Ukraine: with parliament dissolved, new president must now get serious – here’s how

President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy (a former comedian) during his inauguration in the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, Ukraine. May 20, 2019. EPA Images

Following his inauguration on May 20, Ukraine’s new president, former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has quickly moved towards taking control of Ukraine’s political system.

Zelenskiy immediately dissolved parliament in an effort to stage early parliamentary elections for July 21, 2019 and then entered into talks with the leaders of parties currently represented in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) to effect two significant changes to the electoral system.

First, parties now only need to gain 3% (rather than the previous 5%) of the total nationwide vote before they can win parliamentary seats. This increases the chances that smaller parties will gain representation, including those in the current parliament whose support levels have collapsed.

Second, all members of the future parliament will be elected under a proportional system – rather than half of them being elected in single seat constituencies, as they have been in the past.

These measures, agreed on May 21 and to be approved by parliament on May 22, were the price Zelenskiy had to pay for early elections. The current parliament could have raised any number of legal objections to early elections and frustrated Zelenskiy’s efforts. Instead, they accepted an early poll in exchange for an electoral system that increases the chances of at least some of them gaining reelection.

Zelenskiy’s strategy makes sense as it hastens the end of an exceptionally unpopular parliament and government. Early parliamentary elections will also create an opportunity for candidates from Zelenskiy’s own party, Servant of the People – aptly named after his popular TV show – to become members of parliament and form, or at least be part of, the next Ukrainian government. This in turn would make it easier for Zelenskiy to pursue his own political agenda.

Yet, early elections may still prove to be a somewhat Pyrrhic victory for Zelenskiy. This is because the proposed changes are likely to lead to greater fragmentation in parliament, potentially complicating the formation of any new government. What will most likely be a coalition government, probably dominated by Zelenskiy’s party, will require further compromises of his political agenda and may not last a full term.

Emerging policies

While Zelenskiy’s policies were anyone’s guess during the election campaign, since his victory on April 21, he has begun to sketch out his political programme in greater clarity.

On the one hand, he has strongly indicated that he wishes to keep Ukraine on a path towards closer cooperation with, and eventually hoped-for membership of, both the EU and NATO. A delegation of his advisers, headed by former finance minister Oleksandr Danylyuk, affirmed as much during a visit to Brussels on May 2.

A sincere commitment to address endemic and systemic corruption and to strengthen the rule of law are key to maintaining Western aid, including financial support from the IMF. They will also play well with most of Zelenskiy’s voters in Ukraine who have projected hopes for cleaner, more transparent, and more accountable policies onto the remarkably blank canvas that was Zelenskiy’s campaign platform.

Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. EPA Images

This will not be an easy task to accomplish – as was immediately made clear in a statement by the IMF’s managing director, Christine Lagarde. She noted that “much remains to be done to complete the transformation of Ukraine into a modern market economy that is firmly governed by the rule of law”.

An IMF mission to Ukraine, which is reviewing the current programme of work, is due to report in two weeks’ time, potentially giving further ammunition to the new president’s call for radical reforms.

Beware the Russia factor

Continuing support from Western partners, and thus progress towards closer integration with Western security and economic structures, will not only depend on domestic reforms but also on how Zelenskiy manages relations with Russia.

A long-rumoured Russian initiative began on April 24, with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, issuing a decree that simplified the procedure for residents of the rebel-controlled territories of Donbas to obtain Russian passports.

This move drew strong condemnation from both former president, Petro Poroshenko, and Zelenskiy. But Putin has since doubled down on the policy, by expanding the list of Ukrainians outside the arguably Russian-occupied territories in Luhansk and Donetsk who would be eligible for a Russian passport under a fast-track procedure.

Beyond this, however, Russia has remained largely silent. Even one of the key points in Zelenskiy’s inauguration speech – his intention to end the war in Donbas quickly – has not drawn much a Russian response so far.

This potentially leaves communication channels open for much-needed compromise, particularly in Donbas – where attacks on schools have increased fourfold in the past year and more than 750 have been damaged or destroyed since 2014.

Early parliamentary elections, however, are a complicating factor here, too. While Zelenskiy has signalled his intention to bring the conflict in Donbas to an end, he has not yet indicated what compromises he would accept. On the contrary, and most likely with an eye on another election campaign, he has maintained his position that no dialogue is possible with Russia unless prisoners are released and that territorial concessions are an unthinkable price for peace. He has also urged the US to increase sanctions pressure on Russia, which the Kremlin promptly rejected as unhelpful.

Interestingly, and again likely to shore up domestic support for his policy of entering into negotiations on Donbas, Andriy Bogdan, the newly appointed head of Zelenskiy’s presidential administration said that any deal emerging from negotiations may be put to a referendum.

A warning from the past

In 2014, Petro Poroshenko won the presidential elections as a “moderate”, who was keen to bridge the divides between Maidan an anti-Maidan, eastern and western Ukraine, and Kiev and Moscow. Five years on, all he’d managed was to unite 75% of the Ukrainian electorate against him. These people have pinned their hopes on Zelenskiy.

While Russia and the West may be able to live with another five years of the volatile status quo in eastern Ukraine and Crimea – and continue with their efforts to gain influence there – Ukraine and its citizens do not have this luxury. Zelenskiy will have to make tangible improvements – and fast. Otherwise, he will likely face the same fate as his predecessor.