Ukraine: What Changes With the New Verkhovna Rada

_Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director, Kiev Centre of Political Studies and Conflictology; Denis Kiryukhin, expert of the Kiev Centre of Political Studies and Conflictology. Kiev, 24 July 2019.

Elections to determine the composition of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, bore out the main trends that emerged during the presidential elections.

The first trend is connected with the search for new politicians because of the complete failure of the political elites in the eyes of the population. It’s not so much the result of the Servant of the People party (the inertia of the presidential victory was obvious, with the party garnering more than 40%), as the fact that the presidential party got more deputies in single-seat constituencies than in party lists. Dozens of deputies who worked in several convocations in parliament lost in “their” districts to little-known young people, whose only resource was that they represent the Zelenskiy party (Brand Z) and lack a personal political biography.

It’s too early to judge what the ideological preferences are of the fresh faces mobilized by Brand Ze. But what we do know is that in general, the majority of these people are pro-Western in orientation (not necessarily consciously!)

Therefore, the United States and the EU did not fear that the vector of political transformations in connection with the elite change may be altered compared with the course of President Zelenskiy’s predecessor. However, just in case, the Americans actively lobbied for the Holos (Voice) party of the popular Ukrainian rock singer Vyacheslav Vakarchuk as their guaranteed “agent of influence”, which during the election campaign already showed itself as a radical opponent of any compromises with Donbass and Moscow.

An important outcome of the elections was a clear refusal to support radical nationalist projects, such as the united nationalists (who marched under the Freedom brand), Lviv’s Samopomich (Self-reliance), Oleg Lyashko’s Radical Party and others. Despite having a solid resource base and mimicking national patriotism, Poroshenko (whose supporters during the campaign fully controlled the administrative resources) received little more than a third of the votes in the second round of the presidential election earlier this year. The “New face” of Vakarchuk was not associated with radical nationalism before the elections; his so-called ‘moderate’ National Patriots barely overcame the 5% threshold.

The loss of nationalists not only by party lists, but also in single-seat constituencies (only a few won) shifted the centre of the country’s political spectrum to the left. In the outgoing parliament, the right wing was represented by supporters of radical nationalist views – members of volunteer battalions, Maidan activists, Yatsenyuk’s “Popular Front” faction — these groups controlled more than a third of the Verkhovna Rada. The centrist niche was occupied by Petro Poroshenko’s bloc. In the new Verkhovna Rada, the small faction of Poroshenko’s party (“European solidarity”) will be considerably far to the right of the spectrum. This opens up opportunities for Zelenskiy to have greater flexibility in finding his own positioning and, accordingly, ways to resolve the conflict in the Donbass.

It is true that in Ukraine, there is another political actor whose voice is clearly heard when, for example, the conflict in the east of the country is discussed. This actor is a city square that for many years has been monopolized by national radicals. The new Ukrainian president will not be able to implement any significant change in Poroshenko’s policy regarding Donbass if he does not influence the extra-systemic political forces that are ready to use acts of violence to defend their principles. Therefore, today Zelenskiy is in need of strong and authoritative leaders to head up the country’s national defence agencies – the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Security Service of Ukraine. Despite the statements Zelenskiy has made about his intention to completely get rid of the old staff in his team, he could make an exception for Arsen Avakov, who has shown his effectiveness during the presidential and parliamentary election campaigns, and can stay on board as Interior Minister. This already puts some restrictions on Zelenskiy’s one-party rule.

Finally, as the spring-summer 2019 election campaign in Ukraine showed, despite the events of recent years and unprecedented anti-Russian propaganda, about 20% of voters support a radical change in the national government. As it turned out, frank rhetoric, perceived by the majority as pro-Russian, and even concrete steps aimed to restore relations with a country recognized by the Verkhovna Rada as an aggressor, did not lead to the marginalization of the Opposition Platform – For Life party as a political force. Instead, it will enter parliament with a very decent result – more than 13% (the second-highest proportion after Servant of the People).

Strangely enough, but the main result of the presidential and parliamentary elections (possibly including local elections, since Zelenskiy may soon announce early elections to local councils, which will allow his political force to take control of the cities with a million residents or more), is that the radical renewal of the political class in the country satisfies the West, most of the Ukrainian people, and, it seems, should be perceived in Russia as a sign of hope. The West got rid of the ballast, which was represented by the corruption-weary Ukrainian elite. Citizens were able to enjoy the fact that they finally got the opportunity to express their attitude towards this political class. Russia, on the other hand, hopes that it will be possible to establish at least some kind of dialogue with the new Ukrainian government.

It’s too early to talk about the substance of Zelenskiy’s policy. Much will become clear after the formation of the government. Nevertheless, if we take those candidates who are being discussed today, it is clear that there will be no fundamental socio-economic changes. Only accents will change. The government is likely become more liberal and more open to the interests of foreign (Western) campaigns, resulting in a significant political weakening of the Ukrainian national capital (oligarchs).

Donbass is the main challenge that Zelenskiy faces today. The activity of the new president in recent months showed that he is more sensitive than his predecessor to changes in sentiments in the EU and the USA: for them the problem of Ukraine is currently a background issue. Poroshenko’s attempts to represent Ukraine as an outpost of the struggle of European civilisation with ‘Russian barbarism’ did not find support either in Ukraine itself or among its Western partners. This means that a revision of the nation’s course of action is inevitable. But this does not mean that the West intends to give Russia the opportunity to win the battle for Ukraine.

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