Home / Articles / Ukraine’s Presidential Election and the Future of its Foreign Policy
As Ukrainians prepare to elect a president on March 31, the West and the East wait to see which candidate will emerge victorious and what, if any, impact he or she will have on the direction of the country’s foreign policy. The most salient issues for Ukrainian foreign relations will remain unchanged: European and Euro-Atlantic integration as well as the continuing Russian aggression. However, the pace at which Ukraine pursues membership in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will depend on which candidate wins as will how the country resolves the war in the Donbas and the occupation of Crimea.
The first round of the presidential election will occur on March 31. If no candidate receives a majority, then a second-round runoff between the top two candidates is scheduled for April 21. Possible scenarios concerning the direction of the country’s foreign policy can already be surmised based on the candidates leading in the polls and their proposed policy platforms. Three out of 39 candidates have a realistic chance to be elected: comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and current President Petro Poroshenko.
Zelensky, the Non-Politician
When comedian and political novice Volodymyr Zelensky announced his run for president on December 31, 2018, it appeared like it was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Perhaps, he was just looking to increase his social media followers. However, as months passed and his popularity continues to persist, this comic’s chance of winning is no joke. The possibility of a Zelensky presidency is real.
In early March, 24.7% of Ukrainians who intended to vote supported Zelensky, with Tymoshenko in second place at 18.3% and Poroshenko in third with 16.8%.
The same political inexperience that makes Zelensky attractive to voters also makes him a liability for Ukraine. His electoral program is vague, and his political orientation is indiscernible. Furthermore, he crowdsourced his electoral program by asking Facebook supporters to name key challenges that he should address if elected. In response, he received hundreds of comments with suggestions for his program. Zelensky often oversimplifies foreign policy and comes across as not truly grasping how diplomacy is conducted. It is unclear whether Zelensky would continue to foster Ukraine’s relations with the West and how long it would take for him to determine which international institutions are the most important for Ukraine’s future.
Zelensky has decidedly expressed a lack of commitment in pursuing European integration. He does not mention EU membership at all in his platform. Zelensky presents a similarly non-committal attitude toward Euro-Atlantic integration. In an interview with Ukrainian journalist Dmytro Gordon in December 2018, Zelensky questioned what NATO means in practice, and whether it is comprised of “military forces that will defend [Ukraine] from aggressors?” Zelensky’s platform states that Ukraine would seek membership in NATO and “other” security alliances simultaneously. The only other potential security alliance for Ukraine is the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Zelensky should know that dual membership in these two security organizations is impossible.
A Zelensky presidency means that there are a lot of unknowns for the future of Ukrainian foreign policy. He is a showman first, and it is possible that many of his statements are populist rhetoric and exaggerated for effect. For example, while his promises about recruiting a non-political team were unorthodox, Zelensky recently made a point to meet with skilled economic advisers and policymakers to discuss pressing issues for Ukraine such as cooperation with the IMF suggesting willingness to listen to expert advice. While much would depend on whom Zelensky choses to surround himself with if he were to win, there remains legitimate concern that he lacks the diplomatic experience necessary to navigate Ukraine’s geopolitical challenges as well as the political will to keep the country on the path toward integration with European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.
Tymoshenko’s “New Course”
The most politically and diplomatically experienced candidate is Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been involved in Ukrainian politics for over 23 years. She has held seats in parliament and served as prime minister; her “Fatherland” party is an associate member of the conservative, Christian democratic European People’s Party. While the “gas princess” is a predictable candidate to see on the ballot, as this is her third consecutive presidential run, her populist persona means that a Tymoshenko presidency would hold much uncertainty akin to a Zelensky one.
Recently, Tymoshenko said, “Ukraine is in for a reset of government.” The irony being that she herself is part of the old political elite. Even though she promises a “new course” and her electoral program is broad, it is not well-developed when it comes to foreign policy. Tymoshenko goes into great detail when it comes to domestic policy, but not for foreign policy. Yet, according to the Constitution of Ukraine, the president is responsible not for social policy or economic policy, but for foreign policy and national security.
Since 2014, Ukraine has sought integration with the EU and NATO, and Tymoshenko has vowed that “Ukraine will be in the EU and NATO.” However, her platform lacks any mention of Ukrainian membership in the EU. European integration is important for Ukraine because it will definitively cement Kyiv’s ties with the West. Failing to prioritize EU membership at some future date—whether or not this is a realistic goal—places Tymoshenko on par with 1990s Ukrainian Presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma under whom Ukraine stagnated and remained tethered to Russian-led institutions such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It is well known that Tymoshenko has a history of political and economic dealings with Moscow, so her failure to include any mention of the EU is cause for concern.
In reference to NATO, she states that the security of Ukraine and its people can only be guaranteed by “full-fledged membership” in the Euro-Atlantic alliance. She also says that Ukraine cannot remain alone, as it is easy “prey for any military invasion,” as proven by the ongoing war with Russia. However, no detailed plans for membership or the adoption of NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) are provided, just that membership is necessary.
Tymoshenko’s plan for resolving the war with Russia is the creation of a “Budapest+ Memorandum.” This new agreement would expand the 1994 security assurances to include countries such as Germany, France, and China and possibly the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. While no specifics about how she would produce such an agreement with these countries are discussed, Tymoshenko proposes that Budapest+ would increase pressure on Russia to negotiate peace with Ukraine. Tymoshenko’s platform promises to use the agreement to strengthen Western military technical assistance to Ukraine and to call for the signatories to pressure Russia to withdraw troops. Furthermore, she claims the “Budapest+” agreement will provide for the return of Crimea, though it is unclear how Russia could be convinced to return it.
To be sure, uncertainty is what surrounds a Tymoshenko presidency. She is a populist first and foremost; inconsistencies in her speeches and political program are to be expected and her promises are likely more about securing votes than establishing a “new course” for Ukraine.
Poroshenko and Maintaining the Status Quo
Petro Poroshenko will have to fight for re-election. His failure to live up to the expectations of the Maidan—notably his promises to forge a strong economy and fight corruption—have made him unpopular. He has failed to tackle the oligarchy, of which he is a part, which cripples Ukraine’s political system, and he has not yet removed corrupt police, prosecutors, and judges.
Furthermore, he established the autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which for the first time in history is independent from Moscow. Separation of the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodoxy represents a critical expression of the “uniqueness and independence” of Ukraine. Church matters often spilled over into political affairs, and this separation further removes Ukraine from Moscow’s rule. However, this may further strain Ukraine-Russia relations as evidenced by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s criticism of the decision to establish the UOC, which he called illegitimate, and by Putin’s claim that Russia “reserves the right to react and do everything to protect human rights including freedom of religion.”
His plans for the future of Ukrainian foreign policy and national security are straightforward. In the first few sentences of his electoral program he states, “Our mission is to join the European Union and NATO,” noting that only full membership will irrevocably guarantee Ukrainian independence and national security. While the chances of Ukraine joining either of these institutions in the next five years is practically nonexistent, such promises are important because they demonstrate a commitment to Kyiv’s ties to the West.
A second term for Poroshenko will likely see Ukraine continue reforming its legislation and institutions to align closer with EU member states and gain expanded access to Western markets. In his platform, Poroshenko plans to apply for EU membership in 2023—though that is not to say the EU will find Ukraine ready. He additionally discusses domestic policy reform for the purpose of bringing Ukraine “closer to the social criteria of membership in the EU.” He also vows to “receive and start implementing a NATO membership action plan,” as Poroshenko views NATO as the only means to secure Ukraine’s sovereignty and protect rule of law in the country.
Concerning the war with Russia, the current president continues to call for complete de-occupation of Donbas and Crimea. He stands by the need to implement the Minsk Agreements and proposes using sanctions and relying on peacekeeping missions in occupied Donbas.
However, a recent scandal concerning profiteering from the war with Russia by well-connected Ukrainians close to Poroshenko has tarnished his achievements. The scandal has raised accusations that Poroshenko has tolerated corruption instead of fighting it. The war has provided opportunities for corrupt individuals to profit, including advisors close to Poroshenko. Thus, if re-elected, Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts will be a function of sustained international pressure, but if Russia escalates the conflict, then anti-corruption efforts will be sidelined.
Overall, Poroshenko’s foreign policy and national security plans are consistent with the direction he has led Ukrainian foreign relations for the past five years. Another term for him would mean stability and continuity for Ukraine in the realm of foreign policy, but also a continuation of the same corrupt political system he has failed to dismantle. Until Ukraine eliminates entrenched corruption, it will never have a chance at membership in the Western institutions Poroshenko promises.
When Ukrainians go to the polls on March 31, they will be presented with 39 candidates, but realistically, there are just three viable options. They will choose to maintain the same stable but flawed path, support populist uncertainty, or let an inexperienced comedian entertain them for the next five years. Regardless of who wins, the stakes and emotions will run higher than ever.