How the “washing of Ukraine” became the new move for struggling European politicians

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With confidence in the government and parliament at an all-time low, the Romanian Prime Minister, the head of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate leader all scrambled to have a chance to meet the President of Ukraine in Kiev, hoping that the international visit will ingratiate itself with Romanian voters.

But for top Romanian politicians, even this photo shoot proved difficult to agree as the quarrels between the three over who should arrive first clouded the visit.

Finally, last week, at the end of the Orthodox Easter holidays, the Romanian premier and the president of the Chamber of Deputies went together to Kiev. They had forgotten that only a few days before a statement was released saying that the president of the Romanian senate would also join.

Florin Citu, head of the Senate, was left at home due to rifts and infighting within the Romanian ruling coalition, before traveling alone to Kiev the next day.

“Neither the premier nor the president of the Chamber of Deputies called me to tell me when they were going to Kiev,” Citu said.

When asked why he chose to leave his party member at home, Romanian Prime Minister Ciucă said that “these were two separately scheduled visits and the number of delegates was limited”.

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Romania was not alone in seeking photo shoots in Kiev. For nearly two months now, as hell has been breaking loose on Ukraine, Kiev has been welcoming a barrage of European leaders eager to show support and help the country as best they can.

In a moving show of solidarity, Europe’s response to the war in Ukraine has been swift, with member states imposing sanctions on Russia and welcoming millions of refugees fleeing the war.

Billions of euros in aid and tons of advanced weapons have so far crossed the border into Ukraine, as Europe has tried to walk a fine line between provoking Russia and dragging the entire continent into a catastrophic war, and staying alongside Kiev in the defense of its sovereignty.

As the Kiel Institute points out, Eastern European countries have been “particularly generous” considering the size of their economies, with Estonia, Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia emerging as the top four donors.

Estonia spent nearly 1% of its GDP on the war effort, Poland and Romania were quick to take in millions of refugees, while the small nation of Slovakia tried to arm the military in Ukraine with fighter jets.

However, in the midst of all this, a less tasty tactic has emerged in recent months: washing Ukraine. A number of European leaders, seeking to disguise their domestic problems and failing fortunes, have sought relief abroad by tying their chariot and public image to that of Ukraine’s heroic resistance.

British leader Boris Johnson’s surprise visit to Ukraine, which included a photogenic walk in Kiev with Zelenskyy, came just as the Prime Minister was battling mounting pressure to step down after it was discovered that he had attended numerous parties in 2020 and in 2021 in violation of Covid restrictions.

The scandal escalated after Johnson and other leading figures in the British government received fines from the Metropolitan Police.

A Churchill biographer, Boris Johnson appears to follow the advice of his hero who famously said “never let a good crisis go to waste” while he was working to form the United Nations after World War II.

In France, Emmanuel Macron tries to remind voters of his diplomatic prowess during his battle for re-election. Macron has bet that French voters will be delighted to see their country’s leader take on a high-profile diplomatic role and strengthen France’s image as a world player.

Indeed, the crisis in Ukraine represents a turning point both in French politics, in particular by relaunching the presidential race, and in Macron’s political career.

The series of photos released last month by the French president’s official photographer, which portrays Macron lightly bearded and wearing a hoodie – an unusual look for the French head of state that many have interpreted as a tribute to Volodymyr Zelenskyy – seemed to indicate Macron’s transformation into a wartime president, a figure the Elysée hopes will be more popular with voters.

Drawing on their own experience with the Moscow aggression, Central and Eastern European politicians have been some of Ukraine’s strongest advocates of European integration, pledging almost unconditional support for Kiev.

Yet, like their Western counterparts, these leaders too undoubtedly hope that the Ukrainian crisis will provide them with a respite from their political problems at home and an increase in popularity both nationally and internationally.

Perhaps no European leader, however, is reaping greater reputational dividends from the Ukrainian crisis of Polish President Andrzej Duda. He has been in conflict with the EU over his government’s controversial stance on LGBT, abortion, media laws and constitutional changes to extend his presidential term. This led to a wave of mass protests in 2020 and 2021 that severely damaged Duda and the ruling party’s popularity.

But Poland’s crucial role in providing aid to the nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees it is hosting could help Warsaw change its fortunes with the EU. As Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently said, “Poland has never had such an excellent brand, anywhere in the world”.

Or take Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger, a staunch supporter of Ukraine and its EU membership, whose trip to Kiev appears to have provided a welcome distraction from troubles at home where his fragile coalition is collapsing in the polls.

Just like his more famous British counterpart, the Prime Minister of Slovakia saw his premiership slide before the war began. According to polls in February, 70% of Slovaks distrusted him after rounds of bitter infighting cost his ruling coalition much of his credibility.

Elected with an anti-corruption ticket, Heger’s anti-corruption crusade was accused at home of exercising undue influence on the objectives pursued by law enforcement.

Prosecutors have developed a strategy that focuses on first reporting against lower-level figures, urging them to testify to the government and testify against their superiors, including the leaders of the two main opposition parties – with former Prime Minister Robert Fico having denounced the charges brought against him as “clear political revenge” and an attempt to “liquidate the political opposition”.

From London to Warsaw, the washing of Ukraine has emerged as a wise move for many European politicians, and the assistance they have provided is one of the main reasons why Ukraine is still strong against Russia’s unbridled aggression. One can only hope that these same leaders will not reduce their support for Ukraine once it stops raising poll ratings.