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Zelensky's chances: a view from Germany

During his first foreign visit to Brussels Zelensky looked like a copy of Poroshenko, but one should not jump to conclusions

Zelensky's chances: a view from Germany

During the election campaign Zelensky took pains not to be ranked among either Ukrainian nationalists or pro-Russian forces. In my opinion, this very quality distinguishes him from all his predecessors as President, which eventually became key to his victory in the election.

Yes, we do remember that having become the President of Ukraine, he referred to Stepan Bandera as an indisputable hero. However, this may well be forced rhetoric – at least in order to reduce the number of his enemies and, first of all, to appease the nationalists who have a lot more weight in the Ukrainian society as compared to the pro-Russian part of the population. There aren't many experienced staff in the new President's administration, he does not enjoy much support in the parliament, his Servant of the People party is still in the formative stage. And at the same time, the President insistently demands reforms that could release Ukraine from the powerful business tycoons who fattened their wallets under the previous regime. In this context Zelensky is forced to maneuver, using rhetorical techniques among other things. His mode of conduct seems reasonable, if not only possible.

Another problem is that Zelensky lacks strength and means to break the resistance of the Ukrainian elites, who have real power in the country. Therefore, the settlement of the Donbass conflict is not only a long-overdue necessity for the country, but also the only chance for its new President. Zelensky seems to understand that "his path" lies through Donbass. There is a chance that he will lose but not if he succeeds in achieving peace in the south-east.

In fact, the Verkhovna Rada refused to implement the Minsk agreements of 2014-15. Pressure by bellicose and highly orchestrated nationalists was too strong and this situation is unlikely to change in the near future. The only Zelensky's resource is voters who supported him in the election. You get the impression that Zelensky wants to achieve approval of the key Minsk agreements points at a national referendum. That would be a sensible move. The new President could really get a sizable majority of votes, and the Verkhovna Rada would be forced to accept the agreement for execution.

Solving the Donbass issue would seriously change the power structure in Ukraine and significantly raise the reforms' chances of success. As a result, both oligarchs and alliance-forming right-wing radical groups would be significantly weakened. In the meantime, both keep scoring points. Oligarchs benefit from the fact that the Donbass conflict distracts the authorities from real reforms, and the right-wing extremists retain their influence by exploiting the image of "defenders of Ukraine".

Zelensky will obviously wait until the upcoming parliamentary elections and then presumably he will begin to act. One way or another, in his first official presidential speech he linked his political future with the solution of the Donbass problem.  At the same time, resolving the conflict will only be possible if Moscow, Washington and Berlin want to. The situation is delicate, but today we have a better background than in the previous years.

Zelensky's visit to Brussels was more of a symbolic nature: following the European Parliament elections, his negotiating partners will quit their positions. More important were discussions with the Foreign Ministers of Germany and France that preceded the visit to Kiev. All the parties supported the idea of holding of a new summit in the Normandy format (the last one took place in October 2016).

It is noteworthy that the German Foreign Ministry, having confirmed its solidarity with Kiev on the Donbass issue, was not slack at noting that provisions of the Minsk agreements should be implemented by all the parties involved. In other words, Germany does not relieve the Ukrainian leadership of responsibility for the conflict in the south-east, which seems pretty reasonable given a certain improvement in relations between Berlin and Moscow. Anyway, the leading German politicians paid an unprecedented number of visits to Russia over the past few months.

And what about the United States? America seems to have realized that it is going nowhere as regards Afghanistan and the crisis involving Iran. Particularly indicative of this is the May visit to Russia by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his Sochi talks with Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov, as well as the trilateral US-Israeli-Russian meeting scheduled for June in Jerusalem.

Thus, the most positive short-term scenario could be as follows: Zelensky's party achieves an acceptable result in the Verkhovna Rada elections, followed by a Normandy format summit and a national referendum in Ukraine, which, in turn, gives the go-ahead to implementing the Minsk agreements. And all of this comes with Russian-American negotiations and separate decisions on Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and Ukraine itself…

One can never tell how realistic the forecast for a positive course of events is, too many failures have been accumulated in world politics over the past quarter century. And yet I 'd like to believe such a possibility exists. At least in theory.

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