Visitors to last week’s YES (Yalta European Strategy) annual meeting in Kyiv will have seen the beautiful autumn colours of Kyiv’s magnificent chestnut trees. They will also have seen alongside the main highways the serried ranks of traditional political billboards already promoting candidates for next March’s Presidential elections. Not all political parties have selected their candidates to run for office yet – they are expected to do so this fall – and the election campaign proper is not due to start until next year. But, already the old fashioned personality cult style of electioneering posters are in evidence for the early movers keen to reinforce their branding.
This is the 5th year that the YES meeting has been held in Kyiv, after the annexation and military occupation of Crimea by Russia perforce caused a change of location from the original and historically symbolic venue of the Lividia Palace in Yalta. But the institution remains true to its original objectives, and it is still the key event that provides an annual review and authoritative analysis of the future of relations between Ukraine and the EU.
With the onset of autumn, we are also approaching the 5th winter of war that Ukraine has faced in its Eastern provinces with armed military intervention from Russian army regular forces, and the circumstances of this conflict will inevitably play a strong backdrop to next year’s Presidential election campaign.
Ukrainian voters are likely to support a candidate who can show to them that they will be the best choice for the country’s future integration ambitions with Europe. The present incumbent Petro Poroshenko was handed something of a PR success last Friday (14 September) when the European Commission signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ukraine for Macro-Financial Assistance (MFA) of up to €1 billion in the form of medium and long term loans.
With this assistance, the EU indicates that it is happy with the direction that reforms are taking in Ukraine, and that it will continue to support economic stabilisation in the country, including through structural and governance reforms.
In signing the MOU with Ukraine, Valdis Dombrovskis, the Commission Vice-President said: “Europe strongly supports Ukraine on its path of economic recovery and reform. The new programme of EU macro-financial assistance will help Ukraine reduce its economic vulnerabilities and enhance stability. At the same time, by implementing important reforms, especially in the area of the fight against corruption, Ukraine needs to deliver on the expectations of its citizens.” Future payment of disbursements under the programme will also be dependent on continuing to fulfil political conditions, which require Ukraine to respect European values and principles, including a multi-party parliamentary system, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Paradoxically, Ukraine’s immediate neighbour, Hungary, was censured in last week’s plenary by the European Parliament for illiberal behaviour and failure to respect European values. So 15 years on from the start of the YES strategy, Ukraine finds itself moving on a more pro-European path even than some of the EU member states on its Western border.
Whatever his detractors may say, Petro Poroshenko has been at the helm of his country for a historic period which has seen the emergence of strong and sustainable civil society organisations. Whether or not this development can actually be directly attributed to his policies, nevertheless the growing maturity of democratic responsibility and the espousal of European values has happened under Poroshenko’s watch. He should take credit for this, and it will undoubtedly lead to a more robust society capable of dealing with the changes that lie ahead for Ukraine.
It is still too early to pay too much attention to recent opinion polls predictions about the outcome of next year’s Presidential elections. What is certain is that the contest will be closely fought, and most probably it will go to a second round run-off election after the first poll. Also, with the growing sophistication and intelligence of Ukrainian civil society, it is going to take more than signature postures promoting a personal brand to swing votes. People will want to see a break from the old style of politics, and to place their trust in the candidate who can convince them of their genuine commitment to real change.
I anticipate a fascinating year of politics in Ukraine, as young intellectuals seek a shift change in the landscape of their government establishment, and strive to create better democratic representation that is true to the European core ideals that they aspire to. This will be no small achievement, given the neighbours Ukraine has to deal withe to their immediate East and West, but I still believe that Ukraine is a great country, and that its people will rise to the challenge.