Once Again, Ukraine Steps Into the Unknown

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

A comedian-turned-president, a rockstar-turned-party leader, and a sea of new faces in the parliament: Meet the new political reality in Ukraine.

Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Zelensky at debate
Teaser Image Caption
Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Zelensky at a pre-election debate

KIEV, Ukraine—At first glance, the glass-walled offices of Golos look like a tech start-up. Young volunteers in jeans and hoodies are ensconced in orange bean bags, frantically tapping away at their laptops. It’s 6 o’clock in the evening, but no one looks to be going home any time soon.

These offices, in central Kiev, are the epicenter of political change in Ukraine, where voters elected a comedian with no political experience to be president, and appear hungry for a fresh batch of lawmakers to lead them through a critical juncture in their country’s post-Soviet history. To some, it’s a do-or-die moment for Ukraine’s push to become an advanced democracy.

On Sunday, voters will go to the polls for parliamentary elections in the first major test for the new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. They are set to elect a radically different type of parliament than any before seen in Ukraine’s modern history.

Golos is the face of that change. Led by the Ukrainian rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the Golos (Voice) party was unveiled to the public only two months ago. Since then, it at times leapfrogged parties led by political heavyweights, including former President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, to come third in opinion polls.

Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, deputy head of the party, said that they have sought to distinguish themselves as a more serious alternative on reform than Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People. Soft-spoken and earnest, Yurchyshyn, who previously served as executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, described in detail how his party vetted its candidates and spurned money from oligarchs.

“We don’t only make promises, but we detail how we can see results,” he said.

The party’s rise, and that of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, is symptomatic of Ukrainian’s thirst for a new style of politics in a country plagued with corruption, cemented by the potent influence of the country’s oligarchs. Earlier this year a Gallup poll found that for the second year in a row, Ukrainians’ confidence in their government was at the lowest level in the world, at 9 percent.

“Every few years or so Ukrainians reinvent politics. That’s what drives the country forward,” said Petro Matiaszek, director of the Ukrainian office of the Eurasia Foundation.

With a reform-driven agenda which seeks closer ties to Europe, Golos has been seen as a natural coalition partner for Servant of the People, which polls show will likely take home the largest slice of the pie on Sunday, but fall short of an outright majority. Two parties, Golos and Servant of the People, have vowed not to include any former lawmakers in the ranks of their party lists, and as a result, some 50 to 70 percent of the next parliament is expected to be entirely new faces, leaving Ukraine’s future almost entirely in the hands of political novices.

The prospect presents a relatively unique test case for democratic reforms in the world, and its success—or failure—could serve as a poster child for other countries in the former Soviet Union still buckling under Moscow’s influence.

One of Zelensky’s first acts as president was to dissolve the parliament and call for snap elections. He vowed to hold a nationwide open competition to select candidates for his Servant of the People party, although this seems doubtful as many names on the list are known associates of Zelensky or the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Andrii Borovyk, the current executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, estimated that around one-third of the party list was drawn from civil society, another third were relative unknowns, and the final third were known associates of Zelensky.

With a sizable portion of the parliament set to go to new faces, political inexperience is one of the biggest challenges they will face, said former Ukrainian member of parliament Mustafa Nayyem. In 2013, after then President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the European Union, many attribute Nayyem’s Facebook post calling for protests as the first domino that brought about revolution. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of Kiev in protests centered on Maidan, the city’s central square. Undeterred by violent crackdowns from Ukraine’s security forces, these protests eventually prompted Yanukovych to flee and toppled the government.

Nayyem was one of several dozen young and energetic reformers who entered parliament in the post-Maidan era, eager to dismantle the oligarchic corrupt system they put their lives on the line to overthrow in Maidan. They pioneered a new style of politics in post-revolutionary Ukraine that set the stage for future reform, even as Ukraine had to scramble to confront war in the east against Russian-backed separatists and Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

But they too have now been swept out of government by unforgiving voters in the fever pitch of change. Nayyem represents both a model and cautionary tale to Zelensky and the new batch of reformers set to join parliament: They have a window of opportunity to push through change, but impatient voters won’t hesitate to cast them aside if the reforms don’t bear fruit quickly enough.

Nayyem was philosophical about the political shift to the next generation of parliamentary hopefuls, which he sees as building on the success of the group. “If you look back at 2014, many of the things you would’ve desired are happening now. New generation, new people. They’re shifting old politicians, they’re changing approaches, they’re much more transparent.” But he said he was concerned about the sheer volume of turnover, and that inexperienced politicians could be vulnerable to exploitation by more powerful and cynical players in Ukraine’s political ecosystem.

Ukrainians’ willingness to place the country in the hands of novice politicians is symptomatic of the extreme discontent and restlessness that courses through the country as the war against separatists simmers on, and ongoing reforms have yet to significantly boost the country’s sputtering economy.

“It was basically a rejection of everything, of the way that everything that was done before,” said Matiaszek of the Eurasia Foundation.

“There’s no question that Ukraine remains in difficult straits, one, because of the war, and two, because the great promise of economic progress has never been achieved because of ongoing corruption,” said John Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

But where there is cause for concern, there’s an acute awareness among Ukrainian voters that experience doesn’t always translate into success. “We have had many experienced politicians over the past 20 years who have failed,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a Kiev-based think tank.

For Zelensky to break from his predecessors, he’ll need to rack up some wins on the anti-corruption front early. In Ukraine, the fight against corruption “is a generational fight, but having said that, you could have serious progress on certain issues overnight,” said Herbst.

He started by introducing a law on Wednesday criminalizing illicit enrichment by government officials, a precursor to receiving new support from the International Monetary Fund. More measures to tackle corruption would boost confidence in Zelensky in Washington and European capitals, said Molly Montgomery, a vice president at the Albright Stonebridge Group consulting firm and a former diplomat who served as special advisor to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Europe and Eurasia.

While the upcoming parliament that Zelensky hopes will tackle a raft of corruption-related issues may be short on political experience, Ukraine’s oligarchs will have significantly less clout, another point in Zelensky’s favor. An analysis of the previous parliament by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future think tank estimated that anywhere between 275 to 305 of the 424 members were beholden to a handful of oligarchs. Some 150 members of the new parliament could still be under the potent influence of Ukraine’s wealthy elite, estimates Ihar Tyshkevich, an analyst with the institute and one of the authors of the report. But that would still be a radical departure for Ukraine. “It’s a new balance in parliament, it’s a new balance in politics,” he said.

Only after a new parliament is elected will Ukrainians be able to get a sense of their new president’s true colors. In the interim, his actions and public statements have been scrutinized by Ukrainians and the international community in a bid to get a read of what kind of president he may be. In chewing out corrupt officials, using Facebook to communicate directly with voters, and proposing to move his office to the center of Kyiv from its Soviet-era home, Zelensky’s style so far has been a marked departure from his predecessors. But his proposal to prevent people who served in the previous government from continuing to hold office attracted sharp criticism from the ambassadors of the G7 countries, who characterized it as an “indiscriminate ban.”

Perhaps nothing has been more closely examined than his relationship with the oligarch Kolomoisky, whose television channel backed him during the campaign. One of the most prominent red flags this far was Zelensky’s appointment of the billionaire’s former personal lawyer, Andriy Bogdan, as his chief of staff. But a more charitable interpretation is that Bogdan was appointed to ensure that Zelensky had an experienced political operator at his side. “Bogdan knows how the system works, and Zelensky needed someone whom he trusts who could put bureaucratic order into the quite chaotic system in the Zelensky political team,” said Daria Kaleniuk, head of the nonprofit Anti-Corruption Action Center.

If Ukraine’s recent history is anything to go by, the path ahead for the president and the new parliament will likely be convoluted. But if Ukraine’s gamble pays off, it will provide a powerful message to other countries in the former Soviet Union, where Zelensky is well known as a celebrity. “Zelensky has a potential to be a kind of Ukrainian soft power in the post-Soviet space,” said Getmanchuk of the New Europe Center. On election night, he addressed the countries of the region directly. “To all the countries of the former Soviet Union: look at us,” he said. “Everything is possible.”

The victory of Zelensky—a Russian-speaking Jew from central Ukraine—flew in the face of years of Russian messaging which has sought to portray Ukraine as overrun with fascists, hostile to Russian speakers and riven by an intractable east-west divide. “Zelensky is a very uncomfortable president for Putin,” said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It destroys much of the narrative he has put out about Ukraine in recent years.”

Contending with a revanchist Russia will be at the top of Zelensky’s foreign-policy to-do list. In the days after his election victory, Russian President Vladimir Putin threw down the gauntlet: He signed an order simplifying the process for residents in separatist-held eastern Ukraine to obtain Russian passports. There was however a glimmer of hope when Ukrainian military forces and separatist forces in the town of Stanytsia Luhanska agreed this month to pull back from the line of contact by 1 kilometer, in a sign of easing tensions. Western diplomats point to the pullback as the first real cause of cautious optimism since 2015, when the warring parties signed a second peace agreement in Minsk, brokered by European powers. (The Minsk agreement ultimately did little to stop violence, shelling, and ceasefire violations on the front lines of the conflict.)

“It is the biggest positive thing that’s happened, perhaps since the [Minsk] agreement was signed,” said one international observer.

The easing of tensions in Stanytsia Luhanska comes as Zelensky signals his willingness to talk to Putin to bring about an end to the conflict. Some are skeptical he could get anywhere. “Russia has no interest in a solution to the conflict; they want to keep their foot on Ukraine’s neck,” said one European diplomat.

On Tuesday it was announced that Ukraine and Russia had agreed to a prisoner swap, the first since late 2017. The real bellwether on progress between the two countries will be if Ukraine is able to secure the release of 24 Ukrainian sailors who were taken captive by Russia last year.

Since the outbreak of the war in 2014, Ukraine has been dependent on the support of the West, but in recent years a degree of Ukraine fatigue has set in. “I think there is more skepticism, interestingly, in the West, about Zelensky and his ability to succeed, than there is in Ukraine, and so Zelensky will really need to out some quick wins on the board to build confidence in the international community,” said Montgomery of the Albright Stonebridge Group.

Many in Washington and elsewhere in Europe are still cheering him on, adding a fresh dose of optimism to the caution with which they have approached Ukraine after 2014. “It’s important that he knows that if he does what he says he wants to do, he will find a lot of supporters for that, and a lot of help,” said Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations.

But there’s a cloud hanging over the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship, one that Zelensky has actively tried to distance himself from to help preserve the broad bipartisan support from the United States. In May, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was recalled from her job following what some U.S. lawmakers called a “political hit job.” Top surrogates of U.S. President Donald Trump, including his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, seized on claims by Ukraine’s top prosecutor that Yovanovitch instructed him not to prosecute certain officials and that she was not loyal to Trump. The prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, also said he opened a probe into whether Ukrainian officials helped aid presidential candidate Hillary Clinton against Trump in 2016.

Lutsenko later walked back the claims about Yovanovitch, which the State Department vehemently denied.

Nevertheless, Giuliani has doubled down on Ukraine’s connections to U.S. domestic politics, claiming Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had a conflict of interest in pushing Ukrainian reforms during his time as vice president because of his son’s role on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. He canceled a trip to Ukraine in May in which he wanted to meet Zelensky and push him to investigate Biden’s son, after facing backlash from U.S. lawmakers and former law enforcement officials for trying to pressure a foreign government.

The damage was already done. Yovanovitch was pulled from her post following media scrutiny and public rebukes from Giuliani and Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. Giuliani told media outlets after he canceled his trip that Zelensky is being advised by “enemies” of President Trump.

Some analysts and Western officials quietly fear the attack on Yovanovitch could become the opening salvo of a hyperpoliticized fight ahead of the 2020 elections, akin to what Russia became after the 2016 elections. In a worst-case scenario, some fear that could turn Ukraine into a noxious political issue in Washington, one that could dissolve bipartisan support for the eastern European country on economic aid, political support, and limited military support for the war.

Yovanovitch was replaced temporarily by William Taylor, another former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, but Trump has not yet nominated a permanent replacement. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of the U.S. ambassador in Kiev as a voice for reform and someone who has the ear of the Ukrainian leadership,” said Montgomery.

“What Lutsenko did was wrong and dangerous precisely because it could make Ukraine a partisan issue in the U.S,” said Herbst. “They need bipartisan support in the United States. The issue of Russian interference  in our elections has become a sorely partisan one. Ukraine should not be part of that. Such a development would not be good for U.S. national security and disastrous for Ukraine’s.”

While a potential U.S. domestic political fight hangs over the heads of Ukrainian leadership, others in Washington and Europe still believe Zelensky has a chance to show to Europe, and the world, it can be a success story.

If Zelensky can succeed, said Montgomery, “not only will Ukraine be part of the West irrevocably, but it will be a model of what Russia could look like if it too abandoned the oligarchic politics that has been the norm since the fall of the Soviet Union.”

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy on July 19th, 2019.