Elections in Ukraine: New People, Old Things?

On Sunday, July 22, 2019, parliamentary elections were held in Ukraine. In fact, they became a direct continuation of the presidential elections that took place three months ago. With more than 64% of the electronic votes counted for the snap Verkhovna Rada elections, Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party had 42.54% of the vote, and the Opposition Platform – For Life party was in second place with 13.02% of the vote, followed by Eurosolidarity (8.50%), Batkivshchyna (8.01%), and Holos (The Voice), which scored 6.28%. But just now it is possible to determine the main trends of the election campaign and their influence on the future policy of Ukraine.

The parliamentary campaign, as well as the first steps of the new president of Ukraine, Vladimir Zelenskiy, showed a very clear distancing from the leading party in the East of the country, Opposition Platform – For Life, and its real leader Viktor Medvedchuk. First of all, it concerned the problems of resolving the crisis in the Donbass. Zelenskiy’s desire to move Medvedchuk away from negotiations on this topic stumbled over Medvedchuk’s independent and very active position. At the same time, in fact, during these months, the results on the Donbass agenda for Medvedchuk were objectively more visible and significant than the actions of Zelenskiy. Medvedchuk during this time achieved the release of four Ukrainian prisoners of war, which Zelenskiy failed to do. Medvedchuk actively communicated on this issue with Russia (Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev held meetings with him) and with new European Parliament legislators. Medvedchuk also broke the taboo regarding direct meetings being held between Ukrainian politicians and the top leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics. The result of his activity was the promotion of a new settlement plan, the central point of which is the creation of the Donbass Autonomous Region from the territories of the current DPR and the LPR. The proposed region would enjoy a free economic zone, its own parliament and a general amnesty. Such an approach, if implemented, would help smooth out the fears of the residents of the unrecognized republics about their security in the event of their return to Ukraine.

Zelenskiy during this period failed to achieve the key and most propagandistic point of his programme on this issue – the return of Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia after the incident in the Kerch Strait. Negotiations on the exchange of prisoners of war on an “all for all” principle have led to nothing at the moment. Shelling by the Ukrainian military of the territories of the DPR and the LPR following the swearing-in of President Zelenskiy was even more intensive than during the last months Petro Poroshenko was in power. This has led to new civilian casualties. These attacks (and victims) continued until the last evening before the agreed-upon truce from the day of the elections: July 21. Moreover, Zelenskiy refused to meet with the mother of the famous Kiev writer Oles Buzyna, who was murdered by the nationalists.

Who Will Be Zelensky’s Coalition Allies at the New Rada?
Oleg Barabanov
The main civic question that politicians and voters should ask Zelensky is who will be his coalition partner in the new Rada. However, we can well understand the PR thrust of his likely reply: No one, we will gain 50 percent of the vote on our own. So, let us watch the developments.    

All this has dashed the expectations of many residents that Zelenskiy would alter the policy of the previous Ukrainian government towards the East. This, as well as Zelenskiy’s jealous attitude towards Medvedchuk, has led to the fact that the discussed idea of ​​a possible “Zelenskiy coalition with the East” as a key step towards restoring peace and civil harmony in Ukraine has not yet been realised and today has few practical chances for success. This means that under the new president and parliament, the country will be split again, and the hopes of the population that Zelenskiy could serve as a mediator are not yet justified.

On the other hand, the election campaign to the parliament confirmed a sharp confrontation between Vladimir Zelenskiy and Petro Poroshenko, which began during the presidential race. Poroshenko and his supporters accused Zelenskiy of indulging the “revenge” of Russia (through its alleged actions in Eastern Ukraine), while Zelenskiy himself emphasised the corruption of Poroshenko and his entourage, which resulted in Zelenskiy’s proposal about the lustration of all who held key government posts in the Ukrainian government in 2014-2019. Obviously, in the new composition of the Verkhovna Rada, Poroshenko’s supporters will continue to sharply criticize Zelenskiy and become his main opponents from the “right” and mouthpiece of the nationalist forces. The only question is whether they are able to mobilise street protests. In the meantime, as was evident from the election campaign, representatives of Zelenskiy excluded any possibility of a coalition with Poroshenko after the elections.

Elections to the new parliament also showed the decline of many political forces and figures who had actively influenced Ukrainian politics over the previous five years. These include the parties of the former president of Georgia and the governor of the Odessa region, Mikhail Saakashvili, the country’s prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, the leader of the populist radical party, Oleg Lyashko, the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, many radical nationalists grouped around Svoboda and other similar radical forces. Mistrust toward such a large circle of figures from the previous political cycle reveals both a sharp rejection by civil society of the country and a clear assessment of their inefficiency during their time in power.

Reformatting the Ukrainian Political Landscape
Mikhail Pogrebinsky, Denis Kiryukhin
The situation in Ukraine is developing very dynamically, the process of reformatting the Ukrainian political landscape has already been launched by the very fact of the crushing defeat of Poroshenko. What scenario this reformatting will have is not quite clear.

However, the question is whether the “new people” of Zelenskiy are any better, and will they resist the temptations of corruption and abuse, which unfortunately have become constant elements of the modern Ukrainian political culture, regardless of party politics. The close connection between Zelenskiy’s many key appointments and the “frontmen” of the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, with the previous governments of Yatsenyuk and Groysman, as well media reports about the new union of two oligarchs – Kolomoisky and Rinat Akhmetov – cause fears that new people in power will behave the same way as the old ones.

So, according to the results of two election campaigns in Ukraine, on the one hand we see a reboot of the elite – the departure of many iconic figures from the past together with the appearance of new faces. On the other hand, the challenges of corruption and radical nationalism facing the new Ukrainian government are still extremely serious. If Zelenskiy and his team cannot cope with them and quickly ensure that the government is both effective and transparent, and restore harmony in the divided civil society of Ukraine, then its support by the population may turn out to be short-term and evaporate quickly.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.