New generation politics is getting trendy in Ukraine. The chances of Ukraine to become successful and to ensure irreversibility of democratic development of the country are assessed through the lens of the capabilities and political will of the new Ukrainian leadership. At the same time, there is ground for concerns caused by lack of cohesion in a new team, certain deficit of competence, and external forces aiming at undermining Ukrainian progress.
New Faces in the Ukrainian Politics
The victory of Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the 2019 presidential election in Ukraine and the victory of a brand new political party ‘Sluha Narodu’ (The Servant of the People) informally led by the new president brought into discourse the issue of ‘political generation change’, ‘new faces’, ‘fresh blood’, and ‘new generation politics’ in Ukraine. The people’s thirst for new faces was massively utilised by Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his team during the presidential and parliamentary campaigns.
However, it is not a new invention: ‘New faces’ were emerging in politics under almost each president of Ukraine. A significant number of new leaders were brought to the surface by the Orange Revolution in 2004. The first months of President Victor Yushchenko’s rule resulted in the rotation of about 18,000 civil servants. Yulia Tymoshenko’s first government in 2005 was one of the youngest governments in the history of Ukraine. The same was relevant for the government of Arseniy Yatseniuk in 2014, right after the Revolution of Dignity, when many reformists including those from abroad were engaged in governmental activities and shaped the political agenda in the country. Volodymyr Groysman government in 2016 also placed his stakes on a new generation of politicians. It is fair to admit that even under the rule of Leonid Kuchma (1994-2005) there was space for some new faces. In the government of that time, Prime Minister Victor Yushchenko was such an example back in 1999.
Moreover, the brand of the ‘new faces’, although regularly and intensively exploited by ‘Sluha Narodu’, does not belong to them exclusively. Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s ‘Golos’ party (The Voice), which for the first time participated in the parliamentary elections in 2019 and got 5.82%, also can boast overwhelmingly new faces.
New Faces – New Politics?
What makes the situation with ‘Sluha Narodu’ different from the previous cases as well as differentiates it from ‘Golos’ is the fact that their victory in the parliamentary elections was gained with an overwhelming majority of Ukrainian votes and resulted in forming an absolute majority in the parliament and a one-party government. This political force, together with the president, became a key stakeholder in the system of power.
Instead of previous broad inter-party debates, coalition consultations, and compromises among the key players, nowadays the centre of power is relocated and decision-making becomes a matter of in-party debates only. This approach applied by the mono-majority may eventually lead to a shift to authoritarian rule and even result in the risk of usurpation of power.
Another difference: While previous presidents and heads of governments were engaging mostly professionals (with, probably, the exception of Victor Yanukovych, for whom personal loyalty was more important than professional skills of his team), ‘Sluha Narodu’ during the parliamentary campaign was mostly appealing to ordinary people and perceived the lack of previous political experience as a competitive advantage in the process of party’s recruitment. This approach resulted in a deficit of knowledge and expertise that consequently led to the crisis of competence and ‘leadership bubble’ when the leaders have strong support but lack strategy, competence, and professionalism.
In attempts to ensure damage control necessitated by such a tactic, the party’s leadership applies a few approaches simultaneously. First, they search for yuppies able to deal with the Western partners, be aware of technical assistance mechanisms and IMF procedures, be well prepared for using the tools of the Association Agreement with the EU. Such people, who often have some professional experience, belong to the so-called technocrat caste. Second, they invest into educating ‘Sluha Narodu’ members of the parliament and their staff (e.g. aides and advisors), although such educational programmes may not fill all the existing knowledge gaps. Civil society institutions and Western donors are willing and capable to assist in this regard, but there is a desperate need for political will and open-minded approach from the side of ‘Sluha Narodu’.
What makes the situation even more complicated, there is still a group of those party and government leaders who rely rather on their intuition than on competence and believe the intuitive approach can be more efficient, whereas ‘professionals’ are labelled as those who have discredited themselves by cooperation with the previous corrupt governments. (Regrettably, President Zelenskyy favours this group, if not belongs to it.)
It is also worth taking into consideration the naïve group of dreamers represented both in the parliament and in the government who promote ‘good initiatives’ but lack knowledge on implementing them and fail in their attempts to learn or lack support from the other groups.
Moreover, there is a group of those who believe that positive changes, in particular under the existing conditions in Ukraine, can be reached by applying a ‘strong hand’ approach supplemented by creativity – the latter can cause risks to democracy since they are ready to sacrifice democratic development for the sake of efficiency. If supported by the president and other groups in the ruling party, such politicians may invigorate the aforementioned shift to the authoritarian rule or Lee Kuan Yew-style authoritarian pragmatism, a benevolent dictatorship.
In addition to the named groups, it is necessary to consider the representatives of the Ukrainian tycoons who infiltrated each of those groups. Ukrainian oligarchs try to regain their power and incomes by means of co-opting ‘new faces’ into their teams. Their interests are private, business-oriented, and often allegedly corrupt, whereas their desire to invest in Ukrainian statehood and democratic development is doubtful.
What is more, besides the internal stakeholders there are also those inspired by external players (including Russia). Unlike Russian explicit proxies in the Opposition platform ‘For Life’, they avoid being vocal; yet their impact on the process of decision-making still matters. Russia benefits from weaknesses of the ‘new faces’. Each mistake of the new team gives the Kremlin arguments to mark Ukraine as an inefficient failed state and may eventually cause a decrease in the Western support and inspire further ‘Ukrainian fatigue’.
The weak side of the ‘new faces’ is also the lack of a uniting ideology. In defining ideological pillars of the political force, ‘Sluha Narodu’ is guided rather by the desire to satisfy voters’ demands than by strong ideological beliefs. It is about applying populism and being guided by popular demand rather than by defining uniting ideas. Starting from slogans of the libertarian ideology, the party leadership announced just that their ideology would be somehow between socialism and liberalism – two concepts that do not play well with each other. All this makes the ‘new generation’ of politicians even more vulnerable. Lacking ideology and following public demand can cause fragility of state mechanisms and put under question the prospects of Ukrainian development.
Competition among the different groups within the party (both in a fight for influence and in a fight for proximity to the president) is unavoidable. That has equally positive and negative sides. The strong side is the plurality of thought and internal debates. The weak side is the lack of a systemic approach and fragility of the ruling party.
Moreover, the risk that the groups are favouring Russia or a benevolent dictatorship or serve the interests of the Ukrainian oligarchs expecting revenge will prevail. In such a case, the future of Ukraine will be defined not by its national interests but by the interests of pro-Russian, undemocratic, or business-oriented forces.
The case of the ‘new faces’ is neither new nor unique for Ukrainian politics. Attempts to add ‘fresh blood’ have been made by different governments and presidents with relative success and similar weak points. This factor, however, has never been decisive.
Besides, the politicians who came into power are not necessarily new. Although recruiting people without political experience was the mainstream, still there are people who have record in Ukrainian politics.
Moreover, the myth regarding the mono-majority is exaggerated. Despite the one-party rule, ‘Sluha Narodu’ lacks cohesion and faces the challenge of political infantilism. Parliamentary majority is rather vague. The different groups of interest within the political force and the balance of their interests still matter in the process of the decision-making.
Those who will finally prevail will define the future of the Ukrainian project, and instead of being pro-Western, reform-oriented, and aimed at democratic development, Ukraine may be converted into a fragile, ineffective, oligarch-controlled failed state. That is the scenario avoiding which is a vital task for the Ukrainian elites, Ukrainian civil society, and Ukraine’s Western friends and partners. Such a task can be fulfilled by means of counteracting the competence crisis, supporting strategic thinking, ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of professionals, and by mitigation of an anti-democratic shift risk.
Publication “Ukraine: Great Expectation” is prepared within the project “Ukraine Elections in Focus”, supported by the Black Sea Trust, a Project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Black Sea Trust and its partners