WASHINGTON – Speaking to audiences in the United States and Ukraine via video link, experts in Kyiv said they see a window of opportunity for reforms now that the Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections have been completed and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party has gained a majority in Parliament.
The July 24 teleconference took place under the of the auspices of the Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society in Ukraine.
Since November of last year, this Transatlantic Task Force has conducted a series of international video conferences aimed at encouraging Ukraine to stay on the path of reform during the 2018-2019 presidential and parliamentary election cycle. Two key components of that effort were helping make sure that the voices of Ukrainian civil society are heard in Washington, Kyiv and Brussels, and emphasizing the importance of conducting free and fair elections in Ukraine.
In the latest discussion, held just three days after Ukrainians elected a new national legislature, the conclusion was that Ukraine had accomplished the latter with flying colors. And that creates new opportunities for Ukrainian think tanks and NGOs, as well as Ukraine’s Western partners, to engage with the Ukrainian government and Parliament on the reform process.
As stated by Eugene Czolij, head of the Ukrainian World Congress International Observer Mission to Ukraine’s 2019 elections: “This was a watershed year. Ukraine has pulled [off] another incredible feat. It has conducted three rounds of elections – the two rounds of presidential elections and then parliamentary elections – in a fair, democratic, transparent, free manner, notwithstanding the fact that Ukraine is the object of Russian aggression for now over five years.”
Vasyl Babych of the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR), a coalition of leading civil society organizations, characterized the post-election situation in Ukraine as a “window of opportunities” for change that can be guided by a “visionary document” prepared by RPR and others at the recent Ukraine Reform Conference in Toronto.
“We very much hope that this is the time to reshape communication and partnership between civil society, government [and] business associations. We started this process, we very much hope, with the Toronto Principles. And we as a coalition now advocate it as priorities for reforms,” expertise that will be available “to decision makers in the office of the president and, hopefully, with the new government and new MPs,” he said.
Besides creating this roadmap for reforms for the next five years, Mr. Babych noted that during the campaign season RPR member organizations provided polling data, media monitoring and served as watchdogs of the election process. Others held meetings with leaders and representatives of leading parties to shed light on their policies regarding such issues as decentralization, battling corruption, de-oligarchization of the economy, and integration with the European Union and NATO.
Taras Shevchenko, director of the Center for Democracy and Rule of Law, says that with President Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party winning an overwhelming majority in Parliament, “we will, as civil society, be in quite a new and challenging situation.” Whereas Ukrainian civil society has become accustomed to working with a number of parliamentary factions to get support for reform legislation, the new political landscape will necessitate focusing advocacy efforts on one party, which will have the ability to act quickly and decisively in passing laws.
Mr. Shevchenko said he believes that the window for adopting reforms will last about a year and he had three pieces of advice to his colleagues in civil society: first, your organization should decide if you will be a watchdog monitoring government activity or if you will take on a cooperative role, helping and supporting the government; second, constantly be on the lookout for windows of opportunity; third, forget about idealism and have realistic expectations. He also seemed to be a bit critical of Kyiv-based NGOs, suggesting that they are “disconnected” from the people who voted for Mr. Zelenskyy.
In his remarks, Jonathan Katz, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and co-chair of the U.S. Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) Democracy and Civil Society Task Force, called the Ukrainian elections “historic in many ways,” noting that a year ago no one was predicting that we would have a President Zelenskyy and that his party would have a majority in the Verkhovna Rada.
“So we are really in uncharted waters both here in Washington and elsewhere in trying to understand the new political landscape in Ukraine and what it means for Ukraine going forward, but also for Ukraine’s partners in the United States, the EU, what it means for its regional relationships, including with Russia,” he said.
During the discussion, Mr. Katz raised the question of what new approaches Ukraine’s partners in the West might take when engaging the new government and Parliament – bearing in mind that these elections brought in a wave of newcomers to politics who lack governing experience.
As for supporting the new president and government, Hanna Hopko, the outgoing chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs who was not on the ballot this year, called on the West to maintain sanctions and principled positions in terms of not granting Russia any concessions in its military aggression against Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 had initially brought Ukraine to the verge of economic collapse, she noted.
Ms. Hopko encouraged the new Ukrainian president, government and Parliament to build on what she described as the significant foreign policy, defense and national security accomplishments of the last five years and the economic stability that was achieved despite Russia’s war. Decentralization, education and health-care reforms that are already well under way need to be bolstered, and existing laws on decommunization and on supporting the Ukrainian language and culture should not be revisited.
Ms. Hopko sounded the alarm about the electoral successes of Viktor Medvedchuk’s pro-Russian Opposition Bloc – For Life and their effective control of several major TV channels in Ukraine. On one of those channels you can see Vladimir Putin more often than Mr. Zelenskyy, she said, adding that “it requires probably radical steps from the National Council on Security and Defense… I think it’s really important to stop this occupation of media space” in Ukraine. Ms. Hopko also talked about her efforts to conduct an orientation for incoming members of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
In trying to explain the unexpected electoral success of Mr. Zelenskyy and his party, Iryna Bekeshkina, director of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, highlighted opinion polls indicating that voters lacked confidence in the future and were looking for a leader who was not corrupt, was honest and was willing to protect the interests of the people. Professionalism, on the other hand, was not a leading criterion.
Polls also indicate that 60 percent of people believe that President Zelenskyy could be a driver of reforms, with over 40 percent placing such faith in the future government and Parliament. People are in a very optimistic and hopeful mood in the aftermath of this year’s “electoral Maidan,” she said. And anti-corruption, law enforcement, health care, pensions/social safety net and the army top the list of reform priorities in the eyes of voters.
Despite their new dominance in Ukrainian politics, Ms. Bekeshkina explained that she does not see the president, his advisors, and the Servant of the People party and those who voted for them as a monolithic force.
Andreas Umland, senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, voiced a bit of skepticism about the sweeping change of elites in Ukrainian national politics and whether they will be different from their predecessors. Providing members of the Verkhovna Rada with a respectable salary would be a good step toward helping them avoid being pulled into the corruption schemes that have plagued Ukraine’s Parliament for decades, he suggested.
Mr. Umland seemed confident that we will not see Ukraine turn toward authoritarianism, saying that Ukrainian civil society is too strong and the influence of Western partners too great for that to occur.
The co-organizers of the video conference were the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) Democracy and Civil Society Task Force, the German Marshall Fund, the Reanimation Package of Reforms, the Ukraine Crisis Media Center and the Ukrainian World Congress.
Other civil society organizations that have joined the Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society in Ukraine task include Transparency International Ukraine, Center for Democracy and Rule of Law, Center for Policy and Legal Reform, OPORA Civil Network, Democratic Initiatives Foundation, DEJURE Foundation, EIDOS Center, Center for Economic Strategy, Anti-Corruption Action Center, and Center UA.
Notably, Orest Deychakiwsky, co-chair of the FOUN Democracy and Civil Society Task Force, served as an international election observer in Ukraine twice this year.