations in such methods. The absence of appointments of new ambassadors (which is a presidential responsibility), despite the promises given, also demonstrates that other topics besides the relations with Russia are not among top priorities of the president’s agenda.
Parliamentary Debates and Executive Management
Future membership in the EU and NATO, relations with the USA and neighbouring states, promotion of Ukraine abroad and economic diplomacy, questions of relations with diaspora, cooperation with states beyond the EU and international organisations, and, most importantly, build-up of international support on countering Russian aggression are those topics that experts consider among the top priorities for the Ukrainian foreign policy. The previous parliament set a standard of more active parliamentary diplomacy, which aimed to fill some gaps or at least to support the executive branch.
An analysis made by the Ukrainian Prism in July 2019 of 12 political parties participating in the snap elections demonstrated that besides the issues of cooperation with the EU and NATO, other topics had little interest among the newcomers.
First of all, a lack of vision about the role of parliamentary diplomacy and its instruments is evident in the political programmes. The least attention was paid to the parliamentary dimension of international organisations’ work, economic diplomacy, and promotion of the Ukrainian image abroad – exactly those questions where MPs can play the most active role. The same became apparent when decisions on parliamentary committees were being made, from the initial desire to unite two committees – on foreign affairs and on European integration (responsible for the implementation of the Association Agreement, which is a domestic policy) – to the final compositions of the two committees, which are the smallest in the current parliament.
If one were to study individual dimensions, the picture presents the following:
- All parties except for two openly pro-Russian ones – the Opposition Bloc and Opposition Platform ‘For Life’ – are supporting Ukrainian Euroatlantic integration, however, de facto limiting it to adherence to NATO standards and interoperability reform.
- European integration is important for all parties and described predominantly within the Association Agreement implementation.
- Most of the political parties do not have their vision about priorities of cooperation with the USA. Mostly, the USA is considered as a source of diplomatic and military support. However, there are also positions such as that of leader of the Opposition Platform, Viktor Medvedchuk, who insists that Ukraine since 2014 has been under the US direct control and that it negatively influenced Ukrainian independence.
- Most of the parties see Donbas conflict settlement as primarily a domestic issue, and see the necessity to address internal challenges. There is a lack of vision on how to strengthen international support to oppose Russian aggression or to protect Ukrainian interests and sovereignty. Four political parties, including Batkivshchyna, that entered the parliament expressed an opinion of widening the negotiating format to so-called ‘Budapest+’, meaning including at least the USA and the UK as signatories of the Budapest Memorandum.
- Economic diplomacy also did not catch the attention of future MPs; the maximum coverage could be found on issues of improving the investment climate in Ukraine and deepening the Association Agreement with the EU.
- Poland and the Baltic States got separate attention for the necessity to continue developing strong relations and active dialogue. Most of the political parties also criticised official Budapest for their blocking of the Euroatlantic choice of Ukraine and manipulations in bilateral relations.
- Issues of possible dual citizenship, developing of relations with diaspora, and public diplomacy received limited, if any, attention. Just three of the 12 analysed parties had certain mentions of the promotion of the Ukrainian image abroad.
The same is clearly visible in the Governmental Action Plan presented in September 2019. As a coalition agreement was not signed due to the mono majority in the new parliament, the Governmental Action Plan became a road map where foreign policy priorities were expected to be set. The experts’ impression was quite a gloomy one.
Among the 75 declared goals, only five are directly connected with foreign policy. At the same time, separate tasks of other ministries are also directed at achieving the goals of European and Euroatlantic integration. Three goals are for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: to ensure that Ukrainians are satisfied with how the state protects them abroad; Ukrainians freely travel the world without visas; Ukrainian business, culture, and sport receive good support abroad. These look like the tasks of a consular service, not the top priorities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a time of war and active foreign policy. Two other goals are set for the vice-prime minister on European and Euroatlantic Integration and the action plan states that Ukraine should reach the standards of membership in the two respective organisations.
Outlook for the Future
Concentration predominantly on the domestic agenda will not be possible for long, as realisation of many goals depends on partners’ support, guaranteed security and stability, micro financial support, investments, etc. Without clear articulation of the foreign policy priorities, presenting strategies, and understanding the necessity for active promotion of the Ukrainian interests abroad, it will be impossible to secure a circle of allies and partners ready to support Ukrainian development and security.
Ukraine cannot allow itself to concentrate only on the European agenda, as it needs both access to different international markets to promote its exports and wide support of the world’s states to overcome consequences of the Russian policy. Foreign policy of Ukraine should not be three-headed, when the parliament, the MFA, and the Office of the President act in parallel, not accumulating their efforts.
To improve the support of ‘Ukrainian’ resolutions within different international organisations, parliamentary diplomacy should act more persistently, including groups of friendship that can facilitate support of Asian, African, or Latin American states, where Ukraine is lacking diplomatic representation. It is important for Ukraine to articulate its foreign policy position abroad by a single position, so as to persuade others that the Russian policy is unacceptable not only to the EU partners.
Ukrainian diaspora and Ukrainian migrants need better attention, as well as the promotion of cultural and public diplomacy, so as not to be perceived only as a state generating problems due to the conflict but also as a state with big potential and a reliable partnership.
Foreign policy did not take a proper place both in the presidential and parliamentary campaigns in Ukraine in 2019. Mistrust of classical diplomatic mechanisms, high concentration on the domestic agenda, and absence of a clear vision of the foreign policy priorities accompanied the first months of the new team. At the same time, the EU and NATO integration courses seem as irreversible strategies that are fixed as mainstream. Formulation of a clear vision of the relations with neighbouring countries, the diaspora policy, economic diplomacy goals, and tasks for promoting the Ukrainian image abroad remains among the expectations both of Ukrainian experts and foreign partners.
Great expectations are always accompanied by great challenges, new transformations – by new risks. However, no state in transition can escape either of these.
The year of the presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine raised expectations both inside and outside of Ukraine about new developments and transformations.
The main outlooks lay within both domestic and external agenda. The former is predominantly formulated by economic, media, and Donbas settlement questions, while the European integration perspectives and reforms are at the edge of both domestic and foreign domains. The external agenda is two-fold as it is composed of both Ukraine’s unknown priorities in the sphere of foreign policy and perceptions and expectations of the foreign partners from Ukraine and the new ruling team.
New generation politics is becoming trendy in Ukraine. Both the president and 75% of the parliament are neophytes, so a deficit of knowledge and expertise can consequently lead to a crisis of competence and a ‘leadership bubble’. The intention to build policy on a strong opposition to the previous team, as well as a lack of strategy and experience, can open a window of opportunity for pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
Presidential party ‘Sluha Narodu’ (the Servant of the People) is guided rather by the desire to satisfy voters’ demands than by strong ideological beliefs. It is about applying populism and being guided by popular demand rather than by defining uniting ideas. A quick turn from libertarian ideology to a mix of socialism and liberalism, as announced by the party leadership, is confusing. However, strong public support and high approval rates can provide a chance for quick implementation of reforms.
Electoral calculations made institutional political actors more receptive towards cooperation with civil society. Desire to change the political elite brought many activists from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs) to the parliament and the government with a chance to implement their initiatives. However, most of the reforms that have already been launched are subject to continuing struggle, because a basic feature of policies in Ukraine is reversibility.
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. Cautious optimism expressed will need a proof of Ukraine being a reliable partner. The main pressure is to deliver the anti-corruption reform, which has become a buzzword, as well as to limit the influence of oligarchs.
For achieving fast and tangible results in the economic sphere, the government should improve communication with the parliament and society and introduce a systematic approach to reforms instead of ‘scrappy’ measures. Privatisation of state enterprises and launch of the land market, which is scheduled for October 1, 2020, can lead to investment attraction. However, an anti-corruption reform, support of small-to-medium enterprises, and economy de-oligarchisation are still under question.
The initiatives voiced by both President Zelenskyy and Prime Minister Honcharuk do not lack ambitions regarding the European integration track. Even if during the presidential campaign the future president’s position was unclear and under-formulated, and after the parliamentary elections there was a chance that the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration will be dissolved, the governmental programme sets an aim to comply with the EU membership criteria and envisages approximation with all economic criteria for candidate countries, as well as joining the common economic, energy, digital, legal, and cultural spaces of the EU. In this context, there is a need for re-approval by the new parliament and the government of the list of priority draft laws to be passed by the Verkhovna Rada, similar to the Roadmap for Legislative Support of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement Implementation for 2018-2019.
The programme of Oleksiy Honcharuk’s government has a special chapter devoted to the issues of rapprochement with the EU and NATO, which in some parts echoes the initiatives of the previous team and in some claims to be more human-centred. The five priorities in the realm of Ukraine’s further rapprochement with the European Union announced in November 2019 are as follows: deeper sectoral integration and cooperation in the fields of digital and energy markets, customs procedures, justice, freedom, and security sectors; climate change and energy efficiency; the conclusion of the Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA); bringing more knowledge about benefits of the European integration to the regions of Ukraine; and reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure in the conflict-affected parts of the Donbas region.
Like in other sectors, the new team in power has a proactive approach to shaping media-related policies, but it is still lacking details of the changes. While the new authorities perceive themselves as the media and prefer social media to traditional outlets, seeking to communicate without intermediaries, it brings a certain strain in the relations between journalists and the presidential team.
A new Law on Media is expected soon that can address some of the questions necessary for the media landscape transformation. Amidst potential modification of the regulatory and market environment, it might be useful to look for ways to support good-quality smaller media – print and online, nationwide and local – that operate in line with professional standards and the production of quality domestic media products.
Another tough topic for the new team in power is modalities of the Donbas conflict settlement. After the 2019 presidential election, new efforts to reset negotiations in the Normandy format have been taking place, which is perceived as the main instrument for pushing progress, with the belief that personal talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin can bring an agreement on reintegration of Donbas. However, Russia’s scenario for the conflict resolution has not significantly changed over the past years. Moreover, a lack of understanding of what the real ‘red lines’ are for the newly elected Ukrainian president and of how precisely he is going to stand up for demilitarisation, guaranteed withdrawal of the Russian troops, and return of the control over the border to Ukraine, as he declared, brings uncertainty and stable public non-acceptance of reintegration on Russia’s terms and of ‘peace at any cost’.
While Ukraine needs strong foreign support, its current stance is not so good. Ukrainian-US relations have appeared to be hit by a dangerous political storm due to the President Trump impeachment inquiry. Western moves to accommodate Russia, including restoring Moscow’s voting rights in the PACE, the French willingness ‘to bring Russia back to Europe’, and Germany’s stance on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline explain apprehensions of Ukrainians.
With a focus on European and Euroatlantic integration debate, all other burning issues, such as relations with neighbours, building up international support against Russian aggression, relations with diaspora, and promotion of the Ukrainian image abroad, are almost absent among the concerns of the new political establishment. A lack of vision about the role of parliamentary diplomacy and its instruments has been evident as well.
Concentration predominantly on the domestic agenda will not be possible for long, as realisation of many goals depends on partners’ support, guaranteed security and stability, micro financial support, investments, etc. Without a clear articulation of foreign policy priorities, presenting strategies, and understanding the necessity for active promotion of the Ukrainian interests abroad, it will be impossible to secure a circle of allies and partners ready to support Ukrainian development and security. To fill in the gaps in communication with media and society, providing clear explanations of high-profile decisions is needed in both domestic and foreign policy domains. Great expectations and great challenges are two indivisible components of Ukraine 2020.