The March 31st Presidential elections in Ukraine matter for Ukraine, its region and the EU. While the majority of experts deem it impossible for a winner to be declared in the first round and, thus, expect a second one in April, the March contest will be a first important step in the crucial process to determine the direction the country will take. So, while we should not hold our breath on election day, we should definitely keep a close eye on the contest and its outcome.
These elections mark the first time in modern Ukrainian history in which openly pro-Russian candidates stand no chance to be elected. This is certainly telling in a country that traditionally adopted a multi-vector foreign policy – that is, a careful balance between cooperation with both Russia and the West – but it makes sense given the high price that Ukraine has paid for being at the heart of geopolitical competition between Russia and the EU over the last six years.
And yet Ukraine’s pro-Western integration course is far from being undisputed. None of the three candidates currently leading in the polls – the incumbent pro-Westerner President Petro Poroshenko, the former Prime Minister and ex-energy tycoon Yulia Tymoshenko, and the comedian and political outsider Volodymyr Zelensky – questions it on paper, but some candidates’ electoral programmes or actions look at odds with this goal. For instance, the Ukrainian analyst and former Tymoshenko’s advisor Taras Kuzio accuses Tymoshenko of lacking consistency in both her domestic and foreign policies. On the one hand, she criticises IMF conditionality and advocates economic isolationism; on the other hand, she supports good relations with the EU – and, eventually, EU membership – but she overlooks the fact that one of the EU’s prerequisites for granting assistance to Ukraine is exactly the implementation of an IMF agreement. Zelensky’s fussy approach is also critical towards the IMF while giving lukewarm support to EU integration.
What’s at stake for the EU?
The EU has many reasons to pay close attention to these elections. First and foremost, the elections may prove to be a test for the success and credibility of Brussels’ foreign policy’s flagship initiative Eastern Partnership (EaP), the EU’s regional integration scheme for its “eastern neighbours”. Ukraine signed an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU in 2014 after years of negotiations and the Euromaidan revolution that led to regime change. Becoming a full-fledged EU member state has been an aspiration of relevant sectors of Ukraine’s elites and civil society alike. Last January, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Ukraine would apply for EU membership in 2024. Societal support for European integration has also reached very high levels after Euromaidan, despite regional and age gaps the continue to persist: since 2015, many opinion polls have shown that support for EU accession has remained on a similar level, with over 50 percent of Ukrainians in favour and 25 percent against. Yet the option of membership was never on the table officially; plus, the so-called “enlargement fatigue” and the wave of populism and Euroskepticism in European capitals suggest that it is not going to happen anytime soon. The very AA was rejected by Dutch voters in a 2016 referendum and, in order to save the deal, European leaders had to spell out that Ukraine was not promised EU membership, nor any military help in case of invasion.
Furthermore, there has been some discontent on both sides: while the EU complained about the speed of decentralisation reforms and insufficient efforts in fighting corruption and Oligarchisation, meanwhile Ukraine blames the EU for failing to honour its promises. Therefore, the big issue is how the EU will manage to keep supporting Kiev’s reforms attempts without a credible membership perspective as a powerful incentive at its disposal. It is true that reforms have to be carried out if and when they are believed to be in the country’s best interest, not just because of the EU’s so-called “golden carrot”. Yet frustration amongst the population over the perceived lack of EU support and commitment may be used by politicians to disrupt the reforms efforts. These elections will be an important signal of Ukraine’s willingness to keep up with the political course it has embarked on.
These elections will also determine which attitude the new Kiev government will adopt vis-à-vis Russia. The candidates have shown different approaches and concrete proposals to solve the longstanding conflict in the Donbass region. The evolution of the security situation has far-reaching implications for the EU, too; Brussels has further severed its already complicated ties with Moscow considerably over the Ukraine crisis, and it has linked the suspension of its Russia sanctions to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Improved relations between Ukraine and Russia may lead to the overcoming of the current impasse, where Ukraine and Russia blame each other for the lack of progress in the conflict resolution. Conversely, a maintaining of the status quo or the worsening of relations between Kiev and Moscow would certainly not aid in facilitating the normalisation of EU-Russia relations.
Finally, the EU should also watch these elections closely because they display several trends likely to also be at play in the upcoming European elections in May. The first of these trends is the growing populism that has already been concerning many European capitals. If we define “populist” mainly as being “anti-elites”, then two out of three top candidates in Ukraine deserve such a label. Today, Zelensky’s anti-establishment rhetoric makes the headlines, but Tymoshenko has also been building upon a strong anti-elite discourse, even though she herself has been part of Ukraine’s political and economic elites for decades. The way she frames her opposition to the IMF requirements as well as her most recent attack on the health minister, the Ukrainian-American Ulana Suprun, as somebody "sent by foreigners" who want to "experiment on Ukrainians" showcases heavy use of the “external threat” rhetoric, which is a typical trait of populism. The second trend is the increasing fear both in Ukraine and in the EU of external powers’ interference in the electoral process, through disinformation during the electoral campaigning and cyber disruptions at the polls. There have been allegations of meddling into several EU countries’ elections over the last few years. A Eurobarometer survey revealed s that a majority of EU citizens are worried that disinformation campaigns, data breaches and cyberattacks will interfere with the May elections. Given the general climate of suspicion towards possible interference of external actors, some Ukrainians fear the same type of attack from Russia. According to a Politico editorial, Ukraine has allegedly become a “test bed for cyberweaponry” and “a live-fire space for hackers”. It is difficult to say whether this is an overexaggeration or if it mirrors reality; the risk of disinformation has been mitigated through laws – criticized by many – limiting or prohibiting broadcasting by some Russian media, while the fact that voting takes place through paper ballots as opposed to e-voting technologies limits possible cyberattacks on the voting system. Nonetheless, the EU should pay attention to potential threats to the still-fragile Ukrainian democracy and assist, together with the OSCE, the country in ensuring a smooth and fair election.
What about Italy?
Traditionally, Ukraine has not ranked high on Italy’s media and political agenda. There is scarce interest for the country’s culture and language, reflected in the few academic poles where Ukrainian is taught compared to other Slavic languages. Plus, as Kateryna Zarembo notes, there is a “widespread perception of Ukraine as a weak state not worth investing in”. Despite the presence of a strong Ukrainian community in the country, Ukraine is perceived as “far away”; at best, its political affairs are seen through the lenses of Russia’s. Therefore, it is understandable that the upcoming presidential elections are not attracting much attention in general.
Italian media are focusing on two specific elements. The first one is Zelensky’s candidacy, which is associated with the political vicissitudes of Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian-turned-politician and “brain” of the Five-Star-Movement, one of the two political forces currently in power. Popular newspapers such as La Stampa or Il Foglio published stories about the comedian making direct or indirect links with the situation in Italy – “Also in Ukraine, a comedian runs for President”, a headline goes. Their analyses usually tap into wider considerations on the political situation in Italy and Europe at large. Zelensky, defined by the Ukrainian philosopher Mikhail Minakov as an "empty box where Ukrainians are putting their anger and frustration”, resembles several European politicians capitalising on citizens’ discontented sentiments towards mainstream parties. The second element grabbing Italians’ attention is far more “pop”. Over the last few weeks, Ukrainian MPS have blacklisted the famous Italian singer Al Bano for his sympathy towards Russia’s actions in Crimea, and threaten to do the same with Toto Cutugno.
Even If these elements are being widely discussed by Italian media, an in-depth and constructive debate about Ukraine’s politics and the security situation is so far missing. That is unfortunate, given that the election results will also affect the relations between Russia and the EU, a topic that is way more discussed and relevant in Italy. Rome is seen as Moscow’s ally in Europe, labelled as its “Trojan horse” even before the Ukraine crisis. The current government exacerbated this image, especially due to the vice PM Matteo Salvini’s staunch opposition to sanctions and declarations of admiration for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The drivers and roots of Italy’s relation with Russia are often exaggerated but are indeed long-standing and multifaceted. Italy could capitalise on those to act as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia, something that the government of the former Italian PM Matteo Renzi advocated for. Russia’s political and economic isolation is not perceived as being in Italy’s best interest, but an excessively Russia-leaning attitude and a possible breach of its EU commitments would also harm Rome’s image and interests. Establishing a good working relation with the new government in Kiev and playing the role of a credible mediator would enable Italy to enhance its status in Europe while simultaneously preserving its relations with Moscow.