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Opportunities and risks in Zelenskyy’s new Ukraine

Ukraine’s elections have now delivered a result where all executive and most legislative power rests in the hands of only one party.

August 8, 2019 - Andreas Umland - Articles and Commentary

Volodymyr Zelenskyy with his wife Olena Zelenska voting in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Photo: Mikoli Lazaryenka. The Presidential Office of Ukraine (cc) wikimedia.org

What to make of the new political realities in Ukraine? Both the presidential and parliamentary Ukrainian elections in 2019 delivered historic results. Ukraine never had a president with so much electoral support (73 per cent) and so little connection to the country’s old political class. Moreover, independent Ukraine never had a parliament with a party as dominant as Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “Servant of the People” whose faction will command more than 250 of the 450 seats. The two elections were a perfect storm that swept away the majority of previous politicians and top bureaucrats in the presidential office, national government, Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) and general procuracy.

Regress or reset?

The high concentration of power now wielded by the “Servant of the People” party, is being assessed very differently by various observers inside and outside Ukraine. Many intellectuals in Kyiv warn against the authoritarian and security threats that such one-party dominance could entail. They fear – within what one could call the “post-Soviet” or “Thermidorian paradigm” – political developments in Ukraine that will follow the pattern of other former USSR republics.

Authoritarian regression has been the rule rather than the exception in much of the post-Soviet space from Belarus to Kazakhstan. Many worry that a kind of Thermidorian Reaction could undo most of the gains of the Euromaidan Revolution. Ukraine could also become a typically post-Soviet dictatorship or again a Russian colony – or both.

From a more favorable perspective, Ukraine’s novel political landscape can also be contextualised within the logic of the Westminster model or so-called pendulum democracy with its “winner takes it all” system. This approach to democratic rule partly rejects division, balance and checks on power. The Westminster paradigm instead emphasises clarity of public responsibility, as well as a sharp distinction between the roles of a country’s ruling majority party, and the opposition forces.

Ukraine’s elections have now delivered a result where all executive and most legislative power rests in the hands of only one party. Left under incomplete control by the otherwise hegemonically “Servant of the People” party merely are constitutional amendments that need a two-thirds majority of votes in parliament. A change of Ukraine’s basic law thus still demands collaboration from some MPs not elected with the support of Zelenskyy’s party.

For Ukraine, such a largely novel constellation implies enormous opportunities and risks. Zelenskyy’s overwhelming dominance in the executive and legislative branches of power provides him, for the coming years, with many instruments to swiftly implement his ideas. It also puts the responsibility for Ukraine’s future successes and failures squarely into his and his team’s hands.

The major challenge for Zelenskyy

Unlike in the proto-typical British system, however, Zelenskyy’s absolute majority in parliament and staff in the executive is, to a considerable extent, made up of newcomers with no previous experience in public office. This problem is reminiscent of his own lack of exposure to national politics, public administration and international relations. The parliamentary and ministerial novices will be operating in an under-institutionalised and highly “monetised” political environment. They will make and implement decisions under – mildly speaking – incomplete rule of law. They will also encounter many political and personal challenges – among them seductive offers from Ukraine’s notorious “oligarchs” – that they may not be prepared for.

Against such a background, the main question for the coming years will be less whether Ukraine again becomes authoritarian or Moscow controlled – as some alarmist commentators warn. Rather, the principal question will be whether “habitual elite continuity” – once formulated as Ukraine’s key domestic political challenge by German political scientist Ingmar Bredies – will reassert itself or not. Ukraine experienced considerable change among the holders of its highest public offices not only as a result of this year’s elections. This had happened repeatedly before, after previous elections or after the popular uprisings of 1990, 2004 and 2014 – the so-called revolutions on the granite, in orange, and of dignity. In spite of repeated fluctuation in the upper echelons of political power, the behavior of the Ukrainian elite did not change much, however, over the last 30 years.

Instead, Ukraine’s parliament, among other institutions, has been characterised by habitual elite continuity, i.e. a stunning stability in the patterns of political conduct by Ukraine’s MPs. They have shown a surprisingly continuous inclination to engage in informal exchanges, bribe-taking, outright nepotism, little-disguised favoritism, secret deal-making and far-reaching clientelism. These pathologies are also present in the operation of advanced democratic systems. Yet, they have been – since 1991, if not before – far more prevalent in Ukraine and in most other post-Soviet republics than in western states.

The main question is whether Zelenskyy’s landslide can finally disrupt these behavioral patterns. Will Ukraine’s almost three-decades old habitual elite continuity be finally broken with this new change in the composition of its political class? Or will private interests again be able to infiltrate political decision making as it happened after previous replacements of deputies and ministers? What instruments can secure a truly sustainable break in Ukraine’s political class behavior and magnify the already sweeping changes to the composition of the parliament?

Urgent tasks: deputies’ salaries, rule of law, gender equality

First and foremost, the new MPs need to receive salaries that will make their possible bribe-taking morally more hazardous than it is currently. As of mid-2019, Ukrainian parliamentarians earn about 28,000 Ukrainian Hrivnas or approximately 1,000 US dollars per month. In addition, they receive a number of additional privileges, such as modest housing, that improve their material situation somewhat. To be sure, the overall package of monetary and non-monetary remuneration makes Ukraine’s MPs relatively well-off within the overall Ukrainian socio-economic context.

However, Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where the MPs are supposed to live most of the time, is more expensive than the rest of the country. The current MP reimbursements may be enough to survive for single MPs who do not have any larger family obligations. Yet, the current pay makes it difficult for those with financial responsibilities for spouses, children, parents or other relatives to take up a seat in the Verkhovna Rada while only living on their official income as parliamentarians.

Even for those without greater family obligations, the current parliamentary renumeration system is dysfunctional. In the best case, it limits the MPs’ lifestyles to one of constant counting of expenses for food, transportation, clothing etc. In the worst case, it creates a situation where MPs feel ethically justified to take side-payments to be able to use Kyiv’s restaurants, taxis, and other services that their peers in business corporations, international organizations and foreign embassies use on a regular basis.

To overcome this situation, Ukraine could – with reference to its Association Agreement with the European Union – adopt the EU’s formula for salaries paid to the members of the European Parliament. MEPs receive about a third of the salary that the judges of the European Court of Justice are paid. For some time already, Ukraine’s top judges receive, by Ukrainian standards, extraordinarily high salaries (though, in absolute terms, not as high as EU judges). If Ukrainian MPs received about a third of the salaries of Ukraine’s highest judges, this would apply the EU formula, significantly increase their monthly salaries, and make their interaction with businesspeople, Kyiv’s diplomats, and foreign politicians more relaxed. Such a deal would also provide a justification for withdrawing immunity from MPs and increasing penalties for bribe-taking as well as other misbehavior by Ukraine’s new parliamentarians.

Second, there have been statements by the new president and his team about the possibility of early local elections. It is plausible to argue that a deep change in Ukrainian public administration would need a swift exchange also of local elites. Many current deputies and administrators on the regional and sub-regional levels are corrupt. Yet, for oblast and local elections to be effective as a means to secure change on the regional and municipal levels, it is necessary to improve the rule of law. New committed teams in the prosecution office and various anti-corruption bodies need to be appointed.

Furthermore, the role, function and reimbursement of oblast, rayon and local administrators and deputies need to be adjusted. The official salaries of mayors, for instance, are lousy while members of city councils do not get any reimbursement for their work. As on the national level, such conditions naturally lead to corruption – independently from the good intentions that citizens may have when becoming public executives or people’s deputies. New elections by themselves will not change this.

Third, many Ukrainian governmental bodies suffer – especially when it comes to their top positions – from more or less egregious gender imbalance. This is not only fundamentally unjust in light of the fact that more than 50 per cent of Ukraine’s population are women. Organizational research has found that collective bodies, whether private or public, function better when at least one-third of its members are female – a scale still not reached in certain western institutions as well. The argument about bringing more women into government is not only about equality but also about the effectiveness of ministries, parliaments, services or parties.

The composition of the Rada, to be sure, has changed for the better as a result of the last elections. Yet, the share of women among parliamentarians only increased from 12 per cent in the last Supreme Council to 19 per cent in the new one. Worse, almost all parliamentary parties are headed by men. Zelenskyy’s first major appointments, like the Chairperson of the Presidential Bureau Andriy Bohdan, or Secretary of the Council for National Security and Defense Oleksandr Danyliuk, are also male.

Given these circumstances, there are good reasons to sharply increase the number of women in top positions not yet filled – whether within the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government. Currently, there is an overrepresentation of men in those posts that have already been distributed or taken. This includes seats in parliament, ministerial positions, heads of services, or leading party functions. It may be even necessary to, at least for a while, appoint mainly women to top offices. Only in this way there may still be a chance to reach, in the end, the recommended share of women among Ukraine’s crucial decision makers in various state organs. Given the high number of well-educated and career-oriented women in Ukraine, this should not be a problem.

Getting to the roots of post-Soviet problems

The sweeping change in the composition of Ukraine’s political class this year may be deceptive. Zelenskyy’s stunning electoral triumphs over the last months could suggest to him and his team to go ahead and start right away reforming the economy, foreign affairs, cultural matters etc. However, some other tasks should come first.

Numerous new laws, resolutions and policies need to be implemented to make Ukraine’s economy more effective and people’s lives easier. Yet, the responsible decision formulating, making and executing bodies in all three branches of power, as well as in local administrations, are still hampered by deep structural defects with regard to the formation and remuneration of their personnel. Unless these basics are changed radically, the outcomes of the work of Ukraine’s state organs may remain as wanting as it has been so far.

By resolutely getting to the core of Ukraine’s post-Soviet issues, Zelenskyy can, moreover, provide a model for other former republics of the USSR. With regard, for instance, to gender balance in state organs, most post-communist countries still lack far behind western countries. A deep transformation in the composition and functioning of the political class of as large a country as Ukraine could not be easily ignored by politicians and intellectuals in the successor states of the former Soviet Union. Western embassies and donors should insist on Kyiv’s completion of the current reset in the make-up and structure of the Ukrainian political class.

Andreas Umland is a Nonresident Fellow of the Institute of International Relations at Prague, Principal Researcher at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Jena, as well as General Editor of the ibidem Press book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” and “Ukrainian Voices.”

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