By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
Since his election, Ukrainian president Zelensky had to live with the government and parliament inherited from his predecessor. But he was the president, a power he used to reassure Ukraine’s allies, and made himself better known by foreign partners, showing that his country had a place in the ongoing global world and was not just a punching ball between Russia and the West.The July parliamentary elections paved the way for turning to national challenges. His movement turned into a party, Servant of the People, got a majority of 254 in the 450 seats parliament. For the first time since independence, a ruling president has been able to form his government without negotiations with other parties or factions inside his own party.
On 29 August, even some members of the opposition approved his candidates for forming the government. His challenge will consist in navigating between foreign demands and national expectations to meet his promises to end the war in the Eastern regions, stop the corruption, and relaunch the economy.
But all these equilibria are fragile due to the inexperience of the actors, including Zelensky himself. Hence his rush to submit to parliament draft laws to give him free reins for fulfilling his reformist programme, before tensions begin to make vote discipline more aleatory. A very symbolic but important step marked the first parliamentary session, when deputies agreed to suppress their own immunity, a key step for fighting corruption.
Ministers and deputies are mostly political novices. It does not mean necessarily they are amateurs. Some have been active in ‘civil society’, including journalism, academia and artistic circles. Others worked for private companies. Others have been involved in political activities, mostly in the middle rank of hierarchy, where they have been able to observe the ‘old’ customs they now pledged to abolish, while absorbing new technical skills in fields the country badly need such as the economy, law, trade, foreign relations. Many are qualified as “unknown”, but in fact there were there, in the corridors of power, gaining experience without being over-exposed, with time to nurture their talents and their ambitions.
A new prime minister
The new prime minister, Olexi Honcharuk is typical example. A lawyer of 35, he became a deputy head of Zelenskiy’s office in May. He has no political experience, but since 2015 he led an analytical centre, BDRO, in Kiev, financed by the EU, focused on increasing business climate in Ukraine. He also worked as an adviser to the Ecology Ministry. Economic reforms are his priority, and he expected them to stimulate growth worth a minimum of 5-7%. Just appointed, he warned parliament that it risked dissolution if it dragged its feet over reforms. So said the president, who also put deputies on guard against engaging in populism, notably “not to overwhelm important decisions with thousands of meaningless amendments”.
Another is Oxana Markarova. She retained her post of finance minister, and comes with her experience of negotiating with the IMF whose continued help is essential for economic growth. According to Honcharuk, talks will start with the IMF in a few weeks over a new programme to replace the present $3.9 billion standby deal.
Next to growth, which would insure better living conditions for the population, Zelensky also promised peace. Parliament appointed another lawyer, activist Andriy Zahorodnyuk, as defense minister. Former Ukrainian ambassador to NATO Vadym Prystaiko became foreign minister. Before the vote, Prystaiko said he will be guided by the principles of “professionalism, patriotism, probity and pragmatism”. His top priority as foreign minister was “to restore peace in the Donbass and recover annexed Crimea. Other vital tasks included integration with the EU and Nato and closer relations with Ukraine’s neighbours, primarily Poland, Hungary and Romania”.
Importantly, Zelensky regains control of two key jobs by having parliament appointing Ivan Bakanov as head of the Security Service (SBU) and Ruslan Ryaboshapka as prosecutor general. That should satisfy the West as Security services were used under Poroshenko as a political control tool on other departments and on society, launching raids against “enemies from inside” and discovering endless plots to “destroy Ukrainian independence”. The lack of independence of the judiciary making condemnations easier, and being denounced by the Western friends of Ukraine. But contradictory analysis tried to explain why he reappointed Arsen Avakov as interior minister, which was seen as sending the wrong message to the population. During his 5 years in the job, Avakov failed to reform the police, to solve attacks on activists and numerous cases of corruption, some in his entourage. It shows that the man who was elected on the promise to “break the system” will have to learn to bend the system if he wants to keep his position.
The second chapter of his electoral promise, peace, has been advancing discreetly. The first signal that he can make thing moving came on 7 September, with an exchange of 70 prisoners (35 from Ukraine; 35 from Russia) saluted as “an important element of the Minsk process” by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.