Zelensky: generally, in the right direction, but not on peace in Donbas
Dr. Anna Matveeva is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London and the author of Through Times of Trouble: Conflict in Southeastern Ukraine Explained from Within, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018, among multiple publications on post-Soviet politics and security issues. Dr. Matveeva joined the Department in 2012, where she is a member of Russia and Eurasia Security Research Group. She worked both as an academic and as an international consultant to the UN, specializing in conflict analysis and peacebuilding efforts. Her interests cover conflicts in Ukraine, the North and South Caucasus, and in Syria, where she worked for UNDP in 2018 – 2020 and was based in Damascus. In 2010, Dr. Matveeva headed the Research Secretariat of the international Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission in Osh, that investigated the June 2010 violent events in the South. Previously she was a Research Fellow at Chatham House, worked at the London School of Economics, and headed programmes at International Alert and Saferworld.
Has Zelensky moved Ukraine in a positive direction?
In my view, Zelensky’s glass is half-full than half-empty, while his presidency marks a significant improvement from the previous period. I think Zelensky's presidency has been good news for Ukraine. Still, while he received an enormous mandate from people, he did not deliver any miracles, and this was practically not possible. Right from the start, he was presented with multiple formidable challenges, with many of them beyond his control. Some of these challenges nobody could see coming. For instance, Ukraine became the center of Trump's impeachment case and hostage to the US domestic political struggle, giving Ukraine adverse publicity. It was neither his nor his government's fault for becoming the epicenter of scandal and forced to be reacting to the events while trying to preserve good relations with the US. I think that Zelensky and his team coped decently with this challenge. However, with Biden's arrival to the office, there are still risks of fallout from the US domestic politics for president Zelensky.
Also, the COVID-19 pandemic has been another substantial challenge. Ukraine has had difficult times addressing the increase in COVID-19 cases in Ukraine. In this regard, economic growth, which started to materialize in pre-pandemic times, has slowed down. But overall, the national health system has coped relatively well, by the regional standards in Europe.
I also think Zelensky proved to be capable of appointing people not because of their ideological closeness and political loyalty but also those with technical skills and knowledge of administration and economics. Of course, appointments do not solve all the problems, but Zelensky demonstrates that he is prepared to run his presidency in a non-partisan way. Also, it is very important that he has calmed down political discourse. There have not been any significant scandals like during Poroshenko's reign.
Additionally, Zelensky appeals to the duality of the linguistic situation in Ukraine as he speaks both Ukrainian and Russian languages. Moreover, I think his arrival to the presidency signaled better relations with Western policy actors. Especially, with the European donors who were quite sceptical and pessimistic of providing support to Ukraine close to the final period of Poroshenko's presidency who did not live up to their expectations despite substantial western assistance.
One of the most significant challenges is how to return Ukraine to growth and lift people out of poverty. While Ukraine has a tiny percentage of extreme poverty, moderate poverty has been gradually increasing, with the COVID-19 pandemic contributing to its growth. Also, corruption has accompanied the country more or less since the start of Ukrainian independence. Every Ukrainian president put some effort into the struggle against corruption, but it is unrealistic to expect Zelensky to overcome it within several years of his tenure. Nevertheless, the battle against corruption should be viewed as credible. Ukrainian people should feel that the president is committed and serious about it.
Lastly, another important topic is relations with Russia and Donbas conflict. My feeling is that this topic has been overlooked as Zelensky's agenda has focused primarily on addressing mainstream issues in the rest of Ukraine, such as economy, public health and infrastructure.
You touched upon the language situation. Once Ukrainian law came into force, using the Ukrainian language compulsory in public space, some people have not reacted to it very positively. Do you think there are some risks of dividing society?
Society is already divided. However, Zelensky is a less divisive figure than Poroshenko. And Ukraine is a bi-lingual country. It will be challenging for judicial and educational systems with people not understanding cases or educational material in the language they do not speak that well. It is not a very welcome step. But we should see how it is going to be implemented.
What is your view as to the latest developments in the Donbas region? Is there a possibility of peaceful conflict resolution?
Zelensky and his team have to be prepared to make painful compromises to secure a peaceful future. I think it is still possible with sufficient political will. I also believe that one can make a bad peace and agree on giving up things in the immediate term, including national pride. But you eventually can turn it into a better or good peace. It should be stressed that passage of time makes reintegration less likely. If the conflict persists, people in Donbas who now remember what it is like to live in the united Ukraine might be less inclined to return after a decade or so.
Zelensky has not done and should dismantle current barriers to economic and social interactions with the Donbas region. It is in the Ukrainian best interest to integrate these territories as much as possible instead of putting barriers. If it is not currently possible to integrate them politically, there is still room for social and economic integration by preserving and strengthening, for example, infrastructural connections and trade.
Also, apart from the prisoners' exchange, - which was an excellent humanitarian gesture, - military-style hostilities continue. We have only seen some minor scaling down in shooting along the Contact Line. There are still much firepower used, and civilian and military casualties.
In terms of long-term development, I do not think that Zelensky has a coherent strategy for future steps. His focus has been on different, more solvable internal matters than the Donbas' conflict. Also, what can become yet another factor of insecurity is a renewed discussion on Ukraine's accession to NATO. There is a chance for such a development as Viktoria Nuland and other people were appointed in Washington who support granting NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. Such a situation can create enormous expectations for Ukrainian leadership that Ukraine's problems can be outsourced to someone bigger who can resolve them. Moreover, this would pose real concerns in Russia, triggering militarization on the Russian side and hardening of its stance towards Donbas.
Ukraine should open direct negotiations with people who are de-facto in power in the LPR and DPR despite not recognizing their legitimacy. Such an approach can lead to a settlement even if they cannot agree on political or security status at present. It has to be direct contact and communication between Kyiv, and LPR and DPR. It should not have external power involvement but be treated as a domestic Ukrainian problem.
Anna Matveeva’s book Through times of Trouble is available in paperback or an Ebook from the publisher at: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781498543231/Through-Times-of-Trouble-Conflict-in-Southeastern-Ukraine-Explained-from-Within