Ukraine just backed Zelenskyy again. Now it’s time to get to work.
On July 21, 2019, Ukrainians re-confirmed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s political mandate by giving his Servant of the People party 43 percent of the total vote in the country’s snap parliamentary elections. The result, though widely predicted, is nevertheless stunning. Only two months prior, the party had no members, no regional offices, no political campaigning, and no policy agenda.
Some Western observers see Sunday’s results as the triumph of democracy and “a brand-new day for Ukraine.” Indeed, the country once again succeeded in holding free and fair elections, resulting in the unprecedented renewal of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s legislature. “New faces” without political or civic experience will now comprise three-fourths of parliament.
With at least 254 Rada seats—124 from party lists and 130 in single-mandate constituencies—President Zelenskyy secured the majority needed for radical economic and anti-corruption reforms, without needing coalition partners. One-party rule could become his blessing or his curse: all finger-pointing for lack of reform will now be directed toward the president and his allies, not political predecessors.
Ukrainians expect quick changes, but there are several worrisome indicators. First, the president must prove that eradicating patron-clientelism and political nepotism was not just a campaign promise. Zelenskyy is surrounded by trusted friends, political appointees, and long-term business associates. His presidential secretariat is made almost entirely of individuals with backgrounds managing his “Kvartal 95” comedy television show.
Secondly, Ukraine’s investigative journalists have collected substantial evidence linking numerous Servant of the People party candidates to Zelenskyy’s long-term patron, business mogul Ihor Kolomoyskyi, and other oligarchs like Viktor Pinchuk and Dmytro Firtash. Even Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the pro-Moscow Opposition Platform – For Life and widely considered Vladimir Putin’s man in Ukraine, seems to have ties to Zelenskyy’s party. For some peculiar reason, Medvedchuk’s party headquarters in the city of Mykolaiv shares the same legal address with the Servants. And there is more: Andriy Kholodov, owner of a 6 million euro villa in downtown Vienna and a close family friend of Medvedchuk’s wife Oksana Marchenko, was elected to the new Rada from the Servants list.
A third problem is the lack of experience. Zelenskyy’s “new faces” at the Rada will include a former wedding photographer, an entertainer and corporate party host, a pizzeria owner, 17 candidates officially identified as “unemployed,” as well as numerous representatives of the “showbiz” industry, including at least five comedians from the “Kvartal 95” stand-up comedy show.
Moreover, during the campaign, Zelenskyy and his party did little to engage in serious policy discussion. Instead of holding debates with the electorate at town halls and public meetings, the Servants largely campaigned on social media, winning the hearts of their followers by merging politics with entertainment. “Kvartal 95” actively campaigned for the Servants by holding nineteen free large-scale concerts in major cities throughout Ukraine.
Another remarkable indicator is the almost complete political obliteration of former Euromaidan heroes. Zelenskyy’s team, as well as the Holos party (the Voice) led by Ukrainian rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, surprised many by not inviting “Eurooptimist” members—such as once promising pro-reform deputies like Mustafa Nayem, Hanna Hopko, Svitlana Zalishchuk, Serhii Leschenko, and many others—to join their ranks. Nayem and Hopko did not risk running in single mandate constituencies; Zalishchuk and Leschenko lost to candidates from Servants. Only two out of 25 members of the Eurooptimists preserved their deputy mandates.
Zelenskyy’s team dismisses the possibility of the size of his mandate tempting him to use authoritarian methods. On the other hand, maintaining party discipline could prove difficult. Sooner or later, Zelenskyy could be faced with keeping his hastily built faction together. Many members of the Servants choir have different political backings and potentially conflicting personal loyalties could thus be the stumbling block to their singing in unison. Fully aware of the risks associated with post-election political fragmentation, the leader of the Servants party, Dmytro Razumkov, asked all candidates who ran for the Rada on the Servants list to sign a special “Memorandum of Understanding,” which resembles a return to the “imperative mandate” system – a draconian measure that forces individual faction members to vote along party lines or risk expulsion.
This could eventually turn the Servants into the Ukrainian version of the United Russia party, which has U-turned since the late 1990s from a progressive political force into a pro-Putin bureaucracy. The coalition with Holos—which had the strongest party ticket with numerous experienced civic activists and professionals—represents the most promising option for a new pro-reform parliamentary coalition void of vested interests and oligarchic control. However, there are no confirmed indicators that coalition talks are under way. If Holos stays outside of the parliamentary majority, it could drift closer to the European Solidarity party and join the fight against “Vladimir Putin, his ‘fifth column,’ as well as dilettantes and populists,” as its leader Petro Poroshenko has colorfully put it.
For the moment, Zelenskyy is sending positive signals by promising to form the Cabinet led by a professional economist with no political affiliation or vested interests. Vladislav Rashkovan, the IMF alternative director and former governor of Ukraine’s National bank, is often mentioned among the front-runners for Prime Minister. In recent days, however, Oleksiy Goncharuk, deputy head of the Presidential Secretariat in charge of economic reforms, has joined the discussion. Zelenskyy’s mixed record in the area of economic policy might indicate his team will opt for a less market-oriented person. The appointments of Max Nefyodov as the head of the Customs Service and Aivaras Abramavicius as the head of the state military defense conglomerate Ukroboronprom could represent important steps to reduce corruption. But they are taking place amidst media reports about Ihor Kolomoyskyi’s growing influence over the court system and him building new monopolies in the coal mining and electricity sectors by placing his trusted associates into important posts at state-owned coal and electricity distribution companies to control related domestic markets.
With two relatively easy political victories in the last six months, Zelenskyy and his team might be tempted to continue with loud hype-style media campaigning instead of doing the quiet and less high profile work of implementing reform. When parliamentary election results were announced, Zelenskyy told his party managers to get ready for local elections. Discussions about snap local elections, which should take place in early 2020 instead of the originally-scheduled date of October 25, 2020 to fully change the system, are already under way. Perpetually reshuffling “old” and “new” faces might be tempting, but what about professional state-building efforts? The statement by Maja Kocijancic, EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, already sent a clear signal: instead of thinking about the new cycle of snap local elections, the government of Ukraine should get serious about establishing the rule of law, fighting corruption, and guaranteeing Ukraine’s energy and macro-economic stability.
The fireworks of Ukraine’s election festivities are now officially over. The newly-elected face the rather dull—but critically important—music of the daily political routine. It is time to get quiet and time to get real. Back to work, comrades!
Kateryna Smagliy is a fellow with the McCain Institute’s Next Generation Leaders program. She is a former political assistant of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, where she served as liaison officer with the Verkhoyna Rada of Ukraine.
August 19, 2020
Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.