UkraineAlert

Ukraine's domestic politics will change fundamentally in 2019. On May 20, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was inaugurated as president of Ukraine. The country’s upcoming parliamentary elections this summer or autumn will likely reconfigure much of the governing elite, and lead to deep changes in the country’s legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

Five major topics will keep Kyiv and its partners busy in 2019 and beyond. None are easy. They include politics, domestic reforms, gas, relations with the EU, and the Donbas conflict.

Since Zelenskiy’s inauguration four days ago, we have a slightly better picture of what is to come: the new president disbanded the parliament and called for early elections on July 21. Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman will probably resign. But many issues remain unknown. Zelenskiy wants a new election law to govern the parliamentary elections, but the parliament has refused to consider his law. The details matter and the election law will influence who enters the next parliament.

Foreign observers also wonder how many and which new pro-reform parties will compete in the elections and what the likely composition of the new parliament will be. It’s possible that Zelenskiy’s party could end up dominating a new government, and if it doesn’t, the question is which parties will form the new coalition government. And, of course, the big question is who the new prime minister will be. There are rumors that Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and Naftogaz chief Andriy Kobolyev want the job, but everything is in flux.   

After a new government is formed, it will confront a host of sticky problems.

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After Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s landslide victory, Ukraine is in a regime change situation, whether we call it so or not. The previous administration carried out great economic reforms, but the country’s law enforcement and judicial system remain predatory. What Ukraine needs most of all is rule of law.

Zelenskiy has a tremendous popular mandate, 73 percent of the vote, but this is an anti-mandate against the old dysfunctional system, which has rendered Ukraine the poorest country in Europe. Ukrainians want Zelenskiy to break up this system and build something better.

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May 20 was a historic day for Ukraine and beyond. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a political newcomer dismissed and denigrated by his political opponents, crowned his inauguration as president with an inspirational speech and decisive preliminary actions that have already borne results.

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On May 20, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was sworn in as Ukraine’s sixth president. His inauguration speech was ambitious: he called for early elections, urged parliament to end parliamentary immunity, pass electoral reform and the law on illegal enrichment. He also wants parliament to sack the head of the SBU, the prosecutor general, and the minister of defense. What did you think of Zelenskiy’s speech? Did he strike the right tone? Are his priorities correct? 

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Ukraine’s President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy waded into the bloodstained waters of the country’s memory wars during WWII memorial events in early May, posting a picture of himself alongside a Soviet veteran and a former member of Ukraine’s Insurgent Army with the message: “The key to peace today is unity among all Ukrainians.” This was something of a departure for Zelenskiy, who largely steered clear of sensitive historical issues during his presidential campaign while promising to move beyond the conflicting interpretations of the past that have plagued Ukrainian society since the Soviet collapse.

Zelenskiy’s recent WWII photo-op indicates that as the new head of state, he recognizes he will no longer be able to afford himself the luxury of remaining above the fray. Instead, he must now take a lead in Ukraine’s memory wars while choosing his battles carefully, seeking positions that can make sense of the troubled past while mindful of the fact that any potential missteps could reopen old wounds and undermine his calls for national unity.

Finding historical issues that a majority of Ukrainians can agree on is no easy matter.

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On April 21, TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy won a landslide victory over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election. By winning an impressive 73 percent of the vote, Zelenskiy secured a strong popular mandate.

Questions abound about Zelenskiy’s core political beliefs and whether his performance in office will match his campaign rhetoric. Answers to these questions are speculative. However, we do know what issues animate citizens. Opinion polls consistently show Ukrainians want three things. First, they want a statesman who will stand up to Russian aggression and restore Ukraine’s sovereignty. Second, they want a reformer who will take a battering ram to the oligarchic system. Third, they want someone who will increase economic growth, boost wages, and create jobs. To the extent that Zelenskiy can make progress on these three issues, he will continue to enjoy strong popular support. Conversely, moves that undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, cater to oligarchic interests, or jeopardize economic growth are likely to erode support.

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Last week the Trump administration recalled US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch two months earlier than expected. Various forces within Ukraine's presidential administration, including the attorney general, had been calling for her head after she gave a speech that pointed out Ukraine’s lackluster commitment to reform on Poroshenko’s watch. The lack of an ambassador puts the United States in a weak position with a new Ukrainian president about to take over and parliamentary elections in October.

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Ukrainians have considerable experience of the hope that comes with new beginnings and the disillusionment that often follows. The country has lived through repeated false dawns over the past three decades, only for the same old bad habits to come creeping out of the shadows and reassert their debilitating grip on the nation. The arrival of independence in 1991 was the first watershed moment, but this seeming historic break with the past was actually a deeply flawed compromise that failed to dislodge the vast state apparatus inherited from the Soviet era. Unsurprisingly, the rebranding of career communists as Ukrainian democrats did little to improve living standards or move the country in the right direction.

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Five years after the Euromaidan street protests, Ukrainians are still waiting for transformative leaders and justice. On May 20, political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy will be sworn in as president. But that won’t necessarily result in a significant change for the country: Ukraine’s next president is inexperienced and his links to oligarchs are troubling. Its parliament, the least trusted body in the country, makes the most important decisions and appoints the government. And there are signs afoot that the forces there will be anything but new.

Ukraine holds its parliamentary elections on October 27. Now that the May holidays have passed, politics is in full swing and every politician is preening and gearing up for the next fight. As of now, however, legislators and candidates pushing for justice can’t work together. And the most popular politicians largely represent the same old corrupt elite.  

At Stanford last week, we got a preview of what’s to come. Six politicians from Ukraine’s leading reform-focused political parties and civic movements (plus one from the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko, whose reform credentials are dubious at best) paraded on stage to explain their platforms, relitigate past decisions, and urge the West to give them more time to finally unify.

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Enter Ukraine’s sparkling new passport service center on the third floor of a shabby 1990s Kyiv shopping center and you feel you have entered Ukraine’s world of the future: bright lights, a digital ticket system, and 60 stylishly uniformed young men and women. They are all devoted to giving you, the Ukrainian citizen, a new biometric passport allowing for work, travel, and study in the EU.

But when my wife and I—two foreigners—approached the welcome desk in February, brows furrowed. The supervisor was called. Rule books were thumbed through.

Your foreign marriage certificate is no longer valid in Ukraine. No matter that it was valid for your residency permits of 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Although it was registered by Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by the US Embassy in Bangkok, translated into Ukrainian, notarized several times, the marriage certificate now must be validated by Ukraine’s Embassy in Bangkok.

In turn, the Ukrainian Embassy in Bangkok ruled that Thai Foreign Ministry certification stamps more than 90 days old are no longer valid.

While Vladimir Putin offers Russian passports to all Ukrainians, starting with those living in fringe areas controlled by Russian troops, Ukraine sleepwalks ahead, marching toward a demographic abyss, tied in knots by bureaucratic red tape that stifles business, bars immigration, and encourages emigration.

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