Ukrainian Political Trends in 2020

_ Mykola Kapitonenko, Associate Professor, Institute of International Relations, Taras Shevchenko National University. Kiev, 6 January 2020. First published by the Vienna Institute for Security Policy.

2020 is likely to become another challenging year for Ukraine. 2019, a politically turbulent year of two national elections is over; but the politics in the country is still highly unpredictable. State institutions remain weak. Radically new president and the parliament did not bring about significant changes in the ways politics operate. The rules of the game, including influence of oligarchs, remain much the same in Ukraine.

That means that political system will be heavily dependent on informal agreements among country’s most influential groups, which hold real power behind a pro-president “Servant of the People” party. A huge parliamentary majority group remains unstable, while positions of the government look weak.

Economic expectations are mostly evolving around opening of land market, which is believed to generate additional surplus, estimated from $1.5 billion to $5 billion. At the same time the country suffers from well-known structural problems in economy, drain of labor, and energy inefficiency in industry. Most likely, by the end of 2020 Ukraine will remain one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Ongoing conflict in the Eastern Ukraine will continue to negatively impact the country’s development in 2020. It generates political, economic, social, ecological risks. It also complicates foreign policy agenda, and is unlikely to be resolved in the nearest future. Following the recent summit of Normandy format in Paris, it looks like controlling escalation and attempting to freeze the conflict would be the most probable scenario.

The Conflict in Donbas

Handling the conflict in the East has remained a major focus of the president and his team so far. The Normandy summit on the 9th of December has become a culmination of a long and difficult negotiations process, underway since summer. Several important steps have been taken to build some trust in relations between Kyiv and Moscow and proceed to “peace”, a promise underlined by Zelenskiy in both campaigns.

All eyes of those who follow the Russian-Ukrainian standoff in Eastern Ukraine have been on the Normandy Summit in early December. The meeting of four leaders – French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian – in Paris signaled a continuation of a long-frozen multilateral format designed to resolve Europe’s most violent conflict since the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The time was right. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a surprising winner of presidential elections in Ukraine, has made peace in the country his major promise. Significant steps have been taken to unlock Russian-Ukrainian stalemate of mistrust in recent months. The two countries exchanged prisoners in September under “35 for 35” formula. Disengagement of forces has been complete in three points, enabling further talks about withdrawal along the whole line of contact. Russia returned Ukrainian vessels, captured during the crisis in the Kerch Strait in November, 2018. Those moves injected a minimum amount of trust into relations between Russian and Ukrainian leaders, enough to get Vladimir Putin onboard for a first top-level meeting in a Normandy Format since 2016.

But that amount of trust proved to be not enough for dealing with the hardest issues of a conflict in Eastern Ukraine: elections, control over the border, and autonomy for territories currently uncontrolled by Ukrainian government. Russia has been firmly stuck to the Minsk Agreements, stipulating that Ukraine would regain control only after local elections are held. For Ukraine that option is politically impossible.

The meeting in Paris has brought peace a bit closer. But “a bit” may only be quantified at a one-digit percentage. The potential generated before the summit has not been used to its fullest.

Now both countries face a familiar choice: either to make some major concessions for resolving or at least settling the conflict, or to continue a low intensity military engagement. The former option is linked to political risks, while the latter brings about long-term deterioration in security environment for both.

A stumbling block for upcoming months would be the sequence of holding elections and return of border under Ukraine’s control. Russia insists on elections first, as it is foreseen by the Minsk Agreements. In Moscow’s view only that order may secure its strategic goal of preserving some level of leverage over Ukraine by keeping presence in its currently uncontrolled Eastern parts. For Ukraine allowing elections on territories which are considered occupied may generate numerous problems, from weakened argumentation on Russia’s direct involvement into the conflict to undermining political stability in the country. Leaving the conflict as it is may seem the safest option for both countries, but it is hardly the best one.

With the agreement to hold another exchange of prisoners, continue with disengagement of forces, and have another meeting in four months, the parties will now concentrate on issues of elections and amendments into Ukrainian legislature. The so-called “Law of Special Status” has been extended for another year. It will take significant efforts from both Ukraine and Russia to change the dynamics of the conflict and make peace a reality in the end of 2020.

Internal Political Developments

Support for Volodymyr Zelenskiy in 2019 elections was so high and so out-of-nowhere, that a key question for the rest of the year was about how fast he would lose popularity among Ukrainians. That question was and remains important: popularity is Zelenskiy’s major political asset. This is the main factor which holds together his team – otherwise quite controversial – and also cements parliamentary majority.

The latter could be the weakest link in 2020. For the first time in Ukraine’s history there is a one-party majority in the parliament. “Servant of the People”, rather a political project than a political party, have won 254 out of 450 seats in the Rada, which seemed an overwhelming success in the summer. Exploiting its advantages, the party has consolidated control over the parliament, including chairmanship in 19 out of 23 parliamentary committees, and has launched a number of legislative initiatives in a so-called “turbo-mode”. The latter has been featured with a shortened procedure of examination of draft-laws and a very quick voting, quite often with a very little discussion. Among laws adopted in such a manner those about land and special status for Donbas are especially important.

Most likely, “Servant of the People” would not be able to proceed in such a style in 2020. The party has reached the stage where conflicts among different internal groups started to surface. There are several subgroups within the fraction, some of them being supported by various oligarchs, while others dependent on Zelenskiy personally. Controversial issues will most likely generate additional pressure on the members of parliament, thus it is unlikely that “turbo-mode” will continue into 2020. It is more probable, that parliamentary negotiations and bargains will gradually take a typical form.

Dissolution of the parliament (at least one year after it has been elected) will be an option for 2020, especially if president’s team will continue to lose control over the fraction. However, it will be next to impossible to repeat the success of 2019. At the same time, as long as Zelenskiy’s popularity remains high, he can credibly threaten early parliamentary elections.

Generally, as long as Zelenskiy does not make significant mistakes, he’s likely to retain most part of public support in 2020. It is not, however, the case with the cabinet of ministers and the parliament. Both institutions are enjoying much lower level of support comparing to the president[1]. That means that the government remains comparatively weak; and there are realistic chances of a change of the cabinet in 2020.

Keeping political stability will be pivotal for initiatives like reform of land market and decentralization, two most actively debated moves by the president. Opening of a land market, which under various excuses was postponed since Ukraine became independent, is a step of huge political, let alone economic, significance. Decentralization is a key administrative reform, which demands constitutional changes. It will change the political system in the country. Discussions around land market and decentralization will define a political landscape in 2020.

Foreign Policy Issues

Ukraine’s relations with western neighbors will improve; the conflict with Russia will remain at a stalemate; while relations with the US will get more complicated. European integration will remain a key slogan to Ukrainian foreign policy, although will be limited to adaptation of the Association Agreement to new reality.

A year ago deteriorating relations with Poland and Hungary have been one of the most problematic issues on Ukraine’s foreign policy agenda. These conflicts largely stemmed from Ukraine’s internal developments, in particular from official historic narratives and adoption of the Law on the Language. Constructing Ukrainian national identity impacted relations with neighbors, which have always been sensitive, like in most other cases in Eastern Europe. Upcoming elections made things even more complicated.

However, when elections were over, relations with Poland and Hungary turned to be the issues for immediate concern and resolution. Disputes over history and language raised emotions and political speculations in all countries involved, but from practical perspective cooperation has been a better option for all. Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine have similar vision of regional security, energy issues, cross-border cooperation, which generated potential for normalization.

One of the first foreign trips of president Zelenskiy was to Poland. It has been an important move, signaling readiness in Kyiv to overcome difficulties in bilateral relations. In September, following Zelenskiy’s visit to Warsaw, Ukraine lifted ban for exhumation works, thus making considerable concessions in one of the most sensitive issues. In return Ukraine is expecting changes in Poland’s policy towards Ukrainian monuments.

Another important area of cooperation, the one on energy, has seen a trilateral Polish-Ukrainian-American memorandum signed over future supplies of American LNG to Poland and Ukraine. That boosts the potential for cooperation over energy, gas transportation, and infrastructure. It has also been important for Ukraine with the view of its ongoing debates with Russia’s Gazprom.

The progress in relations between Ukraine and Hungary has been less impressive so far. Bilateral relations deteriorated in September, 2017 after Ukrainian parliament adopted a Law on Education. In Budapest it is seen as restricting the rights of about 150 thousand of Ukrainian Hungarians, living for the most part in Zakarpattya. Hungarian officials demand extensive amendments into the Law. Right after Zelenskiy won the elections Budapest put much hope for rapid legislative changes. However, the issue turned to be more complicated. It might be one of the main on the agenda of the future meeting between Ukrainian president and Hungarian prime-minister. At the same time general environment of bilateral relations has slightly improved over the recent year and will get better in 2020.

A phone conversation between Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the 25th of July has eventually triggered the impeachment of the American president and generated considerable risks for US-Ukrainian relations. The situation has been complicated by previous scandals. In 2014 Hunter Biden, the son of the then vice-president Josef Biden, became a member of board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings. Being responsible for legal and international issues, Hunter Biden received salary of around 600 thousand dollars annually. It has also been rumored that Burisma Holdings transferred about 150 thousand dollars monthly to Rosemont Seneca Partners, a company belonging to Hunter Biden and his partners. Investigation over this issue has been launched by Prosecutor General Office of Ukraine, but was interrupted.

That investigation has suddenly become the focus of communication between the team of a new Ukrainian president and Trump. Eventually Ukraine has become an epicenter of American politics, one of the main topics in a new elections campaign. For Ukraine handling risks arising from the scandal has been essential. The US assistance and support plays a crucial role for the country’s security in the face of the ongoing Russian aggression. Amounts and level of assistance is dependent on bipartisan agreement. Thus preserving good relations with both Republicans and Democrats was the key challenge for Zelenskiy. He did his best to distance from internal American politics, but hardy could avoid the damage. Kurt Volker, US Special Representative for Ukraine, resigned; no successor has been appointed. Policy towards Ukraine has become more cautious in Washington, while in Ukraine perception of US has become more complicated.

Closer to the end of the year the Congress approved the bill, containing extended military and financial assistance for Ukraine. American sanctions against Russian Nord Stream-2 pipeline, so crucial for Ukraine’s talks over transit with Gazprom, came into force. There are overlapping strategic interests of both countries, especially in security and energy areas. One could hope, those interests would overweight personal dislikes and scandalous issues in 2020.

The world remains turbulent. That is a challenge for Ukrainian foreign policy, which may look like a series of crisis management initiatives in 2020.

Presidential elections in US will generate pressure on Ukraine. No matter who wins in November, 2020 Ukraine will remain an important regional partner for Washington. We might expect some progress in issues of energy and enhancement of regional security in Eastern Europe.

In 2019 China has become Ukraine’s major trading partner. China will continue to rise as an important player. Ukraine already had a difficult dilemma with a purchase of Motor Sich factory by Chinese company Skyrizon. With a more active Chinese stance in Europe, Ukraine will have to adopt a more focused policy towards an Asian giant.

Unity of Europe will be important for Ukraine in 2020. After Brexit is complete a new constellation of political forces will emerge. Difference in views among European powers will remain. Eastern Partnership will continue to be of limited efficiency, and without a realistic perspective of EU membership, Ukraine will have to concentrate on adapting and fulfillment of Association Agreement with the EU.

Any tangible progress in dealing with the conflict in the East of Ukraine would be difficult achieve. Negotiations with Russia have already reached the point of most fundamental issues: border, elections, legislature, withdrawal of forces, and amnesty. Any concessions would be problematic. However, with some level of trust achieved between Ukrainian and Russian leaders, it is possible to count on decrease in number of casualties or even on freezing the conflict by the end of 2020.


[1] According to a poll by Rating Group, in December, 2019, 62% of Ukrainians are satisfied with the president’s actions; 29% are satisfied with the parliament; 29% are satisfied with the cabinet:


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