Ukraine on the cusp of change

Ukraine President Vladimir Zelensky celebrated his party’s big victory in the parliamentary election, Kiev, July 21, 2019

The thumping victory by the Ukraine President Vladimir Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, securing an absolute majority of 253 seats in the 450 member parliament, can be viewed as a tectonic shift in the geopolitical landscape of Eurasia. The next big party in the parliament will be the pro-Russia Platform – For Life, which secured 44 seats. The stunning rout of the pro-western forces symbolised by former President Poroshenko’s Solidarity party (24 seats). 

The West must see the writing on the wall that the tide of opinion in Ukraine is overwhelmingly favouring the country’s reconciliation with Russia — a total negation, in other words, of the “regime change” through a US-sponsored colour revolution in 2014. The pro-western forces had let loose a campaign that the July 21 election was about Renewal (pro-west regime change in 2014) versus Revanche (rapprochement with Russia). The latter has won resoundingly. (See a commentary in the US government controlled Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty titled Renewal Or ‘Revanche’? Buzzwords Of Ukraine’s Parliamentary Elections Forecast Tension Following Vote.)

In effective terms, the control of parliament consolidates Zelenskiy’s gip on political power and enables him to accelerate three things: one, the purge of the Poroshenko era personnel from the top echelons of the government most of whom are western nominees or proxies; two, a parliament that will cooperate with his legislative and reform agenda; and, three, robust efforts forthwith to bring the war in Donbas to an end and an improvement in relations with Russia.    

Moscow has every reason to be quietly pleased with the outcome of the July 21parliamentary poll in Ukraine. Did Moscow anticipate the election results? Possibly so — even if the scale of Zelensky’s victory might have surpassed expectations. President Putin voiced optimism on the eve of the poll saying that the two countries will mend ties. As he put it, “We [Russia and Ukraine] have many things in common, we can use this as our competitive advantage during some form of integration. Rapprochement is inevitable.”  

In fact, Moscow has already begun sensing that the Ukrainian government is no longer taking a hostile attitude toward Russia. The Kremlin noted last week that Kiev’s newly-appointed representatives in the contact group working on Donbas are taking a cooperative and constructive attitude, eschewing the negativism of the Poroshenko era. Besides, Zelensky has also signalled readiness to release from detention the editor-in-chief of the Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti, Kirill Vyshinsky. 

Zelensky can be expected to push for a radical fresh start in the policies, domestic and foreign. He has made it clear that he disowned the legacy of the Poroshenko presidency. He will now push through parliament his plan to extend a current ban preventing officials from the Yanukovych era (prior to 2014 regime change) from working in the public service to Poroshenko and his team. Legal prosecutions also seem possible, especially as Zelensky seeks to abolish the general immunity enjoyed by parliamentarians. These are hugely popular moves — and they will seriously debilitate the pro-western forces.

Zelensky’s projection of himself as a president for peace echoes the deep yearning of a big majority of Ukrainians for an end to the war in Donbas. “We are prepared to do everything required by the Minsk agreements,” he recently said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. He seems willing to make concessions to the separatists, as envisaged under the Minsk agreements — such as a measure of regional autonomy, a say in the foreign and security policies, the use of Russian language and so on. If he moves in that direction, a sea change in the climate of relations between Ukraine and Russia is possible. 

However, the complexity of the Donbas question should not be underestimated. The conflict is multi-dimensional and external powers — Russia as well as western powers — are deeply involved in Ukraine. The regime change in Ukraine in 2014 is at the root of it. Will the West let Ukraine slip out of its hands? Will Zelensky be allowed by the West to plough an independent furrow toward east? These are key questions today. The Russian attitudes will be largely conditional on that. For the moment, it does appear, though, that Ukraine is on the cusp of change. See a recent research paper by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs titled The Donbas Conflict: Opposing Interests and Narratives, Difficult Peace Process.