“Ambassadors by announcement”. Volodymyr Zelenskyy appoints top diplomats with no experience in the Foreign Ministry: is this good or bad?

The appointment of Ukrainian ambassadors abroad has never attracted such acute attention as it has over the past year. This topic captured the society’s interest following several controversial personnel decisions, with the scandalous appointment of Olesya Ilashchuk as Ukraine’s ambassador to Bulgaria being the peak. She is a Gestalt sexologist with a problematic biography and not a single day of experience in public service.

Despite calls for it, Zelenskyy at that time refused to reconsider this absurd personnel decision.

This created a problematic backdrop for the perception of the idea of appointing so-called “political envoys” — those who are not career diplomats.

In society, there is indeed a lack of understanding why representatives of Ukraine abroad are not experts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with experience and education, but rather random individuals or dismissed officials whom the Office of the President “rewards” with ambassadorial positions to soften the blow of losing their posts.

However, the actual picture is much more complex.

Indeed, among the Ukrainian ambassadors appointed in the last year and a half, the proportion of “political” appointees is unprecedentedly high. However, most of these appointments went unnoticed by the public, and that’s not surprising: many of these appointments have been quite successful. Nevertheless, the negative examples were too prominent and captured attention.

Why is there a need to appoint non-system individuals as ambassadors in the first place?

In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they argue that they suffer from a lack of personnel.

It even reached the point of an open “competition” among Ukrainians who wish to become ambassadors; this week, Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced its completion. We learned about the results of this selection — as it turned out, among those chosen for ambassadorial appointments are even media professionals/journalists.

But not everything is ideal. According to the European Pravda (media outlet), several new political appointments are currently under consideration, which could lead to misunderstandings in society.

European Pravda delved into what is happening in this sphere, what risks are real, and which ones are imaginary.

How the “competition” of future ambassadors concluded

As for why the selection of top diplomats announced by Kuleba can be called a “competition” only in quotes, European Pravda has already explained, and now we’ll briefly remind you. The position of an ambassador is a political one, and one of the criteria for their appointment is and will be loyalty and teamwork, which cannot be described or assessed through any competitive criteria.

Therefore, the selection can only be subjective and individual — precisely what the minister was engaged in.

On Wednesday evening, Dmytro Kuleba announced the completion of the open selection of candidates for the positions of Ukraine’s ambassadors. He mentioned that he personally conducted interviews with the “finalists” and narrowed down 16 candidates for 16 different ambassadorial positions.

By the way, the demand for the position of ambassador turned out to be incredibly high: over 1100 individuals applied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wanting to become ambassadors. Initially, fewer than a hundred candidates, who in principle deserved attention, were selected, and then this number was further reduced to a manageable amount for interviews.

However, even the open “competition” didn’t allow for all vacancies to be filled.

The competition was initially announced for 20 ambassadorial positions. Later, this number was reduced by three: a suitable diplomatic candidate for the position of ambassador to Iraq was found outside the “competition”; it was decided not to open an embassy in Botswana; and due to Iran’s assistance to the aggressor, Ukraine will not have an ambassador there for now.

The list of the remaining 17 countries can be found in the “vacancies” section on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website. However, Kuleba only announced the discovery of 16 candidates!

According to European Pravda, it was not possible to find out who will head the Ukrainian embassy in the Czech Republic.

“It’s difficult with the Czech Republic; we’re actively searching for a qualified person. There are candidates who applied there, but in the minister’s opinion, they are not suitable,” said one of the sources to European Pravda.

We will return to the Czech question later, as it is one of the countries where a mistake could prove costly for Ukraine. But first, let’s delve into some details about the winners.

Despite the fact that the “competition” was open for people “from the outside,” diplomats within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also utilized this mechanism. Among the selected candidates, career diplomats constitute the largest professional group — the minister recommends them to fill four ambassadorial vacancies.

There’s nothing surprising about this. The competition made sense even to identify these individuals, as it allowed expanding the scope and reaching beyond the diplomats personally known to the minister, deputy secretary, or their circles.

However, the absolute majority of winners are currently unrelated to diplomacy. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ internal calculations, the list includes three representatives each from Ukrainian business and international or foreign financial institutions. Two people each who can be appointed ambassadors are media workers from Ukrainian universities. Additionally, there is one representative from transnational corporations and one career military personnel.

Now they must pass through the next filter — the Office of the President, an interview with President Zelenskyy, and then the appointment.

So, we are looking forward to the emergence of new ambassadors without a diplomatic background.

Why does Ukraine need ambassadors “from the street”?

Inside the diplomatic corps, the attitude towards open recruitment is rather negative. And that’s not surprising, as the position of an ambassador is the pinnacle of a diplomat’s career. Here, however, the position is given to “unknown individuals,” based on vacancy announcements.

There is also an argument that in most European countries (unlike, say, the United States), political appointments of ambassadors are practically nonexistent, and instead, there is a strong diplomatic service with planned rotations of ambassadors. Therefore, when the head of the German embassy in Kyiv completed her tenure and left this summer, the new ambassador arrived the next day to take her place.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work in Ukraine.

Under all presidents, Ukraine had a systemic issue where ambassadorial positions, especially in “less prestigious” countries, remained vacant for years. The current record holder is the Ukrainian embassy in Ethiopia, which has been without an ambassador since 2009 (!). Despite being a strategically important country where the headquarters of the African Union and other regional organizations are located.

One of the reasons for the persistent problems with appointing ambassadors, although not the only one, is the personnel shortage, the lack within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of those diplomats who are ready to make decisions, communicate, issue statements, and so on. There are many diplomats, but there’s a scarcity of those who are willing to work as ambassadors.

See also: The problem is not in sexology. Why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should fire the newly appointed ambassador to Bulgaria

Therefore, the mere appointment of non-career diplomats as ambassadors does not necessarily indicate issues.

However, the scale of this phenomenon over the last year and a half is genuinely alarming.

From 2019, during President Zelenskyy’s term, up to February 24, 2022, European Pravda counted five appointments of “political” ambassadors (by the way, all of them were appointed during the tenure of Minister Kuleba). During the same period, almost 40 ambassadors were appointed from among career diplomats. This is a fairly acceptable ratio.

However, over the last year and a half, during times of full-scale war, Ukraine has a completely different picture: 11 “political” ambassadors and 14 career diplomats, which is almost evenly split.

And if the idea of filling 16 vacancies through open recruitment is implemented, with only 4 of them being diplomats, the question arises: is everything really so bad in the Ukrainian diplomatic corps? Of course, there’s a personnel shortage, but why has it intensified so much in this year and a half?

Especially since there were candidates for certain positions. Take Ethiopia, mentioned earlier: in 2020, a highly professional ambassador, Andriy Zayats, aspired to this role, with the support of the Bankova team. However, he was forced to leave the diplomatic service due to a conflict with the minister.

But let’s emphasize once again: the appointment of diplomats “from the outside” itself is not a bad idea. The recent history of appointments clearly demonstrates this, albeit highlighting a certain danger associated with this approach.

A path through mistakes

To avoid forming a misleading impression, it should be emphasized that appointing political figures as Ukraine’s ambassadors is certainly not an invention of the current Minister Kuleba or President Zelenskyy. This practice has been observed under all presidents, and for each of them, there were disgraceful and detrimental examples when the ambassadorial position was “gifted” to a favored individual for loyalty or simply to prevent offense upon resignation.

Just as an example: those who have been closely following Ukrainian politics for a long time may remember the name of the scandalous Kuchma-era judge of the Constitutional Court, Suzanna Stanik, who later headed several ministries. In 2007, a real battle erupted between her and the newly-elected President Yushchenko because Yushchenko wanted to remove her from the Constitutional Court at any cost (by the way, nowadays, this could be easily done due to the questionable origin of Stanik’s wealth).

Meanwhile, between her stints in the government and the Constitutional Court, the scandalous Stanik spent three years in the ambassadorial chair.

First, Kuchma sent her to Strasbourg, as a representative to the Council of Europe; however, there turned out to be too much work there, and in less than a year, she was transferred to the tranquil and pleasant Switzerland. This was absurd from the standpoint of state policy, but there was a desire to “accommodate” the necessary individual.

And later, Yushchenko adopted a similar practice. It’s enough to mention Oksana Sliusarenko, who was rewarded for her work at Bankova by being appointed as an ambassador to the quiet and pleasant Montenegro, where she remained for 5.5 years, later becoming a loyal ambassador under Yanukovych. She was only dismissed in March 2014, amidst a wave of the most controversial ambassadors who were active defenders of the anti-Maidan regime.

So, the experience of political appointments of ambassadors in Ukraine exists, and it’s been around for a long time. And for a significant period, it was negative.

What’s new in Kuleba’s time is that positive political appointments have been added alongside sharply negative ones.

About them — a bit later. First, let’s talk about problematic stories, which, unfortunately, there are many.

Essentially, during the times of the full-scale war, there were four controversial or sincerely disgraceful appointments of ambassadors (although there were more attempts).

Ilashchuk wasn’t the first of her kind: before her, the relatively unnoticed appointment of another psychologist, Iryna Kostiuk, as ambassador to Cuba took place. Her professional background had hardly any connection to diplomacy (and no, her past experience of accompanying children with disabilities to Cuba, which is being used as a justification, is not related to diplomacy). Kostiuk was appointed in May 2022, at a time when society had different priorities, and the fate of the Cuban embassy hardly interested anyone — although, of course, elevating the level of representation in a pro-Russian country to an ambassador was a poor decision.

But the main point is that the absence of criticism from the president for the decision to appoint Kostiuk as an ambassador contributed to the fact that the scandal with Ilashchuk became a reality. The sentiment was that nobody would notice anyway.

“Not abandoning our own”?

And then there were two appointments in the “Kuchma style,” when former officials were made ambassadors simply to avoid punishment after their resignation. While Venediktova’s assignment to Switzerland had some logic (a former Prosecutor General going to a country where one of the main tasks is arresting and confiscating Russian assets), the decision to send former Defense Minister Taran to Slovenia was both anticipated and a significant mistake.

Andriy Taran, who failed to perform effectively during his short time in the Ministry of Defense and in cooperation with NATO along his line of work, transformed from an unsuccessful minister to an ineffective ambassador after moving to Ljubljana. Moreover, with this appointment, the Bankova signaled something quite odd: it endorsed Taran’s poor performance in the Ministry of Defense. Therefore, after his dismissal, he was rewarded with an ambassadorial post.

Currently, there is a risk that a similar story could repeat with the head of the Ministry of Defense.

The President’s Office is considering the possibility of appointing Oleksiy Reznikov as an ambassador to the United Kingdom following his seemingly inevitable resignation due to a series of failures, primarily related to corruption allegations concerning the Ministry of Defense. While Reznikov might be an acceptable candidate for the British, the signal to Ukrainian society would be very telling: the president would demonstrate his personal support for “eggs for 17 UAH each,” summer clothing for the military, which turns into “winter wear” on the road, and other questionable decisions.

Why Bankova wants to take this step remains unclear.

Equally puzzling is why a request for agrément was submitted to Kazakhstan for the appointment of Serhiy Haidai, the former head of the Luhansk Regional Military–Civil Administration with a track record of failures and numerous criticisms against him. However, this embarrassment was halted by Astana when they signaled a firm refusal to accept such an ambassador.

Similarly, but at an earlier stage, the Czech Republic acted when Kyiv began to pave the way for the appointment of Yuriy Husyev, the former head of Ukroboronprom, as an ambassador to Prague. However, Bankova’s desire to place Husev in any position was stronger, and according to recent rumors, he might be sent to the accommodating Azerbaijan.

So, where’s the positive?

All these decisions create a strongly negative perception of the idea of appointing political ambassadors in general.

Although such placements of “valuable personnel” have no connection to the upcoming competitive appointments and are also unrelated to a dozen very good decisions regarding ambassadors “from the outside.”

Usually, when people talk about this, they give the example of Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, who has been in her position since 2021 and has received positive feedback. But there are many more such examples. Take Yuliya Kovaliv, who has been working in Canada since the beginning of 2022 — her effectiveness is confirmed by anyone who has encountered her work. Or Vasyl Miroshnychenko in Australia and so on…

So, it’s not necessarily required to be a diplomat with decades of experience within the system to be an effective ambassador in the 21st century. This has been proven in practice. However, a crucial prerequisite is the experience of engaging in international negotiations in any other role — whether from government, international business, or even non-governmental structures. Additionally, the experience of working in a team, preferably within public service, is essential. And, of course, a positive image is necessary. The attitude towards an ambassador who has been sent on a political mission is understandably different.

Furthermore, creative appointments should not be ruled out, as they might work, but without guarantees. An example of this is the anticipated appointment of a Hungarian ethnic and Ukrainian military serviceman, Fedor Shandor, as an ambassador to Hungary. Another case is the rather unconventional appointment of a scientist, Yuriy Polyukhovych, as an ambassador to Peru.

Hence, appointing non-diplomats as ambassadors is not always a negative approach.

However, discussing candidates selected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs based on the results of the selection process can only occur after the names become public — of course, after they are approved by the president and if the respective capitals provide their consent.

In any case, a bias towards exclusively political ambassadors, when there is little room for career diplomats to grow, is a contentious approach. Eventually, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will have to move away from this approach.

Originally posted by Sergiy Sydorenko on European Pravda. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: Between the front and the rear. Why scandals have returned to politics during the war

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