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Critical questions for Ukraine’s new president

A list of issues for this year’s reform agenda and Kyiv’s relations with the West.

May 30, 2019 - Andreas Umland - Articles and Commentary

The inauguration of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. 20th May 2019. Photo: Mykhaylo Markiv. The Presidential Administration of Ukraine

On May 20th 2019, Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was inaugurated. Later this year, the upcoming European Parliamentary elections will lead to the formation of new EU leadership in Brussels. Finally, Ukraine’s upcoming parliamentary elections this summer or autumn will likely reconfigure much of the – if not the entire – Ukrainian governmental elite, and lead to fundamental changes in the country’s legislative, executive and, partly, judicial branches.

What kind, sum, and combination of issues will Ukraine encounter in her domestic and foreign affairs, under these new conditions, during the next month and years? Which questions are among the most critical for Western diplomats, politicians, experts and journalists who follow Ukraine? The five major topics that will keep Kyiv and its partners busy for 2019 and beyond can be summarised under the headings: (1) parliamentary elections, new parties, government coalition, (2) domestic reforms, relations with the IMF, a new constitution, (3) gas transportation, Nord Stream 2, Turk Stream, (4) relations with the EU, implementation of the Association Agreement, cooperation within GUAM, as well as (5) the Donbas conflict, Minsk Agreements, and Normandy format – an obviously incomplete list.

Among the critical questions, with regard to the first topic (elections, parliament, government), that many international observers will be most interested in, during the next two to six months, are whether and how the new President will cooperate with the old parliament, and whether Volodymyr Hroisman will stay on as Prime-Minister until a new government, after parliamentary elections, is formed. Will these elections be conducted under old legislation, or will the already partly approved new electoral law – foreseeing exclusively proportional presentation with open party lists – go into force in time to be applied this year? And when will parliamentary elections take place?

Foreign observers also wonder how many and which new pro-reform parties will compete in the elections, and what the likely composition of the new parliament will be. Could Zelenskiy’s party end up being strong enough to dominate or even form alone the new government? And if not: which parties will form the new coalition government? A crucial question that many ask themselves is how much personnel continuity (if any) vs. leadership change will there be in the new government. And of course: Who will be the new prime-minister after the parliamentary elections?

Among the key issue in the second part (reforms, IMF cooperation, new constitution) are such highly practical and, at the same time, symbolic questions of when and how the new Anti-Corruption Court will start to work and the Anti-Corruption Procuracy as well as other anti-corruption institutions will be reformed. Further: Could gas prizes for the population change under the new President, and will the new President continue cooperation with the IMF, in the previous format? And if so: Will IMF funding be sufficient to cover Ukraine’s large debts due in the next two years? Will, on its side, the IMF preserve or adapt its current policies towards Ukraine?

During the last couple of years, decentralisation has become one of the most popular reform agendas within Ukraine and among foreign observers: Will this particular reform, even if its major promoter Prime-Minister Hroisman steps down, continue as before, be accelerated, slow down or be curtailed? A specific issue will be whether the ongoing amalgamation of communities will continue to be voluntary or not, and whether Ukraine’s territorial reform can be completed until the next round of regional/local election in October 2020.

A more fundamental question that many ask themselves: Will there be a constitutional reform? And if so: When and what kind of reform will that be, and how far will it go? In particular: Can and should Ukraine become a fully parliamentary republic, perhaps, even with a second chamber or other additional representative organ, as envisaged in Yulia Tymoshenko’s New Course program?

Within the third topic, on natural gas transportation the, perhaps, crucial question for the next months will be the fate of Gazprom’s currently built Nord Stream 2 underwater pipeline through the Baltic Sea. Will the US sanction (and, if so, to which degree) EU partners of Russia in this large infrastructure project, such as the German energy companies Wintershall and Uniper? Will relevant EU regulations significantly or only marginally impact Russia’s use of Nord Stream 2? And if Washington or/and Brussels will take notable measures: What would their effects on the completion and operation Nord Stream 2, and their aftereffects for Ukraine be?

If Nord Stream 2 starts operating in full, the conditions under which it will do so will become relevant. What will, in such a case, be the overall combined effect of Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream on EU imports of Siberian gas be? Will there be acceptable agreements between Moscow, Brussels and Kyiv on the future use of Ukraine’s Gas Transportation System and its gas storage facilities? How will Ukrainian imports of (likely Siberian) natural gas via the EU develop, and what are the prospects of Ukrainian conventional as well as shale gas fields, in the near future?

Within the fourth topic of Ukraine’s relations to the EU and other Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries, the primary issue will be how well and fast the ongoing implementation of the Association Agreement is going to proceed, in the future. And further on: What will the Ukraine-EU relations beyond the Association Agreement be? The most urgent questions for Kyiv’s new leadership will be how it can attract more foreign direct investment from the EU and other world regions.

A less hotly debated, but still important question is going to be which better cooperation formats can be developed between Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries, like Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova (GUAM). Can EaP-EU parliamentary cooperation within EuroNest be more helpful, during the next years? Could countries like Ukraine and Moldova become members of the East European EU states’ Three Seas Initiative or/and NATO states’ Bucharest Nine group? And last but not least: Is a soon EU membership perspective – i.e. an official promise of future accession once the respective conditions are fulfilled – for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova realistic?

The fifth and, perhaps, most difficult issue for Ukraine concerns the Donbas conflict and its numerous complicated aspects. What does Russia’s recently announced passportisation of Donbas citizens mean for the Minsk Agreements and process? The new Ukrainian leadership will, in particular, have to decide whether it is still in a position to implement the political parts of the Minsk Agreements – a highly contentious issue already for four years. On their part, France and Germany too may have to reformulate their positions on the 2014 and 2015 agreements between Ukraine and Russia once sponsored by them. If the Minsk Agreements are going to be nevertheless upheld: In which exact sequence should the Agreements’ security and political parts be implemented?

If, on the other hand, the Minsk process becomes obsolete because of passportisation and other escalation: Can and should the Normandy Format be preserved and, if not, can it be changed? Ukrainian politicians and diplomats have argued for a long time that the negotiations framework should be changed for instance to the Budapest (Memorandum of 1994) group, i.e. Ukraine, Russia, Great Britain and the United States, or Geneva (Joint Statement of 2014) format, i.e. Ukraine, Russia, the EU and United States. The problem with these and similar proposals is, however, that Moscow would have to agree to such a change which is unlikely as of today.

If the current stalemate in Eastern Ukraine is going to continue the main question, for Ukraine and the West, will be whether and how the conflict could, at least, be frozen? Can the almost daily shooting and almost weekly killing be stopped? If the current fragile situation cannot be changed: What will the future of the current OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM)? Can and should be changed or be preserved, in its current form? If, on the other hand, Moscow changes its position and agrees to a gradual solution of the Donbas conflict: When and how can a UN peacekeeping mission and administration become realistic? Last but not least: What can and should be Ukraine’s and the West’s approach to Russia’s continuing annexation of Crimea be?

Some may criticize that this list does not include all crucial issues for Ukraine until 2024 – i.e. until the end of the regular term of its new president. Other observers may regard some of the above questions as redundant or even inappropriate. Yet, the length of the list and magnitude of the issues indicate that the job of President of Ukraine may be among the most demanding in the world. Ukraine’s new leadership will need all the support and advice it can get both from Ukrainian political and civil societies, as well as from the West’s nations and international organisations, to successfully pass this difficult period.

Andreas Umland is Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for European Security at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Principal Researcher at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and General Editor of the ibidem­-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” and “Ukrainian Voice”, distributed by Columbia University Press.

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