Margarita AssenovaSenior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation
The election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy will not change the EU’s involvement with Ukraine or its assistance to the country. For as long as Ukraine is committed to political association and economic integration with the EU, Brussels will continue its long-term programs to help Kyiv build strong state institutions and reform entire sectors of the economy, including the financial sector. Ukraine has undertaken an unprecedented commitment to undergo these reforms, typically expected of EU candidate states, even though it has no immediate prospect of EU membership.
I don’t think the new president will change this course, as it is the strategic choice of the Ukrainian people. Ukraine does not really have alternatives but to work with Western institutions to become a stronger democratic state with reliable security forces capable of withstanding Russian aggression.
Furthermore, Ukraine has a semi-presidential political system where the Cabinet of Ministers is the main government body in charge of the reforms, implemented with EU help. The cabinet is approved by and accountable to the parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. A change in the composition of parliament following elections later this year would be more consequential for Ukraine’s relations with the EU and continuing EU assistance to Kyiv than the change of the president.
Thomas De WaalSenior Fellow at Carnegie Europe
Ukraine does not show its leaders much respect. Petro Poroshenko has joined most of its post-independence presidents in being unceremoniously turfed out by the voters.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy has swept into office on a big tide of protest votes. Getting anything positive done will be infinitely harder. He needs a professional government and a new political party.
There are myriad forces ready to obstruct him. For example, Zelenskiy evidently wants to deescalate the conflict in Donbass—but so did Poroshenko. In 2017, far-right and veterans’ groups started a destructive economic blockade of nongovernment-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk. Poroshenko initially opposed the blockade but then capitulated and endorsed it, setting back the path of reconciliation.
Oligarchs—the word still means something in Ukraine—will want to stop him from getting things done. So will regional leaders, like Hennadiy Kernes in Kharkiv and Gennadiy Trukhanov, who is still mayor of Odessa, despite a BBC investigation showing his links to gangsters.
The will is there in the EU if it isin Kyiv. Rule of law must be the absolute priority. If Zelenskiy wants to get a proper justice system functioning, he will find support in civil society and in Brussels. Otherwise he will be thwarted.
Liana FixProgramme Director, International Affairs at Körber-Stiftung
Europe has no choice but to help Zelenskiy—and the coming months will be crucial.
First, Zelenskiy will need support for his domestic reform agenda. He has campaigned on the promise to end corruption and to strengthen the economy, but he needs strong backing from parliament in the October parliamentary elections to give substance to his goals. Ukrainian politics is marked by a system of vested interests, and Zelenskiy has stepped into the lion’s den without prior experience. The litmus test for his credibility will be his relationship with the oligarch Kolomoisky.
But Zelenskiy will need even more support in foreign policy. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the new Ukrainian president is a lightweight: the Russian president has not even deemed it necessary to offer congratulations. Sooner rather than later, Russia will test how to deal with the new Ukrainian leadership, and there is a broad range of options: from talks and rapprochement to a deterioration of the security situation. What is more, Zelenskiy embodies the difference in the political systems of Russia and Ukraine: he is a new type of post-Soviet, outsider politician, elected by a historic majority in free and fair elections. His success would demonstrate that an alternative to the Russian model is possible.
Ukraine is one of the last examples for the enduring attractiveness of Europe. With Zelenskiy’s election, Ukraine’s European orientation is no longer a question—that is the good news. But the road ahead is bumpy, and Europe needs to double its efforts to ensure Ukraine’s stability in the future.
Toomas Hendrik IlvesFormer president of Estonia
While Zelenskiy is an unknown to everyone, a “pied piper” as James Sherr at the International Centre for Defence and Security has called him, little will change in how the EU treats Ukraine. The EU will continue to try to look away—at least during this Commission—leaving the impression that the invasion and occupation of Ukraine by Russia is “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Ukraine, a country that borders on four EU member states, has been barely a blip on the outer edges of the high representative’s radar screen. This is unlikely to change.
Zelenskiy himself is such an unknown quantity—no one knows what his foreign policy is or who he will choose as his foreign and defense ministers—that any response from Brussels will be even slower. Add to this Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in October at a time when the EU itself adjusts to a new Commission, a new high representative (one hopes), and a new Council president. It is safe to say the EU will have no new initiatives or policies toward Ukraine until 2020.
Balázs JarábikNonresident Scholar, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The question is whether Brussels is actually willing to review its own approach and make corrections according to Ukraine’s election results and the country’s needs. Zelenskiy’s promise is to refocus efforts on state building reform—in contrast to Poroshenko’s nation-building agenda. Zeleznkiy will try to freeze the conflict in Donbas and mend ties with Ukraine’s Western neighbors over language and memory politics. The EU should be ready to mobilize much more aid toward reconciliation and infrastructure investment into Ukraine-controlled Donbas. That’s the first task.
Second is the economy. Because it has to pay back almost $36 billion to its Western creditors in three years, Ukraine needs the IMF. After this month’s election results, no sane government can continue with an austerity program. Brussels should intensify efforts to reach a gas deal between Russia and Ukraine aimed at keeping at least part of the transit and allowing Kyiv to buy gas cheaper and directly from Russia. Reaching agreement on these two issues will not be easy, but they are necessary.
The next challenge for the president and government will be to mobilize more domestic resources, such as increasing state income via better customs and tax collection, reducing the cost of war, and shepherding investments into the economy. Reforms need more resources than rhetoric. The EU should support efforts to put more money behind key sectoral reforms such as healthcare, education, and social systems.
Finally, the EU should be more flexible with the Association Agreement. Instead of dogmatic implementation, it should allow a review that is requested by some of the member states as well.
Jana KobzovaPolicy director at Rasmussen Global, which works in an advisory capacity for the Ukrainian government
The short answer is yes—over the past five years, the EU has provided more financial and technical assistance to Ukraine than to any other “third country.” But the real question is whether Zelenskiy manages to use this support in a way that can reinforce his declared reform agenda—de-monopolization, de-oligarchization, and de-bureaucratization—and whether he will be able to carry out these changes.
Having won with the biggest landslide since Ukraine’s independence, Zelenskiy could hardly have a stronger mandate. But the president’s room for maneuver will be limited if he doesn’t control a parliamentary majority. Barring any last-minute surprises, the elections to the Rada are six months away. Until then, Zelenskiy can do very little about the country’s economy—a top concern for many Ukrainians.
This is where the EU should engage early and put aside the debate on whether Zelenskiy’s victory is good or bad news for Europe—it is simply too early to know. Europe can help make a difference: at the upcoming EU-Ukraine summit in July, Brussels should agree to review Kyiv’s trade deal with the EU (the DCFTA). The deal was negotiated almost ten years ago and the trade quotas it allocated hardly reflect the realities of today. Increased market access for those Ukrainian producers who meet EU standards would directly help the country’s economy and reinforce the EU’s influence in Ukraine.
Anna KorbutAcademy Robert Bosch Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House
The incumbent administration has ensured the democratic transition of power, and Zelenskiy has declared his commitment to Ukraine’s current geopolitical vector. Much will depend on the upcoming parliamentary election and the Rada setup after it. For now, however, the EU should continue to help change Ukraine via frameworks such as the Association Agreement and the DCFTA. Europe should also continue its support for civil society and independent journalism in Ukraine—which have fulfilled their function of watchdogs over the past five years and will do so during the term of the new president-elect.
The EU’s help is also critically important on the security front. The Kremlin finalized its decision to issue Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens residing in the occupied parts of the Donbas, just days after Ukraine’s presidential election. Moscow has not yet indicated an intention to change its hostile behavior toward Ukraine. Meanwhile, there is talk from some EU member states of lifting Russian sanctions or reinstating Russia’s voting rights at the Council of Europe. The EU would help Ukraine by maintaining pressure on Russia—and stepping it up if necessary.
John C. KornblumSenior Counsellor at Noerr LLP
It is difficult to judge what Zelenskiy will do, but the West should work to help define a positive program. We can take a vital first step by agreeing a new narrative. There is no longer any “East-West divide” in Europe and also no “Eastern neighborhood.” These are concepts from the past. Countries and cultures that emerged from Soviet occupation form a varied and complex group. Russia is one of them. But others are already members of NATO and the EU, and countries such as Georgia are closely associated.
Ukraine’s third consecutive peaceful transfer of power confirms that with the exception of Belarus, all of the countries on Russia’s Western border are functioning democracies. This democratic belt should be handled in the same manner as the Western Balkans. Their democracies should be encouraged, including through Western security commitments. An important first step would be to end the shameful acceptance of Russia as one of the peace parties in Ukraine, Georgia, or Nagorny Karabakh. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and occupation of Crimea are the reason for the hostilities. Clarifying this point would be the most important support Europe could give to a new and inexperienced president who must fight a war on his territory.
John LoughAssociate Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House
For reasons of rational self interest, the EU is deeply invested in the reform effort in Ukraine. It recognizes that weak institutions, poor governance, and high levels of corruption risk making Ukraine an exporter of instability to Europe.
It also sees that Ukraine remains under enormous pressure to reform its institutions to create greater capacity to resist malign Russian influence.
The EU is the biggest donor to Ukraine, and this situation is unlikely to change as long as Ukraine’s leadership remains committed to reforming the country and integrating with the EU.
The question for the EU is whether the Zelenskiy presidency will have the vision and capacity to set Ukraine on a path of genuine transformation. Can it create the political and economic competition necessary to end the dominant influence of a small number of business people and the rent-seeking networks that they underpin?
The EU retains considerable influence in Ukraine and there are signs that its quest to promote good governance is having an effect. Public administration reform is well underway and standards of policymaking look set to improve. Decentralization is one of the most important reforms begun since Maidan and requires considerable further EU support to achieve its potential.
Mikhail MinakovSenior advisor on Ukraine at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute
It will take some time to build trust between the new Ukrainian president and the new European Commission. It is widely believed among Zelenskiy’s team that EU diplomats supported his contender, Petro Poroshenko, during the presidential elections. There were solid reasons to think so. EU leaders and diplomats had concerns about Zelenskiy’s competence and his policy plans, and there were grounds for these too.
But one way or another, new leaders in Kyiv and in Brussels will need to establish personal contacts anew, as well as establish institutional cooperation, in order to work together to foster peace and democracy in Ukraine.
Andreas UmlandSenior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv
The West will have little choice but to help Zelenskiy given Ukraine’s intertwinement with the stability of the entire European continent. Zelenskiy’s and his team’s manifest lack of political, administrative, and diplomatic experience are of concern in and outside Ukraine. Their inexperience is compounded by the general post-Soviet pathology of dilettante political punditry and consultancy—meaning the big influence of governmental (para-)advisors and public (pseudo-)experts without adequate educational background, scholarly credentials, and peer-group reputation. Such defects were also responsible for Poroshenko’s self-defeating policies and campaign during 2018.
While Zelenskiy’s lack of experience is an enormous challenge, it might also provide a window of opportunity for real experts in Ukraine to exert a larger influence on decisionmaking and policy implementation than was the case under Poroshenko, whose public posture was often loudly pro-reformist but whose actual political behavior was more ambivalent.
Arguably, the most fundamental issue that Poroshenko failed to solve during his first three months as president—and which the West should now help Zelenskiy address as soon as possible—is the adoption of the already submitted new law on parliamentary elections, introducing fully proportional representation and open party lists.