Moving Forward From Ukraine’s Presidential Election

The Presidential Election, which took place on Sunday, April 21, 2019, was meant to bring positive changes to Ukraine. Indeed, under the rule of President Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine has been suffering from a series of political and economic crises. When he came to power in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. In regions such as the Eastern Ukraine, the pro-Russia separatists – who felt encouraged by Russia’s triumph in Crimea – launched a rebellion against the Ukrainian government. With the military and political support from Russia, these separatists even managed to establish regimes such as the People’s Republic of Luhansk and the People’s Republic of Donetsk. As Tadeusz Iwanski further points out, this ongoing military confrontation has in turn led to serious economic recession in the country. From 2014 to 2015, Ukraine experienced a serious 16.5% decline in its GDP. Even though its economy began slowly recovering from 2016 onwards, Ukraine remains politically unstable and is one of the poorest countries in Europe.

It is during such a difficult time that former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is famous for playing for a fictious president in a TV series “Servant of the People”, won over 70% of votes cast in the election, with over 90 percent of nationwide ballots counted. However, NBC News suggests that instead of indicating the competency of Zelenskiy in running the country, what this great victory demonstrates is Ukrainian people’s strong desire for a change.

Nevertheless, it remains too early to know whether Zelenskiy could lead the country to recover from challenges such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the war with separatist insurgents and the ongoing economic difficulties. As Reuters reveals, even though Zelenskiy has promised to end the separatist movements in eastern Ukraine and to stabilize the domestic economic situation, he has failed to provide any plans on how he is going to achieve these goals. Apart from his lack of experience in running the country, what makes it even more difficult for Zelenskiy to save Ukraine is Russia’s continually growing influence and even interference in Ukrainian politics. As Nataliya Vasiyeva further reports in the Washington Post, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a presidential decree to “expedite citizenship applications from Ukrainians who live in parts of Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists”. This not only complicates the conflicts in eastern Ukraine but could also be an alarming sign that Russia may consider taking even more venturesome and radical moves.

It is then clear that apart from electing a new president, more should be done to help the newly elected government to deal with the problems of Russia’s military and political interference, separatist movements and economic recession? As far as I am concerned, international support will be instrumental to help Ukraine survive these political and economic challenges. Given the fact that Zelenskiy and his government will probably be largely inexperienced in dealing with these challenges, it is important for the international community – including NGOs and policy think tanks – to help create concrete action plans for dealing with issues such as economic recession and pro-Russian separatist movements. In addition, the international community should provide firm and consistent support to defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Scholar Andreas Umland suggests two ways that the international community could help. First, countries like Poland and Romania could build a regional defence coalition with Ukraine to counter-balance Russia’s influence in the region. Second, the EU and its member countries could pressure and persuade Russia to stop interfering in Ukraine, particularly by “signal[ling] to Kremlin what kind of additional economic and individual sanctions Brussels would impose in the case of Russian military advances in…Ukraine.”