The voters of Ukraine cast their votes on Sunday for a “servant of the people” to become their new president. It certainly wasn’t a rejection of the Maidan revolution, but rather a desperate urge for it to fulfill all its promises.
Five years ago, Ukraine was on the verge of military, political and financial collapse amid the combined consequences of the massive incompetence of the departed Yanukovych regime and the aggressive efforts of the Kremlin to dismember the country. But it survived thanks to the 2014 election of Petro Poroshenko, who mobilized the nation and had the determined support of the European Union and the United States.
Much has been achieved in terms of reforms during these five years. You could argue that there have been more structural reforms in Ukraine than in most of the rest of Europe taken together, but still the economy has only lately been able to recover the losses of the years of the acute conflict, and a sufficiently strong growth path has yet to be achieved.
Some of the necessary reforms needed also to secure international financing have been painful for many, notably the increase in energy prices. But these have also been a key part in fighting the large-scale corruption that used to be far more ingrained in the entire system.
And now the voters have projected all their hopes for the future on a skilled actor but totally inexperienced politician.
Volodymyr Zelensky faces major challenges. The country needs to repay large sums of foreign debt — and it can’t do it without International Monetary Fund and E.U. financial support and the strict reform conditions that come with it. He can’t afford to waver on this.
The political situation will be volatile, with parliament and its members maneuvering to secure positions and powers before a major election in October.
But two issues will stand out.
The first is how Zelensky handles the relationship with the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who is responsible for the one of the worst financial scandals in recent years. About $5 billion “disappeared” from his PrivatBank — Ukraine’s largest lender — before the authorities were forced to nationalize it. Kolomoisky has been a key promoter of Zelensky. All signs point at the oligarch planning a grand comeback after having been forced out of the country, which could have sinister consequences in numerous respects.
Here, Zelensky must show that he is truly a servant of the people, and not the servant of a corrupt oligarch.
The second issue is obviously Russia and the conflict with it over both Crimea and parts of Donbas.
It’s to be expected that the Kremlin will seek to pressure Zelensky into accepting its thesis that this is just an internal conflict in Ukraine, and that he has to settle with Russia’s separatist stooges in the region. And lately Moscow has been increasing the pressure by refusing to release imprisoned Ukrainian sailors, issuing Russian passports in Donbas and putting additional restrictions on exports to Ukraine.
Certainly solving the conflict will be high on the Zelensky agenda. There will be efforts to reinvigorate the Minsk negotiating process, and while suggestions in Kiev to extend it with the United States and E.U. are hardly surprising, a recent suggestion along the same lines by former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov is more noteworthy.
Including both the United States and E.U. in the process would facilitate a more integrated approach toward seeking a solution to the Donbas conflict and other important issues.
Energy is another example. The controversial gas contract between Ukraine and Russia is expiring at the end of the year — just as Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline into Europe is facing delays. That makes a new Ukraine deal necessary also for Russia. Russia’s Gazprom is also having to pay large sums to Ukraine’s Naftogaz after losing a number of legal disputes.
The risk of a new gas conflict by the end of the year looms large. An E.U.-Ukraine summit is already on the agenda for the first days of July. It might well be that the Kremlin wants to wait for the outcome of the parliamentary elections and the formation of a new Ukrainian government. So far, the Kremlin has been hesitant to make any significant moves toward a resolution.
But an initiative to broaden the Minsk negotiating framework with the United States and E.U. would be a way of showing support for Kiev in its efforts to seek a solution and giving a new momentum to the process. Donbas is a conflict the Kremlin — in a strategic sense — has already lost, and there should be a mutual interest in moving beyond conflict to a better relationship between Russia and the West.
Zelensky will need the support of the West — both financial and political — in order to succeed in being the servant of the people that the voters of Ukraine voted for. But then he must be clear on both how he intends to handle his relationship with the oligarch Kolomoisky and how he intends to seek support for a resolution to the Donbas conflict.