Ukraine Today: From 1 Year of Zelensky to Covid-19 to Upcoming Local Elections

On 15 July 2020, the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels in cooperation with the European Endowment for Democracy and with the support of the International Renaissance Foundation organised an online-webinar “Ukraine Today: From 1 year of Zelensky to Covid-19 to Upcoming Local Elections”.

Panelists and participants of the event discussed the achievements and failures of the first year of the new Ukrainian authorities; recent political developments in the country; impact of Covid-19 on the social and economic development of Ukraine; pace of judicial reform and upcoming local elections planned for October 2020.

Svitlana Kobzar, Senior Programme Manager, European Endowment for Democracy, emphasised that the first year of Zelensky’s presidency was turbulent. According to Ms. Kobzar, turbo regime of adopting laws in the Parliament, dismissal of the first government and signs of the rollback of some reforms were quite worrisome. Moreover, Covid-19 and the ongoing war in Ukraine further drain the country’s ability to remain resilient to other challenges.

Kobzar: “Covid-19 has further exacerbated the political and economic situation”. 

Oleksandr Sushko, Executive Director, International Renaissance Foundation, stressed the important role of the Ukrainian think tanks in the EU – Ukraine dialogue and cooperation. According to Mr. Sushko, there is a lack of balanced and well-structured analysis of what has been achieved within the first year of Zelensky’s presidency and what we can realistically expect to be fulfilled in the foreseeable future, and this is a think tanks’ job to provide such an analysis.

Sushko: “After the year of Zelensky in office we do have enough data to discuss”.

Olena Carbou, Executive Director, Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels, has pointed out that the purpose of the event is to present an overview of the results of the first year of President Zelensky and discuss the particular very important areas as well as bring the bridge to the nearest future, namely local elections that are planned for the end of October.

Carbou: “The purpose of today’s webinar is to tell the story of Ukraine with the analysis of the think tanks and those who are closely working on Ukraine”.

Martin H. Mühleck, Policy Officer, European Commission, Support Group for Ukraine, made a brief overview of the last year in Ukraine from the EU’s perspective. According to Mr. Mühleck, some important steps have been done in terms of reforms in Ukraine. Adoption of land reform and banking law was crucial and became possible because of personal involvement of President Zelensky. Significant progress was also observed in the energy sector. At the same time, Mr Mühleck emphasised that judicial reform should be irreversible and anti-corruption reform should be continued. Speaking about Covid-19, he noted that this is a test on the healthcare sector in Ukraine, and continuation of healthcare reform is a top priority in times of the pandemic. In its turn, in March-April the EU has mobilised 190 mln EUR to support the healthcare sector of Ukraine, social and economic sector and vulnerable groups in the framework of “Team Europe” package.

Mühleck: “Without resilient Ukraine, there can’t be resilient Europe”.

Viktor Zamiatin, Director of Political and Legal Programmes, Razumkov Centre, presented an overview of the Razumkov Centre’s recent report “President Zelenskyy’s First Year: Achievements and Miscalculations”. According to the expert, the first year of the current authorities can be characterised as a combination of some achievements and failures. On one hand, the new authorities received an unprecedented level of trust from the Ukrainian society last year. This year it went down but it was expected. On the other hand, there is a lack of conceptual approaches, strategic vision of the state policy priorities and a clear program of activities. In addition, there is a lack of proper communication between the authorities and society. According to Mr. Zamiatin, the policies in different areas are not very well balanced, and sometimes the actions of the authorities are very controversial. Ukraine still faces many challenges in crucial sectors. The country didn’t come closer to the end of the war, and some initiatives of the new authorities even created the risks for the stability and sovereignty of Ukraine. In addition, the risk of the new phase of Russian aggression against Ukraine can’t be excluded. In terms of foreign policy, there are some positive dynamics in relations with the European Union and NATO. Ukraine has joined NATO Enhanced Opportunities Program. At the same time, Ukraine’s policies towards the USA look complicated and controversial. In terms of domestic and legal policy, the work of the Prosecutor’s Office wasn’t improved; a breakthrough in investigating resonant criminal cases wasn’t made. Instead, there are dangerous trends to put pressure on the opposition. Some positive changes were made in the anti-corruption sphere. In terms of social policy, the “end of poverty” proclaimed by President Zelensky is still not here. The declared return of labour migrants to Ukraine became possible only as a result of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zamiatin: “Experts and citizens consider that the President and his team haven’t fulfilled their promises, and they are sceptical regarding the possibility of their fulfilment in the nearest future”.

Iryna Shyba, Executive Director, DEJURE Foundation, pointed out that Zelensky acknowledged some problems of corruption in the judiciary and used it his campaign. Judiciary reform was proclaimed as a priority. However, there was a lack of a clear vision and a strategy. It opened an opportunity for NGOs to form a justice reform agenda. This agenda included the reform of the High Qualification Commission of Judges and the High Council of Justice. The instrument of involvement of international experts proved to be an effective mechanism of selection of judges of the Anti-Corruption Court and heads of other anti-corruption institutions. This justice reform agenda was supported by the President and his party, and some of those ideas were delivered in the draft law submitted in autumn. However, members of the High Council of Justice started to block this reform and succeeded. As of now, there are many courts without sitting judges at all. There are presidential draft law and two alternative draft laws submitted to the Parliament at the moment.

Shyba: “There is no improvement in the justice sector”.

Veronika Movchan, Academic Director, Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting, stressed that the picture in the economic sector is also very mixed. The Covid-19 impact has two dimensions: effect of domestic lockdown and effect of external shocks. According to the different forecasts, Ukraine’s GDP will drop between -6% and -11% in 2020. According to Ms. Movchan, key achievements of the new Ukrainian authorities are the following: gas transit deal based on the EU norms, land reform and breakthrough in AA/DCFTA legal harmonisation. At the same time, there are a number of disturbing challenges, such as reverted public service reform, revision of healthcare and public procurement reforms and an unexpected attack on the independence of the National Bank of Ukraine. The latest has already had very negative consequences for Ukraine’s relations with international partners and creditors.

Movchan: “Deep recession is expected in 2020”.

Anton Avksentiev, Expert, Observatory of Democracy, presented a few theses what to expect from the upcoming local elections in Ukraine. The expert stressed the absence of the text of the law on elections 100 days prior to the elections. It is noteworthy that according to the recommendations of the Venice Commission, this law had to be in place one year before the elections. Speaking about the main peculiarities of the local elections this year, firstly, it is clear that total “partisation” is expected. It means that many of local parties will take part in the elections only in certain regions. Secondly, the Servant of the People party (the current President’s party) will become a classical administrative-patronage party of power. Local elites will start entering the most popular parties in order to avoid spending 5 next years in opposition. Thirdly, apart from the strengthening role of media, Internet technologies and targeted advertisement we will see the high demand for so-called “volunteer support” in the form of dissemination of food and medical sets to the citizens. Because of the dire economic situation, they will appreciate these material tangible things.

Avksentiev: “I assume that these elections will be held with a large number of cases of indirect bribery of voters”.