Ukraine elections elephant in the room ahead of Eastern Partnership talks

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (R) shakes hands with Federica Mogherini (L), High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, after they gave their statement in Kiev, Ukraine, 09 November 2015. [EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO]

Ahead of the Eastern Partnership’s (EaP) tenth anniversary in May, EU foreign ministers are next week set to review the progress of the bloc’s framework with the six countries, with the situation in Ukraine being the elephant in the room.

On 13 May, leaders of the EU’s six eastern neighbours: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, will attend an anniversary celebration hosted by EU Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels, followed by talks.

On Monday (8 April) ministers will take stock of the implementation of the EaP’s ’20 deliverables for 2020′, which address economic development and trade, promotion of governance and institutions, energy and environment.

According to a senior EU official, the focus of the discussion will be the need for progress in the areas of the rule of law, governance and anti-corruption.

“The EaP has evolved against the background of not always easy political context and the security challenges of our partner countries,” a senior EU official said ahead of the meeting.

“This is not a framework that is designed to make countries choose between Russia or the European Union, but based on voluntary cooperation,” the official added.

According to sources, there is the possibility that EU foreign ministers will endorse “to develop the Eastern Partnership agenda beyond 2020″.

An EU diplomat confirmed that the Ukraine elections could be addressed at the meeting, but that observers should “expect caution” from EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

The EU and Russia have been closely observing the Ukrainian elections as the next president will inherit a deadlocked conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists in the east, while Ukraine strives to fulfil EU requirements for closer economic ties.

Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky, a television comedian and political newcomer who is widely seen as a protest candidate that appeals to younger voters, took the lead in the first round with 30.6% of the vote.

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A comedian with no political experience raced ahead in Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday (31 March), offering a fresh face to voters fed up with entrenched corruption in a country on the frontline of the West’s standoff with Russia.

“It will be interesting to watch Zelinsky in terms of the Minsk process, because there are no policies we can see at this stage,” the EU diplomat said.

“Although casualties are down, conditions of the people along the checkpoints, pensioners, people along the demographic lines are worse and we do not know where Zelinsky is on these matters”, the source added, pointing towards the stalled Minsk talks and the worsening situation in the east of the country.

“The interesting question is: who is actually working behind Zelinsky?”

Incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, who fought to integrate the country on the frontline of the West’s standoff with Russia with the EU and NATO, finished second with 17.8%.

An EU Commission report in November praised Poroshenko’s healthcare, pensions and public administration reforms.

However, it criticised the slow progress in the country’s judicial reforms, pointing out that “there have been only few convictions in high-level corruption cases so far”.

Elections in Moldova, another EaP partner country sandwiched between EU member Romania and Ukraine, have entrenching a split between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces at a time when concerns over corruption and democracy have soured its relations with the European Union.

Asked by EURACTIV whether EU foreign ministers will discuss the recent setbacks in the country, the EU diplomat said that if there is a discussion “we will see if Moldova is really an issue of major concern, if it has gone off the rails, how did we lose Moldova, can we get Moldova back.”

Poland, which together with Sweden was one of the main initiators of the EaP at the Prague Summit in May 2019 to deepen political ties and economic integration between the EU and the six eastern neighbours, last week suggested raising the status of the format.

Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz suggested the creation of a EaP secretariat and the creation of a “new instrument, the so-called score-card, which would help monitor the progress of the EaP countries in implementing the reforms expected by the EU”.

EU foreign ministers will also discuss Venezuela and the peace process in Afghanistan.

[Edited by Sam Morgan and Benjamin Fox]

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