By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
The classic expression used to qualify the situation of Ukraine after the 21st July parliamentary elections is “a new start”. Indeed, millions of Ukrainians have been betting twice in the space of 3 months on new political figures in the hope of being dragged out of the hard and confused situation into which they have been plunged for too long.
On 21 April they elected a comedian to be their new president; in July they gave a parliamentary majority to a newly created party named ‘Servant of the People’, after the TV programme that made Volodymyr Zelensky a celebrity. Most of them have no political experience, nor connections between themselves. They might be called representatives of civil society, but Ukraine needs political stability and cohesion.
For the first time in Ukrainian history, Zelensky does not need a coalition to gain a majority in parliament. But with apprentice deputies, his majority can quickly evaporate and he will need allies from other parties. Five parties made it to parliament but the second choice of the voters, Opposition Platform-for Live, passes for being “pro-Russian”; the third choice was Fatherland of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who is always ready to offer her “services to motherland” but has a reputation of spoiler; the fourth is European Solidarity of former president Petro Poroshenko ready to do anything to shorten the term of Zelensky and, ideally, gather a succession team round himself. In any case, neither hardly fit Zelensky’s promises of renewal.
That leaves the fifth, Voice of Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, quoted as a potential partner when Zelensky’s party seemed short of a majority. But this one has no more political experience, comes from the same stardom world than Zelensky, but has a more radical programme than the new president.
That majority will certainly be enough to approve the government which Zelensky is taking very long to form – another sign that winning the elections was the easier step. And by the way, the turnout was 49,84% meaning that popular political activism is limited.
Ukraine is not the first country where citizens want to give a boot to the old political class. The behaviour even got a new name – “degagisme” – during the campaign and election of Emmanuel Macron in France, a man presenting himself as antisystem, above traditional party lines, supported by a movement instead of a party, and surrounded by a clan of technocrats like himself.
Zelensky faces the same population’s tiredness with the “old” system, with the spider net linking politics and big money, which they see as destroying the live hood of the many. But he is the product of a totally different system from Macron’s. The Ukrainian system does not result from centuries’ attempts to adapt the old regime to a different popular mindset, but from an unfinished transition between a communist society and a society wanting to be radically different without much clear vision of the way to do so.
Contrary to Macron, Zelensky lacks the backing and safe wall of solid institutions capable to withstand the mistakes of newcomers and keep the ship sailing safely, the time they learn their job. On the top of that, Macron was not an outsider but an atypical insider, a technocrat who surrounded himself with a team of technocrats and a few deserters from other parties. Despite that, he has quickly called in people from “the past” to provide his team with their experience.
Another obstacle for Zelensky is that his campaign consisted in rallying people around his person, using his personal charm and celebrity as actor. He promised changes, but not much more and had no proper programme. Moreover, the promise of radical rupture with the past, eradication of corruption and new radical reforms is the rule not the exception since Ukrainian independence, including during the two Maidan that both led to high hopes and big disappointments.
In consequence, to deliver is the most important and urgent task for Zelensky who has profiled himself like “one of ours”, sharing the frustrations of ordinary citizens and ready to meet their needs. Polls have showed that Ukrainians want three things: an end to the war in Donbas, anti-corruption reforms and improved living standards.
All that will required cohesion and capacity to resist disinformation campaigns and pressure from those who have been part of the “party of war”, from the corrupted officials backed by oligarchs, from Russia and of course from the international donors who keeps the same “transition” mindset, conditioning aids to harsh reform programmes that no leaders wanting to stay in power could impose to the population.
The international dimension is important. One talks often of Russian pressure to cut Ukrainian presidents to size, including Zelensky. One speaks less of the dependency of Ukraine on Western circles. The brutal interventions of Russia in the internal life of its neighbours paved the way for the West, and especially the US and Canada, to fall back to the old Brzezinski theory according to which a Western integrated Ukraine was key to keep Russia in the role of a regional power.
The West is not tempted to back a revanchist Poroshenko. But Zelensky has to cope with the fact that Ukraine, rightly proud of having imposed itself on international map and on the Western world’s agenda including on security issues, is now more than any other post-soviet republics thrown into perilous navigation between its will to join EU and NATO, and its reluctance to turn his back to Russia.
Some Ukrainian analysts compare his position towards the Est-West dilemma to the one faced by president Leonid Kuchma. The second Ukrainian president managed to distance his country from Moscow without rupture or scandals, while moving closer to the West. He also created a distinct Ukrainian identity, a move that Zelensky would like to repeat.
But the situation is different. Ukrainians have been brainwashed for years about divisions between the “patriots”, “traitors”, “spies” and “saboteurs”. Zelensky does not face a problem of identity to forge as Kuchma, but of national reconciliation. All that when the relations between the West and Russia are at their lowest since 1991.
More importantly, the economy is living under international perfusion since Maidan 2, which reduces the freedom of maneuvers of Zelensky to quickly improve the life of the population. Political life is also under international guidance. The West, especially Americans and Canadians, were at home in Ukraine under Poroshenko and earlier Yushchenko and would resent to lose this privilege.
Already, Westerners have been protesting against the lustration process launched by Zelensky to get rid of Poroshenko nominees who can torpedo all his efforts, protect corruption and provide devastating leaks if the president takes measures threatening their privileges. Usually, the West encourages rotation of the elites after a regime change, but Zelensky’s is accused of risking to deprive the country of experimented personal. One can suspect that Westerners are fearing to lose their relays in administration, regions, the armed forces, and of course the intelligence services.