The year of Zelenskyy’s Presidency allows us to evaluate his foreign policy in different dimensions. Even though 2019 was a year of adjusting, finding the focus, and setting priorities, also accompanied by the Parliamentary elections and long overdue appointment of a new Cabinet of Ministers, there were still enough statements, legislation, and activities that allow a certain assessment of Zelenskyy’s plans in the Eastern Partnership region.
It is a definite necessity to differentiate President Zelenskyy policies towards the Eastern Partnership as a whole and bilateral tracks with the individual EaP states. While the first one remained predominantly a business of executive power, foremost the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the bilateral relations had their ups and downs with sometimes controversial decisions.
To be objective, it is necessary to mention that a year of Zelenskyy’s Presidency came amid two changes of the ministers of foreign affairs. Also, the changes both in the European Commission, European Parliament composition, and governments in some EaP states impacted Ukrainian relations with the region.
As neither President Zelenskyy nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs still have not presented any conceptual or strategic document in the sphere of Ukraine’s foreign policy, the only document that allows us to evaluate his vision is the Presidential Decree #837/2019 “On urgent measures for reforming and strengthening the state” (November 2019). The document contains only one reference, “developing good neighbourly partner relations with neighbouring states” as one of the steps in the foreign policy domain. The necessity to solve existing problems in the humanitarian sphere is proposed only for the neighbors-members of the EU.
Eastern Partnership Approach of Ukraine
For President Zelenskyy and his team, the Eastern Partnership is just a part of the general road towards country’s European Integration. This became especially visible in October, when Ukrainian officials demonstrated political interest in redirecting the EaP towards the key goal of Ukraine’s European integration during an event in a framework of the EC’s structured consultation that took place in Kyiv. Official documents, such as November Presidential Decree just confirmed this assumption. Moreover, in view of the 10th anniversary of the EaP, Ukraine has not provided any formal assessment of the policy and the country’s participation in it.
At the same time, Ukraine under President Zelenskyy continued looking at EaP beyond 2020, with a possibility to assume a role of promoter of the idea of Association+, or A3 format, where three countries-signatories of Association Agreements (Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia), should receive greater attention and greater opportunities.
As of now, it is fair to say that the civil society and expert community remain the main driving force for the Ukrainian participation in the Eastern Partnership.
“For President Zelenskyy and his team, the Eastern Partnership is just a part of the general road towards country’s European Integration”
Bilateral Relations with the EaP states
Developing bilateral relations or prioritizing other frameworks such as GUAM became a feature of President Zelenskyy within the Eastern Partnership area. Nevertheless, it is difficult to say that EaP states were among priority directions for President Zelenskyy and his team. However, there happened certain interesting developments.
Relations with Georgia brought the biggest controversies during the first year of Zelenskyy’s presidency. On one hand, strategic partnership has been confirmed on numerous occasions. On the other hand, the situation with former President Saakashvili being appointed to high post in Ukraine demonstrated the lack of understanding of the strategic sense of relations and sensitivity towards partner’s position.
Strategic partnership of the two states, common agenda in relations with NATO and the EU, position towards Russian aggression created a fundament for continued high political attention for Georgia in 2019. Even if the Georgian President’s second visit to Ukraine in 2019 was postponed (first one was just for the inauguration of President Zelenskyy in May), the December visit of the Georgian Prime Minister was an important milestone in the bilateral relations (especially considering increased role of the Prime Minister in Georgia after the Constitutional reform). On December 14, in Kyiv Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy and Georgia’s PM Gakharia signed the Provision on the Ukrainian-Georgian Top Level Strategic Council that should become the key mechanism for the bilateral dialogue.
Even more, finally after several years of discussions Ukraine and Georgia were ready to speak in a single voice in international organizations about the Russian aggression, which Ukraine had been hesitating with sometimes. On 22 December 2019, Ukraine and Georgia reported together on the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes item on the agenda at the Committee on the Charter of the UN at the UN Headquarters.
Unfortunately, already in 2020, the ruling team demonstrated the absence of the understanding of Ukraine-Georgia strategic partnership importance. First appeared the idea to appoint a controversial figure, Georgia’s former President Saakashvili, convicted in his home country, as a vice prime minister. Even though this didn’t happen, later he was appointed as a head of the Council of Reforms. Nevertheless, the situation led to the serious problems in bilateral relations, with Georgian ambassador being recalled for consultations to Tbilisi. The biggest issue is not even the fact of such an appointment, but accompanying comments by some ruling party members and presidential team, that were neglecting Georgian position, accusing it in interference in Ukrainian domestic affairs, and even allowing themselves some disrespectful statements considering small size of Georgia.
Such moves have a chance to negatively impact the level of trust between the states that were just regained two years ago.
“In 2020, the ruling team demonstrated the absence of the understanding of Ukraine-Georgia strategic partnership importance”
Overall positive dynamics of Ukraine-Moldova bilateral relations slowed down significantly in 2019 due to both turbulences in Moldova (political crisis and several changes in governments) and elections in Ukraine.
Same as Georgia, Moldova was just briefly indicated as a country that should be followed closely in the official speeches of both President Zelenskyy and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prystaiko. In addition, Moldova was mentioned by President of Ukraine in the context of Russian aggression and policies in the region, and Moscow support of separatist regions. Zelenskyy stated that Ukraine and Moldova were united by a common desire not to have Russian troops in their territory and would not allow plans for so-called federalization to be imposed.
At the same time, one can note the higher interest of the Moldovan top officials in Ukraine than vice versa, confirmed by their numerous visits to Kyiv in 2019 with none in return.
Among the primary topics for cooperation are border demarcation, joint customs control, legislative initiatives in the framework of Association Agreements and cooperation with the European Union. Still, it should be noted that cooperation at the level of the Georgia-Moldova-Ukraine Interparliamentary Assembly did not draw attention of the new Ukrainian Parliament.
In 2019, the sides failed to increase mutual trade to $1 billion, as expected in previous years, it reached only $896.2 million, showing a decline from 2018 (trade in goods and services reached $953.6 million).
In general, the current state of affairs demonstrates that due to the absence of the initiative and a political turbulence, the level of relations between the two states currently is below the level of their potential.
Belarus also remains among the controversial partners of Ukraine, and Zelenskyy’s presidency did not bring any clarity to this foreign policy direction. On one hand, Minsk and Kyiv are big trade partners. In 2019, at the expense of Ukrainian exports, trade turnover increased and amounted to $5.3 billion, even if a significant negative balance remained. On the other hand, increase in trade and economic ties does not advance political relations, which are still lacking trust due to the strategic partnership between Belarus and Russia and thus Kremlin’s influence. During his speech to the Verkhovna Rada before his appointment as a Foreign Minister (August 29, 2019), Vadym Prystaiko called Belarus one of the countries Ukraine should watchfully monitor.
Such distrust and lack of political interest can also be confirmed by the fact that no inter-parliamentary Ukraine-Belarus friendship group has still been established after 7 months in power of new Verkhovna Rada.
At the same time, this year experienced the Second Forum of the Regions of Ukraine and the Republic of Belarus (held in Zhytomyr in October), the biggest event in bilateral relations that brought together over 900 governmental representatives and entrepreneurs from both sides, including both heads of the states – Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Aleksandr Lukashenko. During the Forum, President Zelenskyy named fuel and energy, infrastructure and transport projects, agro-industrial complex among the main areas of cooperation. The results of the Second Forum of the Regions include signing of 15 agreements (2 interagency and 13 interregional ones). About 40 contracts worth up to $500 million were signed there as well.
Armenia and Azerbaijan
As for the last 6 years, Armenia was out of the Ukrainian foreign policy attention, among others due to its alliance with the Russian Federation. Change of the political elites in Yerevan did not influence such an attitude of official Kyiv. Moreover, in late 2019 – 2020 the more pro-Azerbaijan position started to be presented, even if before Azerbaijan also lacked Ukrainian attention.
In December 2019, President Zelenskyy visited Baku, which was an important sign as he was not very active in his international activities during the year, except of “classical” trips to Berlin, Paris and Brussels. During this visit a number of bilateral agreements on regional and economic cooperation were signed though mostly of operational level. It became obvious that Ukrainian President considers Azerbaijan predominantly through the prism of investments attraction, infrastructure projects and energy.
“The ability to balance between certain domestic interests and foreign strategic partnerships will be the main challenge for presidential team”
As any foreign policy direction of Ukraine, Eastern Partnership is still lacking clear and articulated vision of President Zelenskyy and his team. However, the interest towards the participating countries, as well as using this format as part of the general road to the European integration can already be observed. For the next year, there are more chances that this program and countries involved will be in the focus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Vice Prime Minister on European and Euroatlantic Integration rather than Office of the President of Ukraine. The ability to balance between certain domestic interests and foreign strategic partnerships will be the main challenge for presidential team.
Photo credits: Office of the President of Ukraine