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On risks and opportunities for Ukraine under the Presidency of Zelensky

Iryna Solonenko has been an associate fellow at the DGAP’s Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia since May 2015. Since 2012 Solonenko has been working on a research project at the European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder addressing state-business relations in hybrid regimes, focusing on the political role of Ukrainian oligarchs. Between 2000 and 2012 she worked with the Open Society Foundations in Ukraine as the director of the European Program and as a project manager for the EastWest Institute in Kyiv.

Solonenko holds degrees in international relations, European studies, public administration, and history from the Central European University, Budapest; National Academy of Public Administration, Kyiv; and National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. In 2006–07 she was a visiting research associate at the University of Birmingham, and in 2009 she was a fellow in the Study Program on European Security (SPES) at the Institute for European Policy in Berlin.

Solonenko is the author of a number of academic, policy, and media publications. She has served on advisory councils with Ukrainian public authorities, has shared her expertise with EU institutions, and has been a board member or expert with such organizations as Kyiv Dialogues, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, and the European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries.

1. Do you think that President Zelensky and his team are moving Ukraine in a positive direction? Is there a chance for effective reforms implementation, and what obstacles can prevent them from doing so?

The picture is rather mixed. On the one hand, one can observe strong political will to deliver on reforms and election promises of Zelensky and his party - Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People). The appointment of the technocratic government with prime-minister and ministers/deputy ministers with a good professional record, allegedly strong personal integrity and commitment to reforms, appointment of the new leadership of the Prosecutor’s General Office and the Customs Service with a clear mandate to relaunch those least trusted institutions in Ukraine, are very good indicators. The newly elected parliament started adopting laws with speed unseen before, and many more bills are already in the pipeline. Unfortunately, this often takes place at the expense of the quality of legislation and with violation of procedures.

On the other hand, there are serious risks, stemming from the over-concentration of power. De facto President Zelensky has become the only source of power in Ukraine and is not counterweighted by either the parliament or the government. After the early parliamentary elections in July, the President’s Servant of the People party received an absolute majority in the parliament and can pass legislation without the consent of other factions. Since many MPs of Sluha Narodu are inexperienced and, which is more, received their mandates largely due to the brand, under which they were running (either via party list or in single-mandate constituencies), they pass the laws they are told to pass by the faction‘s leader. The parliamentary debate takes place, but it does not affect the outcome of the voting. The new government, although reformist and professional, is expected to be loyal to the president, while the prime-minister avoids showing independent political ambitions.

In short, Zelensky has a unique opportunity to undertake speedy reforms for the benefit of the country. His extremely high popular support allows him to do this. It seems that he and his team are aware of the fact that this window of opportunities will not last too long, and therefore they need to hurry up. In the next six months, a maximum of one year, we will see which direction he is heading.

2. What do you think about the recent developments regarding the Donbas conflict? Is there a way forward, or it is improbable?

There is no Donbas conflict, but Russia‘s war against Ukraine. Parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions were illegally occupied by armed formations with Russia’s direct military involvement, and this occupation, as well as active military actions, could persist until now only due to Russia’s support. This situation can only be resolved if Russia decides to move out of Ukraine, which I do not envisage happening in the near future.

Another part of the story is that Zelensky promised peace to his voters, and he now wants to meet Putin in person within the Normandy summit, hoping that he might reach a deal. The question is, what price Ukraine has to pay within such a deal. We see now that Zelensky accepted the so-called „Steinmeier formula,“ which was recently reinvented by Russia, but in essence, it is nothing new. Moreover, this formula does not offer the solution to ending the war but concerns only the special status of the occupied territories after the local elections. Since this was one of Russia’s two key conditions for the Normandy summit to take place (the other one being the withdrawal of troops from three areas along the contact line), Ukraine agreed to accept it.

The critical issue is, though, under which conditions elections of local authorities will be conducted there. If those are to take place in a fair and free manner in a secure environment and in accordance with Ukrainian legislation, like those take place all over Ukraine (this concerns the entire election process, not only the day of voting), Russian troops need to move out and the Russian-Ukrainian border should be transferred under the Ukrainian control. An international peace-keeping mission could be an alternative. Anything, which fells short, would seriously compromise the quality and the outcome of the elections. It is highly doubtful that the Normandy summit is going to offer such a solution.

3. Do you think Ukraine is successfully combating Russia’s information warfare and other techniques in Ukraine? What steps should Ukraine take to cope with them more effectively?

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Various initiatives of Ukraine’s civil society do more in this respect than the state (to mention a few, those are StopFake and Ukraine Crisis Media Centre). There is also a problem with the way Zelensky communicates things. For instance, the document signed by Leonid Kuchma (Ukraine’s representative in the Trilateral Contact Group and the second president of Ukraine), where acceptance of the Steinmeier formula is spelled out, was at first published by the Russian newspaper “Kommersant” and only afterward by Kuchma’s spokesperson. Zelensky elaborated only partially on the red lines and conditions for elections only after two days of protests provoked by what was signed in Minsk. There have been other cases, when certain messages or information came first from Russia, whereas Ukraine had to react. This puts Ukraine into a weak position. Frank and open manner, in which Zelensky would define red lines and elaborate on his strategy vis-a-vis Russia, when it comes to ending the war, before the Normandy summit, would be the way to go to combat Russia’s information warfare.

4. What do you think about the current official country’s stance on Crimea? What should additional steps be taken to ensure its gradual return to Ukraine?

This, again, is a matter of political will on the part of Russia, which I do not see happening in the near future. There is nothing Ukraine can do about that, but be open to its people, who stayed in Crimea. Such openness can be exercised by offering those people quick and high-quality services, whenever they come into contact with the Ukrainian authorities (for instance, when applying for documents, such as biometric passports for traveling abroad), and improving the infrastructure of the crossing points with Crimea from the side controlled by Ukraine. On top of that, it is important that the Ukrainian authorities with the help of Ukrainian civil society keep Crimea on domestic and international agenda, making sure that the current state of things is not perceived as being normal and reminding about human rights violations in Crimea. The newly appointed Special Representative of the President on Crimea, based in Kherson, seems to have a good understanding of these issues.

5. How do you see Ukraine’s relations with the EU developing in the next couple of years? Do you think there is a likelihood of gaining an official promise of future accession once Ukraine fulfills the respective conditions?

No. I do not think this is possible. The best-case scenario Ukraine might expect would be some sort of advanced arrangement with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, as the three countries (of Eastern Partnership) that have Association Agreement with the EU (with DCFTA) and having problems with Russia. Otherwise, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement entails a lot of potential to deepen EU- Ukraine relations, for instance, by giving better access to the EU market for Ukrainian products and integration in various sectors. This framework will thus remain for years to come.

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