In a blitz interview, RIAC experts spoke about possible changes to Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policies following Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory in the presidential elections.
Olga Pylova interviews Aleksandr Gushchin, Ph.D. in History, Department of Post-Soviet Countries at Russian State University for the Humanities; Viktor Mironenko, Ph.D. in History, Senior Researcher at the Department of Central and Eastern European Studies at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences; and Aleksandr Levchenkov, Ph.D. in History, Deputy Chair of the Post-Soviet Foreign Countries Department at the Russian State University for the Humanities.
How will Russia–Ukraine relations change after the new president takes office?
Aleksandr Gushchin: I think if something can change, most likely it will be at the level of rhetoric. We should bear in mind, though, that V. Zelensky received many votes in the east of Ukraine, where the demand for peace is particularly great. Of course, the new president is far from the Galician ideology, from making such mottos as “army, language, and faith” the pivots of his policies. However, the pressure will be put on him. He will not accomplish rapid social achievements, although this is precisely what society expects of him. In such a situation, the image of the enemy may be used again sooner or later. However, I would like to repeat that, thus far, all the evidence suggests that V. Zelensky and a significant part of his entourage are people more inclined towards pragmatism. Still, I think we should wait for his first key staff appointments. In any case, they will be working within the pro-Western paradigm and lead the country towards collaboration with international financial bodies, the European Union and NATO. Russia–Ukraine relations will largely depend on the general trends in U.S.–Russia relations, and I think gradually moving away from escalation is the maximum that Kiev would be willing to do in its relations with Moscow. This should probably start with goodwill gestures, as well as a demonstration that the Ukrainian side is ready for dialogue. The near future will show whether Ukraine will be capable of following that path. However, no large-scale shifts (at least in 2019) should be expected.
Viktor Mironenko: Relations will not change, because the conflict is based not only on subjective but also on objective differences in the “post-Soviet” (post-revolutionary) civilizational transit of both countries; and because any change for the better presupposes efforts on both sides, not just one of them.
Aleksandr Levchenkov: It is still too early to talk about radical changes in Russia–Ukraine relations. First, during his electoral campaign, V. Zelensky himself repeatedly failed to demonstrate a fundamental agenda for developing relations with Russia. Many of his statements are contradictory. For instance, on the one hand, he spoke about his desire to stop the bloodshed in Donbass, restore the infrastructure destroyed during his predecessor’s tenure and hold talks with the Russian president. On the other hand, the new leader said he would refuse to grant special status to the uncontrolled territories and that granting amnesty to the participants in the conflict in the self-proclaimed republics would be out of the question. This can be interpreted as a step towards non-compliance with the Minsk agreements. Additionally, since Ukraine is a parliamentary-presidential republic, and since V. Zelensky does not have his own faction and will not have a sufficient number of supporters in the Verkhovna Rada until the next (or early) elections, he will be significantly restricted in his legislative maneuvering. This applies to shifts in Russia–Ukraine relations as well. I should also add that the Ukrainian economy is very strongly tied to the West, and it is dependent on western subsidies and loans. And in terms of its foreign policy, it has long lacked independence in the big game between Russia and the West. Consequently, any tendency towards a thaw in Russia–Ukraine relations may only happen in conjunction with the general geopolitical situation in the relations between Moscow and Washington/Brussels. Therefore, it seems very unlikely that we will see any strategic changes in Kiev’s stance on the key issues of Russia–Ukraine relations.
What changes should be expected in the east of Ukraine?
Viktor Mironenko: We should not wait for changes to take place in the east of Ukraine. Rather, we should be saving people, people who have been deceived and who now find themselves in a situation where normal life is simply impossible. If we are talking Donbass, the most realistic outlook thus far is a humanitarian and environmental disaster comparable to Chernobyl.
Aleksandr Levchenkov: Some of V. Zelensky’s statements on the prospects on settling the conflict in Donbass (readiness for a cease-fire, negotiations and getting a system of social benefits up and running) might, at first glance, give grounds for cautious optimism. V. Zelensky’s very victory over Poroshenko may be treated in the same way: Poroshenko based his campaign rhetoric on the fight against the “Russian threat” and failed to gain support of the majority of voters, who simply did not see any such threat and were far more concerned with the social agenda. However, some of V. Zelensky’s other statements (including those that contradict the Minsk agreements, such as bringing the United States and the United Kingdom into the Normandy format) speak to the fact that V. Zelensky and his entourage will most likely act within the paradigm of the big Euro-Atlantic game directed against Russia’s interests. His intention to advance the fight against Moscow for the minds and sentiments of Ukrainians testifies to the same fact.
What will change in Ukraine’s foreign policy?
Aleksandr Gushchin: Ukraine’s policy will remain oriented towards the West, with the United States continuing to play a crucial role. I think Ukraine’s partners will still have a decisive impact on strategic decisions, and Kurt Volker’s latest statements testify to that fact. Much will depend on who will take the offices of prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. During Poroshenko’s tenure, he essentially defined foreign policy strategy. Now a greater “strategic fit” will be required of the team and the minister of foreign affairs. I think that even though the pragmatic trend will now be more pronounced than under the previous president, a strict, and, I would say, more technological orientation toward the West will remain in place.
Viktor Mironenko: The principles of Ukraine’s foreign policy will not change because, just like Ukraine’s domestic policy, its foreign policy is determined by the objective imperatives of the country’s development. Ukraine will continue to move towards EU membership, overcoming all the obstacles in its way. The means of ensuring security may change, for instance, neutrality supported by real guarantees. However, this requires overcoming the Budapest syndrome and changing Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. Thus far, there are no signs of either happening.
Aleksandr Levchenkov: What can be said for certain is that after the inauguration of the new president, the “face” of Ukraine’s foreign policy will change. At the same time, a certain liveliness will be seen in various areas, which is typical of times when a new team is being installed. However, the team itself has not yet been assembled, and it is not entirely clear how influential it will be on the external arena, how receptive that external arena will be to it, what financial and oligarchic circles will ultimately be behind that team, and which circles V. Zelensky will try to distance himself from. In any case, should the new leader attempt to adjust the foreign political course, he will have to take the entire system of checks and balances embodied in influential veterans of Ukrainian politics, as well in the country’s commitments and its serious financial dependence on the West, into account.
What domestic policy changes are most likely to take place in the short term (reforms)?
Aleksandr Gushchin: V. Zelensky has a very motley team, and I think this fact will affect the domestic situation. The new president will be subject to the influence and even pressure, of a large number of groups, not to mention the role of Ihor Kolomoyskyi in the situation. I think that many slogans will be forgotten and countless promises will not be kept – cutting utility rates, for instance. The political system will become more fragmented, and the competition within the elites will become more cutthroat. V. Zelensky’s ratings are likely to drop fairly fast. The dissolution of parliament is possible, but I think that there are significant groups of people within parliament who will oppose it. There are reasons to believe that the elections will be held as scheduled, although this is not guaranteed, and early elections should not be ruled out. V. Zelensky himself would likely need the elections to ride his high ratings and bring as many deputies from the “Servant of the People” into parliament as possible. At the same time, socially, 2019 will become a year of disappointment for many who voted for the president-elect. However, we must concede that V. Zelensky has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of hope in Ukrainian society.
Viktor Mironenko: In the short term, the Fourth Ukrainian republic will take shape. It will be most likely characterized by greater freedom for manufacturers (primarily for small- and medium-sized manufacturers), civil rather than ethnic consolidation, slow yet inexorable federalization, transition to a parliamentary-presidential republic, the greater role of the local authorities (hromadas) and moderate de-centralization.
Aleksandr Levchenkov: It is very unlikely that we will see the true face of V. Zelensky the reformer before the elections to the Verkhovna Rada (after the elections, we will see how capable the new president is, not only of generating specific legislation but also of gaining their parliamentary approval). Unless he relies on his influential supporters to bring the situation to early elections, during the first months of his presidency V. Zelensky will most likely assume the part of a popular politician of the people who fruitlessly fights the system – a system that is stacked against the people. This stance will be very convenient for him and will help him retain a significant part of his voters. The language bill scheduled to be put to the vote in the Verkhovna Rada in the second reading on April 25 will certainly be one of the key parameters affecting the degree of the internal split of Ukrainian society. In his interviews before the second round of the elections, V. Zelensky emerged as a staunch supporter of bolstering the standing of the Ukrainian language, which did not prevent him from receiving the majority of votes of Russian-speaking voters. His stance on the matter may be affected by the results of the vote in the Verkhovna Rada and, most importantly, by society’s reaction to the bill should it be passed and signed into law by the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko.
Unlike his predecessor, the new president will definitely prioritize the social agenda and the fight against corruption, which is in line with his campaign rhetoric and his most recent statements and is consistent with public expectations. However, V. Zelensky’s effectiveness here will depend directly on whether or not he will attempt or even be able to become at least a partly “non-mainstream” president, or whether his actions will ultimately boil down to a balancing act between oligarchic groups or simply to following in the wake of one of them.
Should we expect a change to the scale of emigration and the return of Ukrainians to their homeland?
Viktor Mironenko: This will certainly happen, but in the medium term, rather than the short term.
Aleksandr Gushchin: Depopulation and deindustrialization have become the principal markers of the social situation in Ukraine today. Expat Insider reports that there were 8 million Ukrainian living abroad in 2018. The flow of migrants is primarily to Ukraine’s neighboring states, mainly Poland. There has not been a census in Ukraine for many years. The reason for this is that it is too costly, while the true reasons are most likely connected with the fact that the official population numbers are noticeably higher than the real numbers. Even though money transfers into Ukraine provide a major cushioning effect, the brain and labor force drain have a highly negative strategic impact on the economy (even given the fact that migration, in general, is rather circulatory). The greatest risk here is emigration of the young generation, students. A total of 72 percent of Ukrainians would like their children to live abroad: there is certainly an economic aspect to this, but it also has to do with mindset. The ruralization of the economy will continue to determine migration trends because the failure to preserve Ukraine’s current industrial potential will mean that Ukraine will face a population surplus in terms of what is required for the new economic structure. This situation can be changed by creating a favorable investment climate, new jobs and special programmes for university graduates, but the key task is to ensure economic growth, give citizens development goals that would open up opportunities for personal growth and increase in prosperity in the country. Of course, in this respect, much depends on the external economic situation. The migration problem cannot be fully solved. The population drain into wealthier countries will continue. However, it is a question of numbers, and the policy of stimulating growth and investment may stop this process.
Aleksandr Levchenkov: Given the current situation in, and structure of, the Ukrainian economy, we should not expect any major changes in migration processes, primarily in labor migration. There is a certain economic growth, but it is largely compensatory and insufficient to radically improve the economic situation, which has stabilized recently but remains at a very low level. Migration will continue to be mainly determined by the lack of jobs and the low wages in Ukraine, combined with the means used by some European countries (particularly several states of Central and Eastern Europe) to attract Ukrainian labor resources (including illegal labor migration through the visa-free regime with the European Union). The number of Ukrainian people in Russia is still rather impressive. Those who can find accommodation and a job in Russia will still prefer to remain in emigration due to the apparent discrepancy in the standard of living and the far more stable domestic situation in Russia (the fact that that many Ukrainians currently living in Russia fled from domestic conflicts that have been going on for over five years should be taken into account here). Apparently, without a significant improvement in the socioeconomic situation and without stabilization of its public and political life, the population of Ukraine will continue to decline.