"Look at us - anything is possible!" - This is exactly the appeal that Volodymyr Zelensky addressed to the residents of other post-Soviet countries in the first moment after the announcement of the results of the exit polls of the presidential election.
This laconic and rather spontaneous appeal actually contained much more meaning than it might have seemed at the time of Zelensky's victory.
Unlike previous election campaigns in Ukraine, not only a non-professional politician but also a Russian-speaking comedian known in many post-Soviet countries took part in the 2019 presidential election and won a lightning victory.
Therefore, not only experts and politically active citizens, but also the general public were interested in the process of electing the new President of Ukraine. Zelensky accumulated interest and attention in his election from two important perspectives for the audience of post-Soviet countries - as a non-systemic politician and television and film celebrities.
Ukraine also received new opportunities.
Growing interest in the events taking place inside our country could help strengthen Ukraine's "soft power" in a number of post-Soviet countries.
We have tried to answer these ambitious questions with the help of research, which is based on the vision of "soft power" as the ability of a state to achieve its goal through its own attractiveness, not coercion.
Let's try to consider the "soft power" of Ukraine in five post-Soviet countries - Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Russia.
A new vision of Ukraine
Zelensky's presidency has generally strengthened Ukraine's attractiveness in the countries under study.
At the same time, this effect was most noticeable during the election campaign in Ukraine and failed to take root in the first year of the presidency.
The effect of the increase was due to the involvement of various elements of the "soft power" of the president in different countries.
Creativity: Belarus. Observing Zelensky's election campaign, Belarusians had the opportunity to learn how a living political system works - with creative communication with voters, lively debate, two rounds of elections and a convincing victory for the candidate.
The election of Zelensky as president strengthened the perception of Belarusians that Ukrainian politics is built not only around individuals, but also on certain well-established approaches that allow for the renewal of political elites.
Unsystematic: Georgia. For many Georgians, Volodymyr Zelensky is a representative of a new generation of Ukrainian politicians, not from the 1990s, who was able to get inside the political system and declare his intention to change it.
Zelensky's presidential victory underscores the desire of Ukrainians to reset the post-Soviet political establishment and develop a more democratic system of government.
Anti-corruption rhetoric: Moldova. Many Moldovans associate Zelensky with the intention to eradicate corruption and de-oligarchize power - that is, to solve a problem that is a state priority for the Moldovan population as well.
The Ukrainian president's anti-corruption rhetoric strengthens Ukraine's image as a country seeking democratic change.
Youth: Kazakhstan. It is not so much about biological as about political youth - Zelensky impresses many Kazakhstanis because of the unbureaucratization, informality and creativity of his communication, neglect of stability in favor of the opportunity to change the life of the country for the better.
This characteristic of the Ukrainian president strengthens the vision of Ukraine as a country that is able to break old formats and change.
Peaceful rhetoric: Russia. Russian-speaking Volodymyr Zelensky’s remarks about restoring peace in the Donbas have somewhat softened the image of Ukraine created by Russian propaganda and helped improve the perception of Ukrainians by many ordinary Russians.
Zelensky's popularity in the Russian Federation as an actor also played an important role. The involvement of this element of "soft power" has strengthened some narratives about Ukraine, including its perception as a country where there is freedom of speech and possible criticism of the government.
Currently, according to expert polls, the highest index of "soft power" of Ukraine in the Republic of Moldova: 6.7 points out of 10.
It is noteworthy that according to the results of the study "Soft Power" of Ukraine in the region: an instrument of effective foreign policy, which was carried out by our analysts almost 10 years ago, Ukraine was also perceived best in Moldova.
For comparison, in Georgia the attractiveness of Ukraine is estimated at 6.4 points, in Kazakhstan - at 6.2. In neighboring Belarus, the figure was 5.8 points.
Ukraine is expected to have the lowest perception index in Russia (4.7 points).
Another conclusion is that in a number of post-Soviet countries, Vladimir Zelensky may be seen as a democratic alternative to authoritarian leaders, including Vladimir Putin.
The main competitive advantages of the Ukrainian president are his non-systemic nature, distance from (post) Soviet political elites and more open communication with citizens.
For Zelensky, success in taking over the position of leader will depend on the extent to which he is able to live up to the expectations placed on him by both Ukrainians and citizens of other post-Soviet countries.
Interest in Ukrainian events in the countries under study is growing sharply during major events in Ukraine, such as last year's presidential and parliamentary elections.
The reset of the Ukrainian political establishment in 2019 was often perceived as another revolution, this time by voting.
The victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential election and the emergence of new parties in the Verkhovna Rada demonstrated to the citizens of Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Russia that political life in Ukraine is dynamic and not usurped by a single political force, and competition between candidates motivates politicians .
The new Ukrainian government (and personally Volodymyr Zelensky) is expected to be able to respond to the challenges common to all the countries under study - for the benefit not only of Ukraine but also of the entire region.
The security of other countries depends on the ability of the Ukrainian state to resist Russian aggression, and democratic changes in Ukraine can set the tone for transformations throughout the post-Soviet space. Experts, oppositionists and pro-European citizens expect that if the challenges are successfully addressed, the Ukrainian state will take over the role of regional leader from Russia and become an attractive role model for their states.
The results of the study show that in the perception of the citizens of Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Russia, Ukraine already has serious achievements in the context of "soft power".
These are an active civil society, free media, open political system, liberalization of business conditions, tourist attractiveness and a progressive creative industry.
At the same time, Ukraine does not fully use this powerful potential to strengthen its influence in the region.
How to take advantage of new opportunities?
Only a democratic, reformed Ukraine will become a real "soft power" for the citizens of the region.
Political elites need to understand that high expectations of change in Ukraine are not limited to Ukrainian citizens.
Ukraine's success in combating corruption, de-oligarchization, and resistance to Russian aggression can turn the state into a kind of model of political behavior for other countries.
No matter how outdated and unfulfilled the recommendation for decisive action in the transformation of Ukraine may seem, it is the key to the formation of an effective "soft power" of the state. Ukraine's "soft power" is not about PR for cosmetic updates, but about informing about the radical restructuring of the country.
In its communication to external audiences, the Ukrainian leadership should pay attention to those changes, strengths of transformations that have already become possible.
Many post-Soviet states can only dream of such advantages: citizens have the right to freely express their will in elections; Ukrainians have considerable influence on policy-making; citizens are not afraid to take responsibility by changing corrupt rulers; Ukrainians have managed to gain considerable support from the world's leading states both for internal change and for countering Russian aggression.
At the same time, Ukraine should maintain a leading position in dialogue with the countries of the region to counter Russian aggression - perhaps through the creation of various platforms (governmental, parliamentary, at the level of foreign ministers and / or defense ministers).
This is especially true of those states that have themselves become the targets of hostilities in Russia, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova.
A secure dialogue between Kyiv, Tbilisi and Chisinau can take place within the framework of the Eastern Partnership. Kazakhstan and Belarus, which are formal allies of Moscow, are no less interested in such a dialogue (or informal exchange of information), but are seriously wary of military provocations on its part.
Ukrainian politicians need to take a more delicate approach to decision-making, public statements that may affect issues that are sensitive to our natural partners. Carelessness, reckless arrogance breeds distrust, weakens all countries that are on the path of democratization and countering Russian aggression.
The authorities in Ukraine should take into account that the passage "Ukrainian politicians sometimes choose the tone of statements more typical of Russians" could often be heard from experts in Moldova and Georgia.
Instead, it is important to form a kind of club of friends of Ukraine in other countries, which would include leaders of public opinion - in particular, journalists, analysts, bloggers. Our embassies could initiate the creation of such a center.
Regular informal meetings will provide an opportunity to obtain more comprehensive information about Ukrainian realities. Topics for discussion could be issues that would be equally interesting for Ukrainians and partners from other countries (whether it is the Chernobyl disaster, which also affected Belarus; or the work of Taras Shevchenko, who is revered in Kazakhstan).
This is by no means a complete list of actions by which Ukraine can increase the effectiveness of its "soft power". To these should be added business contacts, artistic dialogue, as well as festivals of Ukrainian national cuisine.
However, the main thing is that Ukraine has the potential of "soft power", capable of competing with the pictures painted by Russian propaganda.
The article is based on the discussion note "Soft Power" of Ukraine in the region: what has changed during the presidency of Volodymyr Zelensky? ", Prepared by experts of the Center" New Europe "Alyona Hetmanchuk, Sergei Solodky and Anna Medvedeva
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