Volodymyr Zelenskiy became President of Ukraine a little more than one year ago and has continued to be the focal point of attention owing to different reasons not only in Europe but also across the Atlantic because of President Donald Trump of the United States.
The Ukrainians, fed up with corruption and oligarchy, voted him into office - someone who had never been an active politician, but had spent his time mostly as a comedian. It was a tall order as he promised to ensure the fractured population’s economic well-being.
In the Covid-infested Europe Zelenskiy has had a mixed year. Analysts have watched the unfolding of events very carefully - particularly because it has included Russia’s response to his initiatives. Nevertheless, it needs to be noted that there have been some noteworthy political and economic developments, including electoral, banking, digital and land reform, as well as a gas agreement with Russia.
Important confidence-building measures (CBMs) related to the conflict in the Donbas have also been taken. However, some of his decisions have been controversial. His recent appointment of former Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, as chairman of the Ukrainian Executive Reform Committee, despite oppositions from both the Rada and the government, has been one of them.
The involvement with Trump has added to world and EU interest in Zelenskiy. He knows that his next twelve months will be tough. The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be difficult.
Economists feel that if Ukraine is to keep its head above the water, Zelenskiy will need to double down on reform, demonstrate strong leadership, carve out clear policies and better communicate them. The support of the European Union (EU) and other international partners will also remain crucial.
It may be recalled that only two months after taking up the presidency, Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party became the first party in Ukraine’s history to secure a parliamentary majority without forming a coalition. This has enabled Zelenskiy in a strong position where he is functionally in control of both the executive and legislative branches.
However, this has not meant that Zelenskiy is not facing trouble getting sufficient support from his own party to pass important bills. This has happened recently with the land reform bill and the new banking law.
Both required several amendments. They have finally been approved. The new banking law will now pave the way for a 5 billion US dollar aid deal from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Zelenskiy is being watched carefully because of his indirect connotations related to corruption stemming from within his own country and also in relation to the evolving situation in the United States. It needs to be noted in this regard that he had promised "victory over corruption".
He has adopted some crucial measures and the European Union is now monitoring them. This has included re-booting the National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP), and stripping MPs of immunity from prosecution. This has been appreciated by many EU countries. At the same time, they are now underlining the need for an independent judiciary, free from political interference.
The armed conflict in Donbas also remains a serious security threat. Changing the dynamic was a priority for Zelenskiy, including improving the humanitarian situation of Ukrainians living in the conflict zone. Some positive steps have been taken: three major prisoner exchanges, troop withdrawals in three locations on the line between government-controlled and separatist-held territory and the completion of a vital civilian bridge in the frontline town of Stanytsya-Luhanska. Ukraine also regained three ships which had been captured by Russia during the November 2018 Kerch Strait incident. This has been possible because of better relations with Russia.
This broader approach has also been welcomed in another matrix. For the first time in more than three years, a summit of the Normandy Four (Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany) took place in December 2019 before the intensification of the coronavirus crisis. While there was no major breakthrough, the fact that Zelenskiy stood by Ukraine’s red lines and did not capitulate and accept peace on President Putin’s terms, as some in Ukraine had feared, was deemed positive.
Talks have also continued since then under the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, and OSCE). This is being viewed constructively by Eastern European States.
Nevertheless, despite several ceasefire agreements, fighting has still continued between the Russian-backed separatists with daily exchanges of fire. This has been confirmed by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) monitors.
However, it has now recently been reported that on 11 March, Zelenskiy’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, together with Dmitriy Kozak, Russia's plenipotentiary for the Donbas conflict, endorsed a protocol that envisages establishing a Consultative Council, whose task would be to conduct and develop proposals for political and legal solutions towards the settlement of the conflict.
This will be a constructive step. It will grant co-equal status to Ukraine’s state representatives and Russia’s proxies in the unrecognised Donetsk and Luhansk ‘people’s republics’. Following the initial protocol, the signing of the final document was due to take place on March 24-26.
Unfortunately that did not happen due to the COVID-19 crisis. One can only hope that delay in this regard does not lead to misunderstandings and disinformation. This will then damage the Ukrainian President’s credibility within future inter-active engagement within the European Union and among the Members of the European Parliament regarding developing a clear conflict management strategy and humanitarian policy, along with introducing a broad public dialogue on the settlement process.
Zelenskiy has remained committed to deepening ties with the EU. Beyond the ongoing implementation of Ukraine’s Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Deal (DCFTA), he is now correctly focusing on other realistic goals. This includes efforts to have Ukraine included in the EU’s Green Deal.
Zelenskiy has also concentrated on strengthening bilateral ties with key EU member states (France, Germany and Italy) as a way of boosting support for Ukraine on crucial issues, such as sanctions against Russia. Cooperation with the United States has also remained critical.
Strategists feel that the US Dollar 1.6 billion in security assistance that the US has provided since 2014 has helped Ukraine defend its territorial integrity against further Russian aggression. They also note that further progress in bilateral ties with the USA was, however, affected with the current US Administration after what happened in July 2019.
Zelenskiy faces a difficult road ahead. Polls have, however, demonstrated that Zelenskiy remains more popular than any other Ukrainian president going into their second year. He currently enjoys support of some 67% of the citizens.
The next twelve months will, however, further test him. Local elections are slated for October, and Ukraine will need to survive the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting global economic slowdown which is expected to hit Ukraine’s export-oriented economy hard. GDP is predicted to contract by 7.7% this year.
Unemployment has already skyrocketed. With over US Dollar 16 billion debt to be paid in 2020, Ukraine will continue to need significant international financing to avoid the country going into default. Consequently Zelenskiy must plan and implement an effective economic recovery strategy.
To achieve greater post-pandemic support Zelenskiy must push ahead with reform. A thorough overhaul of the judicial governing bodies, not least the High Council of Justice, should also be a priority. The quality of life of citizens and the development of the country depend on an independent judiciary and strong rule of law. The Covid-19 crisis has also underlined the urgent need for health sector reform.
The EU anchor will remain crucially important in this process as it has provided the basis for the political and legal reforms transforming Ukraine. Support from Brussels has already played a critical role in strengthening Ukraine’s transformation and resilience. This will have to continue despite the challenges that the EU will face in the coming months because of the pandemic and Brexit.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>