With 73% support and 62% popular turnout, Volodymyr Zelensky is the new president of Ukraine. The outcome of Ukraine’s presidential elections is remarkable, as it is the first time since the country’s independence that that a true change of the elites has taken place. While the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 bore witness to the maturity of Ukraine’s civil society, neither of them was a revolution in a sense of elite change. Victor Yushchenko who became president in 2004 as a result of mass protests and a Supreme Court decision to repeat the elections, had served as head of the National Bank of Ukraine under Leonid Kravchuk and Prime Minister under Leonid Kuchma. Petro Poroshenko, who became president following the elections after Victor Yanukovych fled the country, was one of the founders of Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, an oligarch and a political insider. Unlike any previous president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky does not come from the political establishment, in that he is as distinct from the earlier leaders of Ukraine as Lenin was from Nicolas II, or as Napoleon was from Louis XVI. The lack of political experience is his blessing and a curse: he will have to learn from mistakes, but he represents a revolutionary vote by Ukrainians, who this time around have accomplished a true elite change bypassing the street directly to the voting booth. For them, his lack of experience is his major strength.
The discovery of Zelensky as a politician begins here, including for the man himself. To get a glimpse into this foggy journey, the main questions to ask are: What is his program? Who are the people on his team? And how will he change Ukraine’s relations with Russia?
Ruslan Stefanchuk, Ze-team’s chief ideologist, gave answered the first question during his interview to Hromadske TV on March 31, when he expanded on Zelensky’s official program (https://program.ze2019.com/). Stefanchuk emphasized three pillars of the program:
- Increasing transparency and the power to the people in the law-making process: Key legislative initiatives under this umbrella include to expand the use of referendum to legitimize political decisions; a bill allowing to remove elected officials by a popular initiative, on the national, regional and local levels, in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government; a bill on citizen’s initiatives to allow for greater civic participation in the legislative process.
- Equality of all before the law: Behind this broad slogan are proposals making it easier to impeach the president, lifting presidential, parliamentary and judicial immunities, and introducing a mechanism of a popular veto on legislature. E-government features prominently as a tool of political empowerment.
On the first two pillars of the program, Ze-team took inspiration from the Swedish, Swiss, Lichtenstein, German, Canadian, and US legislative experience. Their main challenge will be to prevent abuse of Western tools, as Ukraine’s political landscape differs dramatically from that of Sweden or Switzerland. On the surface, these initiatives aim to increase political participation and accountability after the elections, key the demands of Ukraine’s civil society. However, increasing popular participation in political processes opens the door to foreign influence. The latter is especially likely in the case of Ukraine, where Russia is present through political parties and civil society, and even more so in the Internet age, when the Kremlin is engaging in cyber and information warfare. Ukraine’s exposure to foreign political interference through cyber attacks will be amplified with the development of e-government promised by Zelensky camp. Estonia, the EU country with the most developed e-government system, has experienced the effect of Russia’s cyber attacks for itself in 2007. A proposal which looks most dangerous for exploitation by outside forces is the one about citizens’ power to veto legislative initiatives of the government, which in effect can paralyze political process altogether.
- Tax reform: This is the most mysterious aspect in the program, presented as a tax amnesty to encourage the repatriation of funds to Ukraine: repatriate your money, pay a 5% tax, consider your money “clean”.
It remains unclear who is the target of the bill: offshore-prone oligarchs or work migrants, and why either of them would import their money into a country whose government failed to guarantee property rights, and has a record of legislative changes as economically damaging to an average Ivan, as they are unpredictable. Outside of the tax amnesty and populist promises to raise the pay of teachers and doctors and rebuild infrastructure, Zelensky’s economic program looks very much like work in progress. Ideological statements feature at the same time liberal and socio-democratic fundamentals, promising all things to all people: to increase the freedom of doing businesses through less state interference, while increasing the role of the state in public services.
The main problem with the program is that most presidential initiatives will have to gain the approval of the parliament. Today, the most numerous party in Ukraine’s parliament is that of Petro Poroshenko, the outgoing president, followed by that of Yulia Tymoshenko, who came third in the first tour of the elections in March. At least ten parties are expected to cross the parliamentary threshold in the fall, excluding the possibility of a single dominant party and meaning that Zelensky’s Sluha Narodu party will have to build alliances with beaten rivals. Most important, the president and his party are political novices, and six months ahead of the legislative elections leave plenty of time to make visible, high-profile political mistakes. Thus, Zelensky will have to weigh his every word and ponder every step, as his party’s position and his own political future will depend on them.
For those decisions, he will have to rely on the people who are at the same time competent and worthy of his trust. The core team behind his victory offers some clues as to who those people are.
The key people of the Ze-team can be divided into 4 categories:
- Personal friends of Zelensky, people he trusts because of their expertise and his prior work with them. His chief ideologist Ruslan Stefanchuk and his chief of staff, childhood friend Ivan Bakanov (partner in Kvartal 95 Studio) belong to this group.
- Experts from the academia and professional practice. The most recognizable person from this group is Yevgen Komarovsky, in charge of formulating a health policy. Komarovsky is a pediatrician who became famous throughout Ukraine and the Russian-speaking post-Soviet space after he published a bestseller on childcare, followed by his own YouTube channel and TV shows. Oleksandr Merezhko from the Institute of Direct Democracy, in charge of e-government and the power of the people initiatives, and Sergii Babak, in charge of education and science, from the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, are other examples from this group.
- Business people: entrepreneurs with legal and financial background, like Oleg Bondarenko, in charge of ecology, Danylo Getmatsev, responsible for public finance, and Sergii Yonushas, in charge of security services.
- Political insiders: this is the most important group in Zelensky’s camp experience-wise and serving as indicators of which current political figures may become future partners of Zelensky’s political coalition. One important figure is Ivan Aparshin, responsible for defense and security in Ze-team, he was an adviser to the former Defense Minister and presidential candidate Anatolii Hrytsenko and worked as head of security and defense policy in Yanukovych’s government in 2011-14. His presence in Zelensky’s camp is a precursor for a possible coalition with Hrytsenko’s party in the fall. Oleksandr Danylyuk, responsible for foreign policy, finance and economics, is another political asset of Ze-team. Danylyuk worked in the administrations of Yanukovich and Poroshenko, including as Minister of Finance in 2016-18. Having to leave the government following a parliamentary decision in June 2018, after a conflict with the PM Volodymyr Groisman, Danylyuk brings to Zelensky important negotiations experience with European and global financial institutions and puts a familiar and credible face in relations with Western leaders. A third interesting figure is Ruslan Ryaboshapka, responsible for anti-corruption and security measures in the election camp. He is a professional civil servant, who worked in the Ministry of Justice under Kuchma and Yushchenko, and rose to Vice-Director of the Ministry in 2011-13 during the Yanukovych presidency. Ryaboshapka brings expertise in international law and a fine understanding of international institutions, including in the European Union.
Ze-team is by no means complete, as more people from the political establishment are expected to jump on the bandwagon of the winning candidate (just like it happened in the case of Emmanuel Macron in France), including from Poroshenko’s camp. Zelensky will need their experience and expertise, but at the same time he will need to ensure that political old-timers do not compromise a new political trend he was elected for.
Relations with Russia:
One key area of expected progress and challenge is in relations with Russia. However, from the first political announcements from both Ukrainian and Russian side progress looks unlikely any time soon. Zelensky announced his willingness to expand the Normandy format of negotiations with Russia, a diplomatic process which has been simmering on the working level for years now. Most likely invitees are Great Britain and the US, who were signatories to the Brest Agreement in 1994, which gave Ukraine security guarantees against outside aggression in exchange for the country’s giving up of its nuclear weapons. But with Britain having other priorities at the moment, and given the unpredictability of American politics, it is not clear how they will react to the invitation.
Most important of all is Russian reaction, as direct party to the conflict. The first signal from the Kremlin is all but positive. Vladimir Putin left the official reaction to Ukraine’s choice to his press-secretary Dmitrii Peskov, who announced that it is too early to talk about collaboration with Zelensky. The Russian PM Dmitrii Medvedev added that the relations may improve, but since foreign policy in Russia is decided by Putin, Medvedev’s words can hardly serve as an indicator. Moscow’s recognition of the elections’ results may come in due time, but the Kremlin’s attitude is unlikely to change. For Russia’s president, Ukraine is a subject for negotiations with the West, its leaders – players from a different political league. So much worse for Vladimir Zelensky: Putin’s subcontracting of the reaction on Ukraine’s elections to his press-secretary and his PM sends a clear signal that the Kremlin’s chief does not see the new Ukraine’s president as worthy of his time, let alone negotiating table.
From the germinating nature of his political program, to his nascent team, to the coalition-building after the national legislative elections in the fall, to the on-going war with Russia and undefined prospects of negotiations with the Kremlin, Vladimir Zelensky’s challenges are mighty many. One thing is certain: with 73% of the vote, he’s got some of the highest level of political legitimacy in modern history and has incarnated in his person a reality that a true change of political elites in the post-Soviet space is possible, without street protests, and without a single shot.