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BY MYKHAILO MINAKOV

Typically, Ukrainian politics works in five-month periods: from February to June and from late August to mid-December. The autumn period starts on August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day. However, that tradition was broken this year since President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team and the major opposition groups were actively competing over the political agenda for the autumn period.

President Zelensky spent most of the summer actively visiting Ukraine’s regions, meeting with local officials, politicians, and journalists. Judging by the time spent and the media coverage, his major attention was dedicated to the communities in the southeastern oblasts. Ex-president Petro Poroshenko, former vice prime minister Yuriy Boiko, and the two irreconcilable opposition groups they head were also very active in the regions and received ample media coverage.

This competition—both open and covert—ended up with the formation of a political agenda for the second half of the Ukrainian political year. Three key issues seem to be in play:

  • How to proceed with conflict management and resolution in the Donbas.
  • Which parties will be victorious in the upcoming local elections. Will Zelensky’s Servant of the People repeat the electoral miracle of 2019?
  • The well-being of Ukrainians as the country struggles with COVID-19, an economic crisis, and huge payments due on international debt.

The start of the new political cycle was marked by a thus far durable ceasefire on the front line in the Donbas. The ceasefire took effect on July 27 and, despite some violations, for the first time in six years the number of those killed from shooting has fallen to zero.

President Zelensky has tried to leverage this success to nail down a new summit with Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Vladimir Putin in the Normandy Four format. Kyiv insists on the summit taking place this fall, while Moscow waffles or outright refuses to consider it. As President Zelensky explained in a recent interview with Euronews, he sees the possibility of ending the Donbas war this year with the support of Western allies, and despite Russia’s resistance.

To advance on the conflict resolution agenda, Zelensky has changed the head of the Trilateral Contact Group on Donbas (ex-president Leonid Kuchma ceded the chair to ex-president Leonid Kravchuk) and appointed a new chief of Ukraine’s special forces in the Donbas. These changes have in turn changed the dynamics of the talks with Russia and the separatists: a new POW swap is to take place, and both demining operations and troop pullbacks are expected to occur soon in the Donbas.

Both opposition wings have criticized the president for the ceasefire and its implications. For one wing, that headed by Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky’s peacebuilding efforts point to a betrayal of the national interest and “capitulation” to Russia. The other wing, headed by Yuriy Boiko, demands additional and more radical steps toward resolving the conflict while offering itself as a competitor to Zelensky for the moniker of “real peace-maker.”

Resolving the conflict in the Donbas remains a, perhaps the, key issue underpinning Ukraine’s political agenda and defining the differences between political parties. An end to the fighting is also a key demand of Ukrainian people, as recent polls show.

This summer, twenty-nine years after the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine took an important step toward redefining its administrative-territorial structure: it introduced 136 new raions, replacing the previous 490 raions. (A raion is the second level of administrative division, below oblast.) More than 300 townships lost their administrative significance of raion centers, along with relevant budgets and government positions. Also, the Rada amended some rules pertaining to local elections; among many other novelties, the changes increased the role of parties in local election. The reorganization of the raions has somewhat disoriented local elites, who, during the quarantine, became very hostile toward the presidential team. The amendments to the electoral rules provide the presidential party with the opportunity for a larger presence on local councils and force local clans to seek cooperation with it.

However, the opposition parties look at the local elections—which usually have been of limited significance in Ukraine—as a battlefield on which Volodymyr Zelensky could face his first electoral defeat. Nationally, the Servant of the People party currently enjoys the support of almost 30 percent of active and decided voters, while Boiko’s Opposition Platform–For Life is supported by 22 percent and Poroshenko’s European Solidarity is supported by 16 percent of voters.

But at the regional level these sympathies change dramatically: local communities prefer local leaders, and their party affiliation plays a much lesser role. Currently, the Zelensky team seems to have problems finding strong candidates for the mayors of Ukraine’s biggest cities. In Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Dnipro, and Lviv, the most popular candidate are either rivals of or neutral toward the ruling group. Zelensky’s party may have its factions in most local councils, but their role could be insignificant in the western raions, where Poroshenko’s party is strong, and the southeastern raions, where the Opposition Platform and some associated smaller parties may win majorities.

Local elections will definitely be at the center of public attention and political competition this fall.

Finally, the pandemic and its socioeconomic impact are also helping shape the political struggle in Ukraine. Now, at the end of August, Ukraine’s COVID-19 contagion appears to be peaking, with more than 2,000 new cases a day. For purposes of control measures, Ukrainian regions have been divided into three categories, with the most infected regions put under strict quarantine.

However, these measures are highly unpopular. Even though Ukrainians acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic and the government’s efforts to protect the population, when it comes to quarantine, this acknowledgement disappears. For example, in the last week of August the cabinet of ministers, responding to the worsening situation, introduced the most severe quarantine measures yet. This decision has sparkled elite and popular protests in several regions, leading to conflict between the central and local governments over the “easing” of the regime.

The community overreaction is connected with the dire economic situation nationally and with growing economic problems for households. According to official data, Ukraine’s GDP fell 5.9 percent year-over-year in January–May 2020; by the end of this year, the projected GDP decline is expected to be 8 percent, inflation is expected to be 8.7 percent, and unemployment is expected to be 9.5 percent. This last figure relates to the official economy. According to three small-town mayors with whom I spoke, in the “shadow economy”—which feeds the populations of small towns and rural areas—unemployment seems to be three to four times higher. The country’s economic stability is also at risk because of the more than $5 billion in payments due on external debt this fall and a growing state budget deficit (about $10 billion). However, Prime Minister Denis Shmygal and his cabinet have assured they will deal with the economic storm and bring the national economy back to calmer waters early next year.

All three issues—the Donbas war, local elections, and the socioeconomic crisis—are at the center of attention for the Ukrainian government and politicians this fall. They will also define the major cleavages and disputes for the new political period.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Mykhailo Minakov

Mykhailo Minakov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Focus Ukraine Blog
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region though research and exchange.  Read more