THE WARSAW INSTITUTE REVIEW

Date: 5 July 2019    Author: Grzegorz Kuczyński

Apparent Revolution – Presidential Elections in Ukraine

The results of the presidential elections in Ukraine are not so much a victory of Volodymyr Zelensky as much as the defeat of Petro Poroshenko. President Poroshenko was unable to make the election into a war plebiscite. Zelensky’s narrative dominated; a referendum on Ukraine’s leadership for the last five years. The defeat of Poroshenko signifies only shifts within the oligarchic system, instead of its defeat. The final balance of power will be known only after the parliamentary elections, which will also occur this year. The new presidency will not bring major changes in Ukrainian politics because of the inexperience and specificity of the back office of Zelensky, as well as the stronger position of the parliament. Therefore, one should not expect a radical improvement in the relations between Kyiv and Warsaw, and above all, with Budapest.

UKRAINIAN SHOWMAN, COMEDIAN, AND PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY REACTS AT HIS CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS FOLLOWING A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION IN KIEV, UKRAINE, ON APRIL 21, 2019. © STEPAN FRANKO (PAP/EPA)

In the second round of the presidential elections in Ukraine, on April 21, 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky attained 73.22 percent of votes. His rival, outgoing president Petro Poroshenko, received 24.45 percent of votes from participating voters . Zelensky was the winner in all regions of Ukraine except Lviv, where Poroshenko won. The departing president also won among Ukrainians living abroad, where he was supported by 54.7 percent of those voting; whereas the president-elect received 44.7 percent of the vote. Turnout in the second round of elections reached 61.37 percent – which represented over 18.4 million citizens. It is pertinent to consider that as a result of the Russian occupation of Crimea and part of Donbas, nearly 16 percent of Ukrainian voters were de facto deprived of the possibility of voting . The impressive result of Zelensky is not so much his personal success as much as it is the defeat of his rival. Poroshenko had become the epitome of the “old” establishment in this showdown, and the vote on April 21st was a referendum in which the Ukrainians expressed distrust towards the current political class. In 2018, the level of distrust, frustration, doubt, and disappointment among Ukrainians reached the highest level since 1991. Zelensky’s victory is in effect an articulation against the betrayal of Euromaidan ideals by Poroshenko, who is a symbol of the old oligarchic system. The elections also compromised the Ukrainian intelligentsia and opinion-forming circles, the broadly recognized elite, the vast majority of whom supported Poroshenko as opposed to the “clown” Zelensky. According to polls, for 40 percent of voters, a vote for Zelensky was an expression of protest against the current political class. Both supporters of more daring reforms, disappointed by the stagnation of the state modernization process, as well as the social and relatively pro-Russian electorate, had voted for him.

Even before the first round of the election on March 31, 2019, many experts and publicists dismissed the polls indicating the sizeable advantage of Zelensky. Meanwhile, the result of the first contest put the actor in an exceedingly favorable situation and his rival in a very difficult one. It is worth considering that from the point of view of electoral arithmetic, three weeks between the first and second rounds of the elections should definitely be noted in favor of Zelensky. This is evidenced by the number of votes won by both candidates on March 31 and April 21: Zelensky obtaining 5.7 million and 13.5 million votes, respectively, and Poroshenko obtaining 3 million and 4.5 million votes, respectively. Remarkably, the final result turned out to be substantially better for Zelensky than the survey forecasts. Ten days before the second round, a survey conducted by the sociological group Rating showed that as much as 51 percent of Ukrainians intend to support Zelensky. Poroshenko could count on only 21 percent. It is an overwhelming advantage, and yet other data from this study was even more pessimistic for the president. Within the group of voters who were sure that they would go to the polls, Zelensky‘s advantage was even greater, which showed him winning as much as 61–24. Zelensky lead in all age groups as well as in the south, east and the center of the country. Furthermore, as much as 61 percent of respondents thought that Zelensky would win, whereas only 17% believed in Poroshenko’s potential success . For almost two weeks after the first round, the president did not manage to change the course of events. Support for Zelensky increased clearly both as a consequence of him proving his capability to win the election, but also thanks to the reallocation of votes given to most other candidates. Compared to the results from the first round, Poroshenko only slightly increased his electorate. Another negative for Poroshenko was that much as 83 percent of Ukrainians felt that the country needed shock and radical change. Zelensky’s campaign and the slogan of choice between the past and the future better matched those expectations.

A GIANT SCREEN SHOWS THE COUNTRY’S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS FINAL RESULTS DURING THE CENTRAL ELECTION COMMITTEE (CEC) SITTING IN KIEV, UKRAINE, APRIL 30, 2019. © SERGEY DOLZHENKO (PAP/EPA)

Volodymyr Zelensky. Why did he win?

The broadcaster “1 + 1” television channel broadcasted Zelensky’s speech about his intention to launch his campaign on December 31, 2018. However, the presidential campaign of Zelensky started much earlier, even prior to his name appearing in presidential election polls (autumn 2018). Operation “President Zelensky” actually started in 2015, when the TV series “Servant of the Nation” appeared on the television, where Zelensky plays the role of a school teacher who accidentally becomes president. Zelensky did not win the presidency in the weeks between the first and the second round. Nor did he even win it within those several weeks between the moment of his declaration of running and the moment of the final vote. Achieving the position of the head of state was possible thanks to the popularity gained over the last two decades in the role of not a politician, but an actor. Zelensky, the comedian, spoke more to the Ukrainians than the Poroshenko, the politician. Of course, it was possible to win thanks to the fact that Zelensky’s campaign was conducted so as not to spoil the virtual image of the “servant of the nation.”

Zelensky’s campaign innovation was to concentrate – if discussing social media – on Telegram and Instagram. Until recently, Ukrainian politicians have been present mainly on Facebook and Twitter. Investigative journalists from Bihus.info wrote that Zelensky’s budget for online advertising reached $300,000. It was particularly referring to the funding of bots on social media . Mikhail Fedorov, head of Zelensky’s digital campaign, denied that staff used bots and said that $200,000 was spent on online advertising . And that was before both rounds. As it turned out later, however, Zelensky’s staff had created the so-called “The Mobile Online Group,” consisting of volunteers coordinating the “feedback attacks” of Zelensky’s against his rivals. Interestingly, the only requirement to participate in the group was to have a Facebook account, which opened the door to foreigners, including Russians. Zelensky’s campaign was almost one hundred percent virtual. No rallies and direct meetings with voters and instead participated in a television show featuring a performance by “Kvartal 95.” Zelensky avoided voters as much as he could. He did not talk to independent journalists. He appeared only on 1 + 1 television, where he recited prepared texts. Instead, his advisers spoke to the media on his behalf, assuring them that they expressed the position of Zelensky.

The future winner presented his “team” only two days before the second round. Nevertheless, the staff very quickly admitted to cheap populism during the campaign – the key political adviser to the president-elect, Dmytro Razumkow, said that the president has no power to reduce bills for municipal charges or imprison corrupt officials . The notion that Zelensky’s victory resulted from social media activity is a myth. He won thanks to television and private production, which was connected with Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch and his powerful connections, not by the hearts of young people through social media. In fact, on social media, the number of posts supporting Poroshenko and Zelensky were almost equal.

The success of Zelensky in the election was also possible due to the usage of populist slogans, which are much easier to put forward by the claimant than for the defending incumbent. Zelensky pointed to conflicting goals. He spoke about Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO and the EU, but at the same time, he stipulated that this should be decided in a referendum. He spoke about reducing taxes for business, but at the same time advocated for increased social spending. He spoke about tightening economic cooperation with the EU (with Poland at the forefront), but at the same time called for closer relations with Russia, because “her economy is important for Ukraine”. He declared “not a step back” when discussing Donbas and Crimea, and at the same time he said that it makes no sense now to raise the affairs of Crimea, and the most important thing is to preserve the ceasefire and bring the soldiers home. During the campaign, it was possible to implement such a strategy – by almost entirely avoiding debates. Nevertheless, the time of making (or not making) decisions will come when Zelensky steps into power, which means that with every decision made by Zelensky, some groups of the voters will be dissatisfied and disappointed.

Zelensky used tactics that, renown Ukrainian writer, Oksana Zabuzhko called “draw your own candidate” Zelensky asked his followers to write the questions that he should ask Poroshenko, as well as write the main priorities for his program. From the beginning, he presented himself as a candidate of the people. “Everyone got colored pencils, like children in kindergarten. Draw your own president. And the whole kindergarten, inhabited by millions of people with different levels of education and social experience, this entire kindergarten was drawing… ” Zabuzhko believes that in this way, this was a cynical exploitation of not only the people’s trust but also their emotional capacities. It is easier to unite people, pointing to a common enemy than around a positive idea. Such a tactic was used by Zelensky. The enemy was Poroshenko, and the main slogans were “change” and “new faces.” What change? What faces? Zelensky began to reveal this only at the end of the campaign. Besides, some of these new faces once belonged to the Party of Regions, the same party behind overthrown president Viktor Yanukovych.

Zelensky’s entire campaign consisted of unyielding criticism of Poroshenko’s mistakes, mishaps, and omissions, using most obvious populist techniques . It was all the easier because, as the survey conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Fund showed a week before the first round, voters have little knowledge about what the president is responsible for, as well as his competences and limitations. For example, 32 percent of respondents said that the president is responsible for taxes, salaries, and pensions. The voters’ lack of awareness is also evidenced by another survey, conducted in April by the KMIS center, in which, as far as the question of what is expected of the president during his first 100 days of office, up to 39.1 percent of people answered ‘the reduction of municipal charges’ . Poroshenko decided to engage in the campaign as a professional politician, statesman, and not a populist. He did not talk about gas prices or taxes because it is not the president’s competence. He talked about what the president can actually address: homeland security, military affairs, foreign policy, and the decentralization and reformations of the judiciary. With his decision negative opinion among the electorate and general disappointment with the political elite, he was condemned to fail. It was Zelensky who spoke about most of the issues that people care about. When Ukrainians were asked about the three issues that they believe are the most important for Ukraine, the responded: military conflict in Donbas (41 percent); corruption in the state administration (40%); price increase (27%); municipal fees (25%); unemployment (23%); health care (20%); and the incompetence of the authorities (14%). Moreover, the Russian occupation of Crimea turned out to be one of the most important problems for only 4 percent of respondents . It was even more advantageous for Zelensky when the question concerned the most important issues for the respondent himself: price increase (42 percent); communal charges (38 percent); war in Donbas (25 percent); corruption (25 percent); health service (23 percent); and unemployment (21 percent) .
One of the winning candidate’s slogans was “Zelensky unites the country.” Previous elections generally meant a choice between a pro-Western and pro-Russian candidate. The support map usually ran along the historical and linguistic lines of division in Ukraine. Zelensky is the second candidate in the history of modern Ukraine who can actually say that he unites the electorates of various parts of the country. He received the majority of votes in all regions except Lviv in the western part of Ukraine. Five years ago, Poroshenko did even better – he won in the first round in all circuits, which did not include the occupied regions of Crimea and one-third of Donbas . By applying these new types of populist tricks and focusing on the national problems and expectations of the majority of citizens, Zelensky managed to overcome the traditional electoral division of Ukraine. Even in the west of the country, where Poroshenko had the most support, the incumbent president succeeded in defeating his rival only in the Lviv region. The best result was recorded by Zelensky in the south and east: in the Dnipropetrovsk district and in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, Odesa and Kharkiv regions. As he wrote in the financial commentary of The Financial Times, “although [residents] of Crimea and Eastern regions are occupied by Russia, they could not take part [in the April election in Ukraine], Zełensky won in every region except the westernmost Lviv, largely by eliminating the division into the east and west that characterized the previous post-Soviet elections.” The editors of the daily also emphasized that in Ukraine both the prime minister and the president would now be of Jewish origin, “…which makes Moscow’s claims that the country would become a neo-Nazi junta senseless.”.

Petro Poroshenko. Why did he lose?

Poroshenko started in an impossible position to win. A few weeks before the first round of the election, he was listed as the least popular politicians (a recorded 47.7 percent) . Only 13.3 percent of the respondents said they would not vote for Zelensky under any circumstances. Another survey indicated that as much as 69 percent of respondents do not trust Poroshenko, and only 24 percent do trust him. In the case of Zelensky: 47 percent, and up to 43 percent, respectively . Poroshenko was in a far worse situation from the beginning with a very large negative electorate and having the association of being a corrupt oligarchic establishment (while Zelensky’s connections with the oligarch Kolomoyskyi did not bother voters). The president’s staff also made several serious mistakes during the campaign. Firstly, for far too long, the main rival was seen as Tymoshenko and most of the efforts went to fight the former prime minister. Zelensky was not perceived as a serious competitor for a very long time because Poroshenko’s staff succumbed to the same illusion as most of the elites: that the Ukrainians were declaring willingness to vote for a comedian, but when election day comes, they will either not vote or vote for a “serious candidate.” Furthermore, most of Zelensky’s supporters were young people who are not usually politically active. Their turnout in the first round of elections was not adjusted for in the opinion polls.

Low expectations of voters were poorly diagnosed. The campaign under the slogan “Army, language, faith” publicized those areas of politics in which the president could boast of some successes: strengthening the armed forces, supporting the Ukrainian language, Ukrainian-language music, and cinematography, obtaining autocephaly by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Poroshenko also turned his eye to nationalist circles, even allowing the glorification of UPA / OUN and Bandera (the activities of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance and Volodymyr Viatrovych). This, however, only mobilized Poroshenko’s hard electorate which was only enough to move him to the second round. However, nothing was done to fight for voters from southern or eastern Ukraine. Poroshenko de facto handed over those voters to Zelensky. Poroshenko divided the voters, even unintentionally, when he emphasized the role of the Ukrainian language, tradition and history, while Zelensky avoided categorical declarations in these areas and appealed to all Ukrainians, regardless of where they live, the language they use on a daily basis or their attitude to Russia and NATO, as well as what their views are on Bandera or Soviet tradition. Between the first and the second round, Poroshenko introduced himself as the only statesman who could face Putin, while Zelensky a novice who was not suited to lead the country during the war.

Five years of the presidency had politically exhausted Poroshenko. In May 2014, he won in the first round, and immediately after the election he had an approval of 55 percent. At the end of the term, it was only 9 percent. In October 2018 as much as 50.5 percent of voters said they would never vote for Poroshenko and only 6.5 percent that would vote for him (KMIS survey, Razumkov Center, Rating Group). In April 2019, the negative electorate of Poroshenko increased to 58 percent – indicating that even his election campaign did not help. Zelensky was “anti-Poroshenko” for many voters . One cannot forget about the Ukrainian political tradition: during over 27 years of independence, only one of the five presidents managed to gain re-election and Leonid Kuchma won the second round in 1999 only because he had communist Petro Symonenko competing against him. There is a lot of similarities here to the elections in Russia in 1996 when many Russians begrudgingly voted for Boris Yeltsin who was an ailing drunk only because the alternative was Gennady Zyuganov, a communist.

After the second round of elections, in a closed meeting with the deputies of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, the president admitted that his failure was caused by communication problems and poor personal choices . It was only after the first round that Poroshenko began making personnel changes and removing officials being the most burdensome for him, including the Kherson-based perimeter administration, which is suspected of playing a key role in the murder of a civic activist Kateryna Handziuk. As the analyst Taras Berezowiec wrote about the president in 2016, ” instead of the professionalism of the candidate, personal trust is often the key factor influencing the nomination. If there is no trust, there is no nomination”.

Another characteristic of the Poroshenko government, which ultimately influenced the course of the election, was the loss of a number of political allies. For example, the leading reformers in the government, Abromavicius and Danyluk, did not receive sufficient support from the president and left the ruling camp, to now be in Zelensky’s camp. We cannot forget about the incident with Mikheil Saakashvili, whom Poroshenko appointed as governor of Odesa to carry out radical reforms, which served an example for the whole country. It soon turned out that in disputes with “old” politicians and officials reluctant to change, Poroshenko sided with them, not Saakashvili. As a result, he finally fell out with the president and recently supported Zelensky, hoping to return after the change in the administration. The growing problems with reforms were not the only things that influenced the poor assessment of Poroshenko, who was supposed to embody the hopes of the crowds demonstrating at the Maidan in Kyiv in 2013 and 2014. His relations with some oligarchs and politicians from the Party of Regions camp were perceived as suspicious, including those with Rinat Akhmetov or Viktor Medvedchuk.

Despite the obvious mistakes and failures of Poroshenko, Ukraine has made progress through his rule. One cannot forget about the autocephaly for the Orthodox Church, the visa-free agreement with the EU, stabilization of the economy, international support in the war with Russia and increased US aid. Poroshenko is criticized for the slow pace of reforms. In turn, what succeeded was more often recognized as a change not due to the president, but despite him. This is not exactly a precise accusation. However, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc was constantly supporting important legislative changes in the parliament. Without the votes of the BPP and the coalition People’s Front, no bill would be passed. Poroshenko is particularly strongly criticized for ineptitude or even reluctance to fight corruption. This was one of the key drivers of Zelensky’s success. Meanwhile, hard data shows that it is not such an unambiguous picture. According to the Institute of Economic Research and Political Consulting, the steps taken in 2014-2018 to increase transparency and deregulation in Ukraine saved 6% of GDP annually, approximately 6 billion dollars.

Although corruption has declined, expectations were certainly higher. Poroshenko did not fulfil his promise to end the war in Donbass quickly – but here he cannot be blamed. The key to the end of the conflict lies in the Kremlin, not in the residence at Bankova Street in Kyiv. Assuredly, it was a success to strengthen the defense potential of Ukraine – at least it was possible to prevent further losses. The army had to be built from scratch – it should not be forgotten that in February 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian armed forces were only capable of immediately sending a maximum of 5,000 soldiers to fight. The dynamics of the campaign between the first and the second round could probably only change in the event of a serious escalation of the conflict with Russia. All studies showed that the only area where Poroshenko is perceived better than Zelensky is defense, the army, and the conflict with Russia. However, such an escalation of the war did not occur. Other desperate actions of Poroshenko did not help; profound changes in his own team, a number of decisions showing that Poroshenko drew conclusions from the voice of the people – e.g., removing the most discredited officials and initiating radical legislative changes, especially those that show that the authorities do not control the fight against corruption.

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT AND PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE PETRO POROSHENKO (R) AND HIS WIFE MARYNA (L) REACT AT HIS CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS FOLLOWING A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION IN KIEV, UKRAINE, APRIL 21, 2019. © SERGEY DOLZHENKO (PAP/EPA)

Perspective of relations with Hungary and Poland

The new president of Ukraine is not familiar with foreign policy, and among the official experts in his surroundings there were clearly no experienced people in the field of diplomacy or international relations . Ukraine’s biggest challenge in foreign and security policy will be Donbas. During the campaign, Zelensky gave various, sometimes even contradictory, signals on the subject. Russia will want to use the new president’s lack of political experience and try to play on the fact that Zelensky assured his country that the priority for him is to end the bloodshed in the south-east of Ukraine. The Kremlin uses the classic carrot-and-stick method. On the one hand, it declares readiness to talk with Kyiv. On the other hand, it began to issue Russian passports to the inhabitants of the occupied part of Donbas en masse and stopped exports of oil and fuels to Ukraine. The actions of Zelensky in foreign policy will certainly be influenced by the expectations of his supporters. 37 percent of Zelensky’s electorate supports Ukraine’s membership in NATO, while 37 percent is for neutrality, and 8% is for close relations with Russia.

In this case, there is a clear geographical division: those who want to enter NATO come mainly from western Ukraine. Those who advocate for neutrality, come from the south-eastern part of the country . This means that Zelensky will not be as radically pro-Western as his predecessor. At the same time, one can expect a reversal of the deterioration of bilateral relations with western neighbors, which occurred under Poroshenko. This includes Poland and especially Hungary. By contrast, Ukraine shares decent relations with two other members of the Visegrad Group: Slovakia and the Czech Republic (despite the pro-Russian views of successive presidents here, now Miloš Zeman, previously Vaclav Klaus). In the case of Prague and Bratislava, there are no major potential conflict areas, which is not the case with Ukrainian-Polish relations (mainly historical issues) and Ukrainian-Hungarian relations (status of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia). Difficult relations with Budapest are reflected in the cooperation between Ukraine and NATO, because Hungary has been blocking high-level NATO-Ukraine meetings since autumn 2017 in connection with the adoption of a new educational law by the parliament in Kyiv. Budapest claims that it is violating the rights of the Hungarian minority in the Ukrainian Transcarpathia, as it restricts the right to teach in the native language. The crisis deepened after it was revealed that Hungary secretly issued Hungarian passports in Ukraine. In a recording made at the Hungarian consulate in the Transcarpathian town of Berehove, employees are instructed new passport holders to hide the fact that they obtained second citizenship from the Ukrainian authorities. Dual citizenship is not recognized in Ukraine and Kyiv expelled the Hungarian consul. In retaliation, Budapest sent home a Ukrainian consul. In February 2018, the office of the Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association in Uzhgorod was attacked. The Hungarian authorities have repeatedly mentioned that they do not expect improvement in bilateral relations with the current government of Ukraine.

From the perspective of Budapest, this anti-Hungarian policy lasted almost until the end of Poroshenko’s term of office. On April 25, the Ukrainian Supreme Council adopted a controversial law on the Ukrainian language. It provides for obligatory use of this language in state institutions, self-government bodies and other areas of public life (it does not apply to religious rites or language used in the private sphere). The head of Hungarian diplomacy, Peter Szijjarto, said that the Act violates the rights of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine. “I believe that our Hungarian partners consciously chose a line of confrontation” is how the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Pavlo Klimkin, reacted, at the same time admitting that the Ukrainian parliament should adopt a separate law on the languages of national minorities . Less than a month later, Klimkin resigned from his position, and Zelensky, stressing that Ukrainian is the only state language, announced that he is a supporter of the development of the Ukrainian language by encouraging its use, not by forcing it legal regulations. Therefore, after taking office, it will “make a detailed analysis of this law to see whether it corresponds to the constitutional principles and the interests of all citizens of Ukraine” . Such a signal from Zelensky was well received in Hungary, although the declaration is still far away from the deed. However, Budapest and Hungarian organizations in Transcarpathia assume that it cannot get any worse than it was under Poroshenko. Considering Zelensky’s background, his views and electorate, it does not seem that he would continue the nationalist viewpoint of his predecessor. In villages inhabited by Hungarians, 90% of the population voted for Zelensky. “Let me congratulate you for this wonderful victory in the elections of the President of Ukraine,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote in a congratulatory telegram, stressing that the Hungarian government will continue to work for the development of Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. The Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association in Uzhgorod welcomed Zelensky’s victory, expressing the hope that Kyiv would now stop the “anti-Hungarian policy.” The association hopes that Kyiv will abandon the policy of deliberate assimilation of Hungarians and “in accordance with the constitution and international documents,” will ensure the Hungarian minority the full right to use the language in education from kindergarten to university. The association also expressed the hope that Zelensky will create the possibility for minorities, including Hungarians, to have representation in the parliament and among local authorities, and through bilateral talks will contribute to the transformation of Ukrainian-Hungarian relations and the legalization of the institution of dual citizenship . However, it can already be assumed that Zelensky will not fulfil most of these demands for a simple reason: it was not a significant motive in the campaign and the president would not break with voters and politicians who were in favor of a decided policy on the Ukrainian language. It is also still unclear what will be the balance of power in the new parliament.

Nevertheless, for similar reasons, one should not expect a breakthrough in relations with Poland. At this stage, Kyiv should first make gestures and make specific decisions to restore confidence. Why? This was explained by Alona Hetmanczuk, the head of the Kyiv Centre of Analytics Center Nowa Europa, on his blog on the Ukrainska Pravda website. Firstly, the Ukrainian leadership does not treat Poland as a priority in the manner that Poland treats Ukraine. Secondly, “there has been a certain reduction in the importance of Poland, which from a long-term advocate of Ukraine has become simply a country between Kyiv and Berlin”. Furthermore, “the Ukrainian political elite did not take the entry of the Law and Justice Party in Poland seriously”, treating it as “something temporary, which should simply be waited out” . The office of Jan Piekla, the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Kyiv achieved little – the Ukrainian side de facto rejected Poland’s extended hand for such a long time that Warsaw’s stance towards Ukraine soured, evidenced by the presence of the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the swearing-in of Zelensky, instead of the President of Poland himself.

The question is, what can Zelensky do to improve relations with Poland? Certainly, an important gesture would be a visit to Warsaw as one of the first foreign trips of the new president. This could also be achieved through the weakening of nationalist tendencies in the policy of the Ukrainian state in both educational policy to historical interpretation. Bandera certainly does not belong to Zelensky’s ideals. However, the same question remains: what is profitable for the president and what can be applied without parliament? Subsequently, there is the issue of Zelensky’s struggle for supporting compatriots in the west of the country. He has the support from those in the central and southern regions, so he can make decisions (or not make decisions) to win over Ukrainians from Galicia. What is more, there are formal issues that matter. For example, the head of the Ukrainian IPN appoints and dismisses the government. Thus, the departure (if at all) of Volodymyr Viatrovich is not yet sealed. A serious factor, affecting not only relations with Poland, but also foreign issues in general, will be the real strength of the new president. There are many indications that he will be the weakest president since 1991. With the parliamentary-presidential system, Zelensky would have to have a very strong position in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. This remains a big question mark because even if his party, The Servant of the Nation, wins definitively, they will still need coalition partners. Furthermore, Vitaly Portnikov, Ukrainian commentator and chairman of the Ukrainian part of the Polish-Ukrainian Partnership Forum which is operating under the aegis of foreign ministers of two countries, also points out that most of the issues surrounding the Polish-Ukrainian historical dispute do not refer to the powers of state authorities, but authorities at regional and local level. “It is obvious that the Ukrainian president does not affect the decisions of regional authorities, and what’s more, they can become much more acute to show their independence and independence from Kyiv,” stressed Portnikov .

What does Volodymyr Zelensky’s crushing victory mean in practice? It can be said that the Ukrainians gave the winner a free hand in the implementation of radical reforms and the purification of the state apparatus from the old elite. The problem is that in the parliamentary-presidential republic this would only be possible with a majority in the Verkhovna Rada and with the government reflecting the composition of the president’s alliance with the parliament. Currently, it is impossible, because the opponents of Zelensky dominate in the Verkhovna Rada. It is also not known how the balance of power will change after the election. Zelensky, therefore, promised things in the campaign that he might not be able to implement; however, this was already known. Just like focusing on issues which are not presidential competencies. Nonetheless, it did not make Ukrainians reluctant to vote for Zelensky – which was further evidence that it was more of a vote “against” rather than a vote “for”. Without a strong representation in the parliament and participation in the ruling coalition, Zelensky’s influence, as the head of state, on the political processes in the country will be small due to constitutional constraints. This means that the new president will try to run a non-controversial policy, and the possible conflict with the parliament will serve as an explanation for the lack of reforms , as well as the lack of improvement in relations with such neighbors as Poland and Hungary.

All texts (expect images) published by the Warsaw Institute Foundation may be disseminated on condition that their origin is stated.

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