Vladimir Zelensky and his external policy: what can the Republic of Moldova expect from the new president of Ukraine?

Electing an absolute politics outsider as the president of a big European country seems to be a scenario of a Hollywood comedy. Or of the success Ukrainian series entitled suggestively ‘Servant of the People’ recently bought by Netflix – the biggest network of video streaming at request in the world. The events concerning the election of the comedian Vladimir Zelensky as president unfolded during about half of year since the first rumors regarding his intention to run until his inauguration on 20 May. The TV star announced his intention to run for the President of Ukraine on New Year’s Eve and the TV channel 1+1 broadcast his speech instead of the speech of the incumbent President, Petro Poroshenko. It was a signal given to Poroshenko by the owner of the TV channel, the oligarch Igor Kolomoiskii, forced to flee Ukraine after losing control over the largest Ukrainian bank, Privatbank, following a scandal of tax evasion on an especially large scale. Since the first weeks of January, voting intentions in favour Zelensky exceeded those in favour of Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, placing the actor on the first place, a position he maintained until elections. It’s an absolutely new phenomenon in the global politics for an actor to win a president mandate while he played the role of the president in the most popular TV series in the country. This event is part of a post-modern and essentially postmodern logic, according to which the shape matters more than content and the packaging determines the essence, and not vice versa. However, the election as President of an individual with zero experience in public administration and political life is at least questionable for a country engaged in a war with its bigger and much stronger neighbor.

One of the most important things to say about Zelensky and his mandate is that very little is known about his intentions, in fact. His agenda left room for many ambiguities, particularly in the field of foreign policy. Zelensky’s future steps externally are unclear, while Ukraine’s neighbors are currently waiting, trying to anticipate his movements. Below we’ll try to anticipate the potential foreign policy directions of Zelensky administration, especially as regards the relationship with the Republic of Moldova, on the basis of the most important statements of intent that the new Ukrainian President made so far: his inaugural speech given during the solemn meeting of the Parliament from Kyiv – Central Rada of Ukraine, during the presidential inauguration festivities.

The Myth of the ‘Europeanization from the inside’ – Naivity or Bad Intention?After a first analysis of Zelensky’s inaugural speech one can see that he spoke very little about the foreign relations compared to the domestic problems of the country.

However, Moldovan nationals may be interested in some topics mentioned by the new Ukrainian President. We are already familiar with some of them. For example, the attitude of the Ukrainian President towards the European integration sounds pretty familiar because we heard very similar things from our politicians: ‘An European country begins with each of us. Yes, we chose an European path, but Europe is not somewhere out there. Europe is here (showing to the head). When Europe is here, it will be across all Ukraine. This is our shared dream.’[1] Note that this recurring motif – ‘Let’s build the Europe at home’ was widely used in the political speech in the Republic of Moldova as an excuse or argument to reason the unwillingness to manifest a positive attitude towards European integration with all that entails. After 2005, during the election campaigns of 2007 and 2009, the communists also promoted the slogan ‘Together we build an European Moldova’. At present, the socialists also use this practice when they deny the need to be a member state of the European Union and pretend that it is possible to reach the occidental standards of living without being a part of this great European community. Hence, time will show us if, in case of Zelensky, we can talk about the same thing in the context of Ukraine. After the early elections this summer, it is expected that the pro-presidential party ‘Servant of the People’ will achieve a comfortable majority in the Central Rada of Kyiv and will form a new governance. Continuing the efforts of the previous government to obtain, at diplomatic level, a political acceptance by the EU leaders for the submission of the membership application to the EU in 2023 will mean that the pro-European rhetoric will come to an end – which undeniably, will have a positive impact on the Republic of Moldova, the political elite of which will be forced to make concrete steps towards European integration. At the moment, however, we can’t know whether Zelensky will work in this direction or will prefer to maintain a formal pro-European speech, and de facto, to foster a ‘neutrality’ similar to that preferred by former President Viktor Yanukovych. After all, in countries like Ukraine or the Republic of Moldova, the temptation to protect the business interests of a corrupt elite has always prevailed over the legitimate goal to implement reforms, eradicate the corruption or to achieve the liberalisation and democratisation of the country. That’s what’s happening now in Chisinau, where the power controlled by the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc that has at least a doubtful reputation has been promoting for years a so-called ‘pro-European-ism’ of words, not of facts, which became unbearable even to the European officials. The latter realized that they were double-crossed and the regime from Chisinau became undesirable for its former partners from Brussels. Thus, the ideas promoted by the authorities from Chisinau became more isolationist. It seemed that the Democratic Party changed its external orientation and became more ‘pro Moldova’. Even if Vladimir Zelensky didn’t say it clearly, the conclusion we reached after reading his inaugural speech is that he may set the foundation of a ‘pro Ukraine’ trend, which will mean playing off the exponents whose goal is the European integration, accepting but postponing and delaying their desires, without making the mistakes of Yanukovych that costed him the mandate.

The fake dilemma between ‘talking about NATO’ and ‘establishing NATO standards’

Vladimir Zelensky did not explicitly mention Ukraine’s relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in his inaugural speech, but declared he was for a NATO membership in the context of a national referendum to this end. At first glance, asking people’s opinion on such an important topic doesn’t seem suspect. Even so, after the Russian aggression against Crimea and Donbas in 2014, over 70% of Ukrainian citizens supported the accession of Ukraine to NATO. At present, the number of people who support this step is declining and is getting close to 50%. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to understand that a referendum where the majority of citizens would be against a NATO membership would mean that Ukraine would never have the chance to access to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At the same time, this implies that the Republic of Moldova would never have the chance to find itself between two countries member of NATO. Vladimir Zelensky, in his speech, spoke about NATO the same way he spoke about the European integration. He referred to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization only in the context of the defence area: ‘We don’t have to listen to stories about NATO standards, we need to establish such standards’[2]. This is a strange approach; the facts are different from the words, making it clear that the talks about NATO and possibly, about a NATO membership have no meaning and are counterproductive since the armed forces of Ukraine do not fully comply with NATO standards. Indeed, in order to join NATO it is necessary to implement its standards, but no country from the Central or Eastern European, wanting to access NATO, has ever pretended that it wasn’t necessary to speak about this. On the contrary, in all these countries, including in Romania, intensive public campaigns were organised so that the civil society and the authorities could inform the citizens about the benefits of being a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The path chosen by Zelensky is risky given the situation of Ukraine: if a potential referendum about accessing NATO fails, Russia would be blessed as its main objective is not to admit the accession of Ukraine to any occidental structure, especially to NATO and EU. For Russia, loosing Ukraine would mean also loosing the Republic of Moldova, which would be isolated between to countries pertaining to the same club. The first signs of how this could look like have already been seen since 2014. In such circumstances, any slowdown or stopping in the European and Euro-Atlantic path of Ukraine may be an advantage only for Russia. If Zelensky government does so, directly or indirectly, this will obviously offer an advantage to Russia.

Zelensky gave Moscow reasons to believe he is ready to talk

In the addition to the above mentioned, another extremely important aspect of Zelensky’s speech is the fact that he never mentioned Russia in his speech. He didn’t qualify this country as an aggressor, and said nothing about the presence of the Russian troops in Donbas. He spoke about the war in the easter part of the country only in terms of ‘ceasefire’. He said he’d be ready to do anything, including losing his job, just to cease the fire and avoid Ukraine losing its territories, i.e. the Ukrainian lands of Crimea and Donbas, as he called them. A careful observer of the situation in Ukraine may have gotten the impression that President Zelensky made sure, through several statements inserted at different moments of his speech, that the message conveyed is one that meets the dominant opinion of the society according to which the occupied territories belong to Ukraine and that they cannot be lost. Beyond these statements, the content and spirit of his speech show a desire to focus on internal issues and an unwillingness to address and manage the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of the Ukraine. Also, the fact that he said nothing about Russia can indicate, beyond the unwillingness to worsen the relationship with pro-Russian people, on his intention to get closer to this country in one way or another.

In his speech, the President Zelensky switched several times to Russian when he spoke about the need to ensure the cohesion of society and to recover the citizens from the eastern part of Ukraine, given that, according to him, the authorities from Kyiv did nothing in the last five years for these people to feel again Ukrainians. Again, he urged people to make concessions, including in terms of language. That is, if these concessions are not accompanied by active measures in order to get them under the protection of the Constitution, this may strengthen Russia’s positions in the region. All these things, taken all together, give the impression of signals transmitted to Moscow with the aim to convince the Russian authorities as much as possible that the new government is interested in a dialogue that will improve the bilateral relations. Certainly, these signals were appropriately decoded by Kremlin.

The European future of the Republic of Moldova depends on Ukraine’s resistance to Russia

At first glance, if the Kyiv government is little less insistent about imposing Ukrainian language across the country this will create advantages for the Romanian-speaking population in the regions of Chernivtsi, Odessa and Transcarpathia. For many years, Chisinau had not been doing anything to protect the Romanian minorities living in Ukraine despite the policy that divided Romanian people from Moldovan people with the help of which Kyiv managed to turn the Republic of Moldova against Romania as regards Romanian-speaking people form the North and South of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. That is why, currently, the most important thing right now is to see to what extent Russia will be able to take advantage of the new political situation in Kyiv and how much influence will manage to get back. The most important element of the inaugural speech of Vladimir Zelensky concerning the Republic of Moldova is the attitude at least hesitant towards the accession to the European Union and NATO. If the new government from Kyiv continues on the same path, the governors from Chisinau, regardless of the parties they are part of, will have additional reasons to adopt a similar attitude. This is the main danger – our detaching from a hesitant and indecisive Ukraine will be more difficult than it would have been in 2014, because it will have to take place in the context of a more stabilized and predictable regional security conditions, with Russia maintaining the low-intensity conflict in Donbas and continuing to occupy Crimea. A Russia that relies on the fact that all the Western countries it deals with in different ways, often breaking successfully apart the Western countries’ unity when it comes to unlawful deeds, will eventually get tired of insisting for Moscow to observe the international law as regards Ukraine or the Republic of Moldova and will allow these countries to be reabsorbed in a new URSS, that is exactly what Putin wants.

The less Ukraine resists to Russia, the less chances we have to handle them. The inaugural speech of the president Zelensky raises some legal questions to this end. We’ll see what actions he’ll undertake.

[1] https://www.mk.ru/politics/2019/05/20/polnyy-tekst-rechi-zelenskogo-na-inauguracii-chtoby-ukraincy-ne-plakali.html – Inaugural speech of the elected President of Ukraine, Vladimir Zelensky; accessed on 26 May 2019

[2] Idem

Dan Nicu  has graduated from the Faculty of Political Sciences, has a Master’s Degree in Theory and Political Analysis, and graduated from the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration of Bucharest. Both his diploma paper and dissertation analyse the post-Soviet transition of the Republic of Moldova. Author of two volumes: ‘Copiii vitregi ai Istoriei sau Se caută o revoluție pentru Basarabi’ [‘Step Children of History or a Revolution for Bessarabia is Sought’] (2008) and ‘Moldovenii în tranziție’ [‘Moldovans in Transition’] (2013). In the recent years, he worked for several publications from Romania and the Republic of Moldova, among which were Adevarul, Cotidianul, Timpul.