Dispatch

Welcome to Ukraine’s Post-Post-Maidan Era

Ukraine’s president now has an unprecedented level of parliamentary support. What will he do with it?

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on during a press conference after a meeting with president of the European Council at the European Council in Brussels on June 5.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on during a press conference after a meeting with president of the European Council at the European Council in Brussels on June 5. EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP) (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

KIEV, Ukraine—“Things here often start with great hopes and end in great disappointments. But this time, I get the impression things could change,” said Nikolai Savitsky, a 54-year-old businessman, outside a polling station in the Ukrainian capital on Sunday evening. A few hours later, at the campaign headquarters of the Servant of the People party, the first exit polls from parliamentary elections were greeted with popping champagne corks. This young party won well over half the 424 seats up for grabs in the Verkhovna Rada, the country’s parliament. It now forms Ukraine’s first-ever ruling majority.

Servant of the People is aligned with Volodymyr Zelensky, who won a landslide presidential election in April. The charismatic Zelensky, a comedian with no prior political experience, ran on an anti-establishment platform that resonated with Ukrainians tired of poverty and the war in the Donbass. Nevertheless, some familiar faces have returned to parliament to fight another day; in second place came a coalition of pro-Russian forces, followed by the parties of former President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In a nod to the broader thirst for anti-establishment politics, Golos, a party led by the popular rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, also entered parliament.

Servant of the People shares the same name as the hit television show in which Zelensky plays a history teacher who is unexpectedly elected president of Ukraine. But even that fiction did not envisage a victory on this scale; given that Ukrainian presidents are largely unable to deliver on their agendas without parliamentary support, the new setup is an unprecedented luxury for Zelensky. Some of his reforms may require a two-thirds majority to pass legislative amendments; Golos is widely considered an ideal coalition partner.

Under the old parliament, elected in 2014 and dominated by allies of Poroshenko, the outgoing president, that support was not forthcoming. Consequently, Zelensky dissolved parliament ahead of schedule, arguing that it had become impossible to pursue his agenda. Dmytro Razumkov, the party leader of Servant of the People, told Foreign Policy that the parliament had “spat in the face” of ordinary Ukrainians by refusing to pass a law on electoral reform and contemplating a law designed to curb presidential powers. In an interview at the party’s headquarters before the snap elections, Razumkov stressed that the old parliament’s intransigence meant voters were unable to judge the president by his deeds. As Servant of the People’s campaign leaflets put it, this meant the parliamentary election “really [was] the third round of the presidential election.”

So it’s no surprise that Savitsky told Foreign Policy that he had voted “for Zelensky,” rather than the party. A vote for Servant of the People was presented as a vote to give the president the full political clout to carry out his reformist agenda. Servant of the People’s hazy political platform mattered little, though this is not unusual in Ukraine, where parties have long served as electoral vehicles for ambitious politicians and their oligarchic backers.

What is unusual are the proposals by Servant of the People to undermine many of the perks Ukrainian politicians enjoy. Crucially, the party wants to strip immunity from parliamentarians and introduce a mechanism to allow constituents to remove them from office. There is also talk of legislative changes to allow referendums on key issues of public importance.

Zelensky’s most controversial proposal has been a bill to ban any officials who served under Poroshenko from holding public office—a populist gesture ostensibly designed to accelerate a crackdown on corruption. On July 17, Zelensky recorded an address live in his car arguing that high-profile corruption cases weren’t being investigated due to a lack of political will and that state law enforcement agencies were passing the buck to each other. This month, the president toured Ukraine and dismissed several local officials live on camera, with the incredulous words “Do you think I’m an idiot?” These publicity stunts work; a Gallup poll in March suggested that most Ukrainians believe this is exactly how officials see them. At the time, just 9 percent of Ukrainians had confidence in their government—among the lowest such level in the world.

Critics argue that the lustration bill is tantamount to a political purge and open to widespread abuse. It could also come back to bite members of Zelensky’s own government, such as Ukraine’s powerful and longtime interior minister, Arsen Avakov, and advisors Aivaras Abromavicius and Oleksandr Danyliuk, who left Poroshenko’s government after clashing with colleagues and later joined Zelensky’s team.

In Ukraine, political experience is no longer seen as a qualification. Zelensky has already declared that the next prime minister should be a “professional economist without a political past.” (Possible candidates are widely considered to be Andriy Kobolyev and Yuriy Vitrenko, executives in Ukraine’s state oil and gas firm.) Servant of the People’s eclectic party list does not include any acting or former parliamentarians. When asked at a press conference on July 2 about whether this lack of expertise would present a problem, Razumkov responded that “if they’re not experienced, they’ll learn quickly … but if the experience they want is to learn how to get kickbacks, how to found a business on money from the budget, or how to be corrupt, that’s not the experience we need.”

Even liberal reformers who rose to prominence during the post-Maidan era are nowhere to be found among these candidates. Their eventual clashes with the former president over the slow pace of reform and anti-corruption efforts have not secured them a place in the post-Poroshenko order. Serhiy Leshchenko, who also joined Zelensky’s team and was a leading face of these “Euro-optimists,” was even barred from running as a party candidate. Leshchenko eventually ran as an independent in Kiev under the slogan “A Real Servant of the People” and, prior to the vote, told Foreign Policy that he nonetheless hoped he would be welcomed into the party after entering parliament, although he was not ultimately elected.

Servant of the People does have an official party ideologist, Ruslan Stefanchuk, who stated in an interview in May that the party’s basic ideology is libertarianism. Razumkov told Foreign Policy that the party’s “main task is to remove as much of the government from business as possible,” to remove corruption and attract investment. “We’re not talking about libertarianism when it comes to social guarantees to our fellow citizens because at present there are many citizens who require the support of a social state,” he added. However, Razumkov did not elaborate on which social guarantees would be protected.

The political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko doubts that an ideologically driven libertarian agenda could weather the politicking of Ukraine’s parliament. Fesenko also noted that Servant of the People’s new deputies were so diverse that holding them together could prove a challenge; this diversity, he added, also reflected the different interest groups at play within the party, such as Zelensky’s former colleagues at the Kvartal 95 television studio and a handful of names linked to Avakov and the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.

“These are contradictory people. There are militant patriots who categorically oppose any reconciliation with Russia, and there are soft pro-Russians who support reconciliation with Moscow. As a friend of mine put it, there are people who will defend a monument to Gen. [Georgy] Zhukov in Kharkiv, and there are those who will attend LGBT parades,” Fesenko said, referring to the Soviet marshal who commanded Red Army forces in World War II. Zelensky and the party have kept a distance from any controversies about the role of Soviet history or the Ukrainian language in public life, two old sticking points in Ukrainian politics. “The positive side of Zelensky is that he has offset the political contradictions between pro-Russian and pro-Europe, between Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking,” the sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko said.

Victor Andrusiv, the executive director of the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, argued that the vagueness of the party’s platform is due to its prioritizing institutional reforms. “Will Zelensky destroy normal procedures? Or will he just appoint ministers, who then work through the old Soviet ministries, and then it all fails?” he said. “People from the West make the mistake of thinking that how the car drives depends on the driver. But if you have an old, nearly destroyed car, you can put Kurt Schumacher in it, and it’ll still drive slowly. This is the main obstacle: institutional inertia and unrealistic expectations from people who expect quick changes.”

In Ukraine, these calls for technocratic and accountable governance fit naturally with Zelensky’s anti-establishment surge. If Zelensky is a populist, he is resolutely no ethnonationalist; the showman prefers parallels to French President Emmanuel Macron than U.S. President Donald Trump. Zelensky and his public relations-savvy entourage have a deep awareness of Ukraine’s political pulse; it took somebody with an astute sense of this to create Servant of the People, whether the political party or the satirical television series. But in the relentless pursuit of rebooting Ukrainian politics, there are concerns whether this team of political novices is up to the huge tasks before it. Thorny questions await Zelensky’s government, from rising gas prices to land privatization. Furthermore, a real commitment fighting oligarchy is more than an electoral slogan; it could require some hard decisions close to home, potentially involving Kolomoisky.

“A huge civilizational shift has taken place in Ukraine,” Andrusiv said. “Putin closed off the gestalt that if we live under Russia, we’ll be stronger and live better. He showed that he is ready to kill Russian-speaking people if he needs to. Poroshenko closed another gestalt: the idea of a nation-state united by one language. He pushed decommunization, Ukrainian language laws, and so on, but it didn’t lead to success. So what’s left?”

Perhaps the question answers itself. The results of the 2014 revolution, and Ukraine’s European ambitions, still remain intact. But so does much of the old relationship between Ukraine’s rulers and those they rule. That leaves room to experiment. Andrusiv described Sunday’s elections as a “choice between a treatment which is clearly not working and an experiment which brings a high risk of death.” The country has taken a leap into the unknown—a test of whether Ukraine’s new elites can truly be servants of its people.

Maxim Edwards is a journalist covering central and eastern Europe. He is a former editor at openDemocracy and a former assistant editor at OCCRP. @MaximEdwards

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