Zelenskiy at the Helm – What to Expect from Ukraine’s New President?

On May 13, 2019, the Executive Director of the Office Olena Carbou spoke at the Policy Dialogue conference organised by the European Policy Centre in the framework of its Ukraine Forum. The discussion aimed to reflect on the newly elected president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskiy, his priorities, the challenges ahead including the war in the Donbas, relations with the EU, US and Russia.

Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre opened the discussion by congratulating Ukraine on what has been agreed by the international community as free and fair elections. She noted just like for many in the world, the landslide victory by Zelenskiy was rather surprising. Six months prior to the election, nobody could really imagine that a TV comedian could become Ukraine’s next president. However, as she noted afterwards, Ukraine in many cases has shown to be predictably unpredicted. She stressed that it was to be expected and is clear now, that Russia will start testing Zelenskiy, which will certainly continue through his presidency. Moreover, Mrs Paul thoughtfully underlined, that the expectations are massive and the challenges are as big. Soon the reality will sink in, that this is not a TV show.

Paul: “He has to go out and show and be a strong leader of the population who has put a lot of trust into him”.

Svitlana Kobzar, Senior Programme Manager, European Endowment for Democracy reflected on the fact that five years ago there was a big demand for change in Ukraine but there was no other way to make these voices for change heard than take it to the streets. The demand for change now is similar except this time, there are institutions and processes in place for everyone to express their choice in a democratic manner. She stressed that within Ukrainian society, impatience and optimism are often wrapped together. What the Ukrainian people must understand, is that everyone must play their part and contribute to solving the problems, as one person simply can’t do it. Mrs Kobzar pointed out, that Zelenskiy will have to deal with the problem of the lack of trust in institutions, something that has been present for a long time and shadowed every president. She further pointed out that Ukraine has a vibrant civil society, which does not only keep the government in check but provides extensive analysis of the legislature and policy solutions. It will be up to Zelenskiy and his political will, to find a common language with the civil society and make use of their expertise.

Kobzar: “Ukraine has engaged in a long-term generational change”.

Vasyl Filipchuk, Chairman, International Center for Policy Studies agreed with the previous panellist, that Ukraine’s democratic developments have been underestimated to a certain extent and noted that the country managed to have free and fair elections. He stressed, that right now, it is difficult to judge Zelenskiy, as he doesn’t have his own political history. This judgement will be made upon his first decisions and by assessing the team around him. In the context of his pre-electoral promises, Zelenskiy will have to deal with the political institutions in place, which by their nature tend to be always against an anti-systemic candidate, something Zelenskiy appears to be. Mr Filipchuk did point out, that Zelenskiy hasn’t been a public servant unlike all the previous presidents, which makes him the best-placed president for a real attempt to fight corruption.

Filipchuk: “We don’t know what are the policies of the president-elect Zelesnkiy. He should be consistent in his foreign policy. He should continue with key policies as his predecessors. Any quick significant changes in the other direction are not likely”.

Olena Carbou, Executive Director, Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office stressed that currently being a winner of 73% of the votes,  Zelenskiy can quickly become the hostage of these 73 %. There is a short window of opportunity to use the support of these voters. She further pointed out certain risks for Zelenskiy, including inexperience, absence of a strong team with a unified voice, number and scope of the issues the country is facing, high expectations of people and reduced room for manoeuvre. Limited powers of the president by the constitution and necessity to find a common language with the parliament also influence his possibilities. Agreeing with previous panellists, Mrs Carbou stressed that Ukraine must continue its path towards European integration, which is also park of Zelenskiy’s credibility within Ukraine. This is crucial, especially today, where Europe itself is going through some electoral uncertainty and is pre-occupied with issues like Brexit and rise of populism. It is important for the President to stay open-minded to a dialogue with the civil society. It is important to be inclusive, be able to absorb criticism, learn and redesign policies and then implement them.

Carbou: “Full electoral cycle of 2019 – 2020 offers Ukraine a possibility of an update of the political system. At the same time, it is crucial to not to destroy the continuity of the policy-making process of the country in times of the war and not to miss our obligations, also in the face of the international partners”.