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Opportunities and Risks in Zelenskyy’s New Ukraine

Opportunities and Risks in Zelenskyy’s New Ukraine

What to make of the new political realities in Ukraine? Both, the presidential and parliamentary Ukrainian elections of 2019 delivered historic results. Ukraine never had a President with so much electoral support (73%), and so little connection to the country’s old political class. Moreover, independent Ukraine never had a parliament with as dominant a party 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?

Such a high concentration of power, in the hands of the “Servant of the People” party, as a result of Zelenskyy’s landslide victories in the presidential and parliamentary elections is being assessed very differently by various observers, in 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” – a political development in Ukraine that will follow that of other former republics of the USSR.

Authoritarian regression has been the rule rather than the exception in much of the post-Soviet space from Belarus to Kazakhstan. Many thus 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.

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

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

Such a, for Ukraine, 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 – whatever they are. It also puts responsibility for Ukraine’s future successes and failures squarely into his and his followers’ hands. That reminds of a situation after a House of Commons election in the United Kingdom, in the past.

The Major Challenge for Zelenskyy

Unlike in the British proto-typical constellation, however, Zelenskyy’s absolute majority in parliament and staff in the executive is, to considerable extent, made up of newcomers with no previous experience in public office. This problem, in fact, is reminiscent of his own lack of exposure to national politics, public administration and international relations. The parliamentary and ministerial novices will moreover will be operating in an under-institutionalized and highly “monetized” political environment. They will make and implement decisions under a – 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 becomes again authoritarian or/and 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, i.e. the so-called revolutions on the granite, in orange, and of dignity. In spite of frequent and sweeping fluctuation in the upper echelons of political power, the habitus or behavior of the Ukrainian elite did not change much, over the last 30 years, however.

Instead, Ukraine’s parliament, among other institutions, has been characterized 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, to be sure, 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 thus 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 exchange in the composition of its political class? Or will private interests again be able to infiltrate political decision making, as it happened after earlier replacements of deputies and ministers? What instruments can secure a truly sustainable break in Ukraine’s political class behavior, and magnify the already sweeping change in the composition of the parliament?

Urgent Tasks: Deputies’ Salaries, Rule of Law, Gender Equality

First and foremost, the new MPs need to get salaries that will make their possible bribe-taking morally more hazardous than it currently is. As of mid-2019, Ukrainian parliamentarians earn, per month, about 28,000 Hrivnas or approximately 1,000 US-Dollars in cash. In addition, they receive a number of additional privileges 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 people, 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 country. Kyiv city has salary-, service- and price-scales of its own. 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 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 moneys 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 in which MPs feel ethically justified to take side-payments so as 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 EU – adopt the EU’s formula for salaries paid to the members of the European Parliament. The MEPs receive about a third of the salary that the highest judges of the EU’s courts 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 would receive about a third of the salaries of Ukraine’s highest judges, this would apply the EU formula, significantly increase their monthly remuneration, and make their interaction with business-people, 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 of the new president and his team on 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 mean to secure change on the regional and municipal levels, it is necessary to attain, at least, some improvement of 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 communal 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 time. As on the national level, such framework conditions naturally lead to corruption – independently from possibly 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 view of the fact that more than 50% 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 too. The argument about bringing more women into government is thus 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% in the last Supreme Council to 19% in the new one. Worse, almost all parliamentary parties are headed by men. Zelenskyy himself is male – as are his first major appointments, like the Chairperson of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Bohdan, or Secretary of the Council for National Security and Defense of Ukraine, Oleksandr Danyliuk.

Given this circumstance, there are thus 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 a high overrepresentation of men on 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 thus be even necessary to simply stop, for a while, appointing any men to top offices. Only in this way, there may still be a chance to reach, at the end, the above-mentioned recommended share of one third among Ukraine’s crucial decision makers in various state organs. Given the high number of well-educated, emancipated and career-oriented women in Ukraine, this should not be a problem.

Getting to the Roots of Post-Soviet Problems

The already accomplished 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 reforming this or that part of legislation, the economy, foreign affairs, cultural matters etc. However, first things come first.

Numerous new laws, resolutions and policies need to be implemented to make Ukraine’s state better work. 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 they have 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 – in distinction to earlier progress in, among others, the three Baltic countries – not be easily ignored by politicians and intellectuals in the successor states of the outer and inner Soviet empire. Western embassies and donors should, therefore, insist on Kyiv’s completion of the current reset in the make-up and structure of the Ukrainian political class.



Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland, Dr.Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph.D. (Cambridge), is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, and Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has held fellow- & lectureships at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, and Catholic University of Eichstaett. He is also General Editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" ( and on the Boards of Directors of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (, Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for the Study of Russia ( as well as German-Ukrainian NGO "Kyiv Dialogue" (

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