Volodymyr Zelensky, or “Ze”, as he is called by his supporters, started his entry into the Ukrainian politics earlier this year by impressively winning the presidential election in April. On July 21, the former entertainer, who until recently was looked on with a mixture of amusement and contempt by the Ukrainian political elites, struck again. His party received 247 seats in 450 seats Ukrainian parliament.
Earlier this year Zelensky had no political party. Not in a conventional sense. His support group consists of millions of TV viewers and social media users. His campaign messages were disguised for high voltage political satire. At the time his party, the Servant to the People (“SP”), named after his film, existed only on paper and in the heads of Zelensky and of his confidants. Who these people still remain unclear, but together they have just completed a perfect storm changing the Ukrainian elites.
Two-thirds of the new MPs are new to politics. Like Zelensky, seven of them are leading stars from the show business. Eleven new MPs are associated with 1+1, the TV empire of Igor Kolomoysky, a Ukrainian tycoon. A number of MPs moved to SP from Kolomoysky’s Ukrop party. Being elected as new MPs, 23 deputies have received a serious promotion after being unemployed. All in all, the voters gave Zelensky’s party an unprecedented one-party majority in the Ukrainian parliament. Very seldom nowadays do modern democracies give such absolute and unbalanced power to one party. And Ukrainians just did.
During his campaigns, Zelensky had been uncharacteristically shy, avoiding debates with other candidates or being quizzed by journalists. He assumed different guises at different times. He hung out with cosmopolitan start-uppers preaching the advantages of technology and libertarian ideas. But then he criticized the Ukrainian red tape using the vocabulary of an authoritarian ruler. He promised to ban some of his predecessors from the public service, but then brought some of those on his team. He spoke to Western business people about building the laisse-fair economy but promised lowering gas prices when talking to the voters. In his bid for the votes, he talked up the prospect of joining the EU and NATO but is seemingly unclear on any roadmap.
Being vague about his intentions has become quintessential to Zelensky’s success. Because he is all but unclear on his plans and sometimes even of his convictions, people use him as a repository for their own.
The anti-corruption activists have seized on the idea that he will put old officials in jail, while the officials see no imminent threat in him. The peaceniks whisper to themselves that he surely will finish the war, while the nationalists applaud his tough rhetoric on Russia. The progressives claim that he is a liberal and they pretend they do not hear when he talks about lustrating his predecessors. That he has never committed to anything is taken by all sides as a sign that he might eventually do what they hope.
President Zelensky will start governing by appointing the prime minister and the government. This would make it slightly easier to guess what is in store. Whomever the new prime minister and the cabinet will be, they will fully depend on Zelensky and SN in the parliament.
What influence Kolomoysky exercises over them remains to be seen. This government will not be the result of a balanced political compromise between the parliamentary factions. It will be formed by the decision of the presidential circle. The new prime minister and the cabinet members will be easy to replace if they fall out of favour.
Both the domestic and international issues that Zelensky, his party and the new cabinet will have to tackle are real and serious. The country remains under-reformed, its economy is archaic, and its population is poor. The war with Russia is still simmering in the country’s east. On the key issues, Zelensky often seems to lack both strategies and good options.
Despite the numbers received by Zelensky and his party, Ukraine is growing more polarized. The second biggest group in the parliament, with 43 seats, is the party favouring a closer relationship with Russia. On the other side of the spectrum with 27 seats is the party of Petro Poroshenko, whom Zelensky decisively defeated in the presidential election runoff in April.
Zelensky’s own electorate is also seemingly divided. And in a divided country, which gallery Zelensky chooses to play to remains an open question. One thing is certain – he will need to pursue a policy that will always be highly unpopular to some. How he will deal with the dissent is also unclear.
The most important issue for the Ukrainian voters is the war. The voters’ expectation is that he will find a way to finish it. His approach to the Minsk Agreement implementation will be one of the thorniest issues. The so-called ‘Minsk process’ is a reference to peace talks in the Belarusian capital. The process only managed to reduce the tensions but was unable to create the conditions for a durable peace. This did not stop the Minsk Agreement from becoming internationally accepted as the only viable approach to resolve the Donbass conflict.
So far, Zelensky and his party have had a very vague position generally supporting the Minsk Agreement but rejecting some of its key elements, such as the special status for Donbas, amnesty for the insurgents and some other political agreements. This leaves it unclear what they are actually supporting in the Minsk Agreement. If he thinks he may renegotiate, it is not clear what new leverage Ukraine has got in the meantime.
The West should not be supportive of such a move unless Zelensky can demonstrate some other unambiguous and viable peace plan. More importantly, he should be advised that deviating from the Minsk Agreement is likely to bring more hostilities and tension on the country’s east.
In parallel to looking for the elusive peace, Zelensky should be advised to pursue liberal economic reforms. He should first fix the basics and introduce the rule of law without venturing into adventurous or reckless economic experiments. He ought to know that it is hard enough to reform such an archaic economy, and the reforms are likely to put some additional pressure on society.
Zelensky, the new prime minister, and the cabinet should be prepared to share the responsibility and not point fingers at each other, as it often is in Ukraine. The opposition has to stay focused and sharp, as often they may feel being sidelined or even irrelevant.
If there is one clear upside for Zelensky and his faction – at least for now they will not have to face ruthless jokes from talented political satirists as Zelensky and six of his colleagues have become politicians. Their satirist group has been seriously depleted and there will be a shortage of actors for playing the main roles.
In times of crisis, like in today’s Ukraine, events unfold based largely on ideas that are floating in the political air and take root in the fertile minds of creative individuals who can give them birth, articulate them with power, and forge them into effective tools for historic change.
For a very long time, the West hoped that these individuals will be hand-picked Ukrainians – fluent in foreign languages, graduates of Western universities, and activists from the country’s vibrant civil society. Alas, the Ukrainian voters had a different idea and put in charge untested actors with unclear ideas.
Western leaders will need to learn to work with them. They should advise Zelensky that absolute power tends to quickly become authoritarian if it is unchecked. They should keep telling these new Ukrainian politicians that populism has a tendency to blindside the reforms. Zelensky and his circle need to be constantly reminded that in democratic societies opposition has to be respected and consulted on key policy issues. The new prime minister has to have a free hand in forming the cabinet and in formulating economic and other policies. He or she will need to have an opportunity to debate with the president and the parliament and speak directly to the nation.
The authority of the president has to be balanced by the judiciary branch and the National Bank has to be independent in forming the country’s monetary policy. Zelensky has to use his powers responsibly and democratically or he will quickly start looking like a leader of some of Ukraine’s neighbouring countries.