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With parliament’s approval of his new government—the youngest in the country’s history, with most of its ministers under forty—Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has the kind of power his predecessors could only dream of.
The new government was confirmed on the first day that the new parliament convened. Such swift approval of the government was made possible by Zelensky’s Servant of the People party forming a single majority in the parliament, with 254 deputies out of 450. This impressive majority has turned procedures for approving and discussing candidacies for various roles into a formality: all the officials put forward by Zelensky were approved by his party. The other parties were left with the option of becoming a satellite of this majority—as the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party chose to do, and was rewarded for its loyalty with the post of second deputy speaker—or head out to the far reaches of the opposition, like former president Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party. Neither tactic had much influence on the decisions being made.
It’s premature, however, to see the rank and file of Servant of the People as unswervingly obedient: a package of votes for the new makeup of the cabinet that included reappointing Interior Minister Arsen Avakov did not get unanimous approval, as fourteen deputies from the party abstained.
It’s entirely possible that after an initial wave of consensus born of the desire to help the president and remove their predecessors from power, Servant of the People will begin to fragment into interest groups. Perhaps the most interesting and important developments in Ukrainian politics will now take place within a single party.
Zelensky made no secret of the fact that he wanted a government of technocrats that would fit in to the new model of ruling, in which the president makes decisions, and the cabinet implements them. In this model, the government will inevitably cease to be an independent political force. For his new prime minister, Zelensky chose a young lawyer and entrepreneur from Kiev, Oleksiy Honcharuk.
Honcharuk, thirty-five, is not connected to the oligarchic clans, though Ukrainian media has noted that he was recommended to Zelensky by Andriy Bohdan, the president’s chief of staff and a former lawyer for the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whom many see as being behind Zelensky’s transformation from comic actor to president: Kolomoisky owns the TV station that aired the show that brought Zelensky to fame.
Honcharuk’s main professional experience consists of managing the Better Regulation Delivery Office, an EU-funded expert center created to improve Ukraine’s investment climate. Zelensky is apparently a big fan of the center: as well as his prime minister, the new Justice Minister Denys Malyuska and Energy Minister Oleksiy Orzhel also cut their teeth there.
As prime minister, Honcharuk’s first tasks will be to negotiate a new program for Ukraine with the International Monetary Fund, optimize the public administration system, and carry out large-scale privatization involving major foreign investors, primarily in the banking sector.
But his main task will be to prepare the country for the lifting of the moratorium on selling farmland, a measure that will likely mobilize the opposition, which will try to argue that the country is being sold off. But the government must ensure economic growth, which in turn will be the mainstay of Zelensky’s ratings.
The new government is putting a lot of emphasis on the digitalization of the economy and public administration, and the cabinet now includes a digital transformation minister: twenty-eight-year-old IT entrepreneur Mykhailo Fedorov, the youngest minister in the government, who was responsible for the technical side of Zelensky’s election campaign.
In terms of foreign policy, the new cabinet will be responsible for following the current path of Euro-Atlantic integration. Despite peace-minded overtures made toward the Kremlin, this remains the priority. Overseeing it will be Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, a career diplomat and former Ukrainian ambassador to Canada who before joining Zelensky’s team was Ukraine’s NATO ambassador, and is well regarded in the West.
Another career diplomat, Dmytro Kuleba—Ukraine’s former representative in the Council of Europe—will be responsible for European integration. The new defense minister, Andriy Zahorodniuk, who comes from a business background, has been tasked with stamping out corruption in the army and bringing it in line with NATO standards.
Amid the ranks of young innovators in the new government, Avakov sticks out like a sore thumb, having kept the position of interior minister that he has held since 2014. Despite all the assurances that Avakov will only remain in government for another six months until a suitable replacement is ready to take over, his staying power is testimony to the fact that a clean break with the old elites is not possible.
It appears that it is better for Zelensky to have the politically toxic figure of Avakov inside his team rather than outside. The experienced minister may yet come in handy in the president’s dealings with the opposition, for there’s no doubt that the opposition will soon get bored of fruitlessly resisting Servant of the People inside parliament, and will resort to Ukrainian politics’ favorite game: street protests.
Poroshenko’s supporters are more than capable of blackmailing Zelensky with the threat of another Maidan uprising, and in that situation, sabotage by the security services could have disastrous consequences. This is where Avakov’s extensive experience in putting down mass unrest could come in useful. To be on the safe side, people from Zelensky’s close circle have been appointed to head other security agencies: the SBU security agency is under the control of the president’s childhood friend Ivan Bakanov, while the new Prosecutor General is anticorruption policy adviser Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who together should be able to balance out Avakov’s influence in the security bloc.
Having appointed people close to him to key posts, Zelensky is striving to make the cabinet loyal and fully under his control, and turn it into a showcase for his policies aimed at potential investors, as well as a symbol of purging the power system of the old elite, just as the public wanted him to do.
But the new Ukrainian government’s main problem is the harsh reality awaiting it. The majority of the new ministers—progressive young idealists who have studied at Western universities, the founders of successful startups—may not be sufficiently familiar with the conditions of everyday life in the country away from the post-industrial digital economy clusters. A collision with that reality could be a shock, both for the reformers themselves and for Ukrainian society, which is eager for immediate change.
Back in his time, Poroshenko sacrificed the reformers on the altar of the business interests of his entourage. Now it may turn out that Zelensky will do the same thing for the sake of the people’s affection that is so important to him.
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