A new parliament is just settling into their places at Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada, but the government has already taken major steps in realizing some of its biggest campaign promises, including hot-button issues like the lifting of parliamentary immunity, fiscal reforms, and corruption.
Hromadske had the chance to sit down with a Servant of the People MP, Sviatoslav Yurash, an MP from the Golos party, associated with rock star turned politician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, and James Brooke, editor-in-chief of the Ukraine Business News site to get their take on the new government.
Government In the Fast Lane
With the election in the rearview and a new government formed, the Servant of the People party has wasted no time in capitalizing on its mandate to reform the Ukrainian system. Over 70 bills have already been submitted by the government.
James Brooke noted that the blistering pace draws comparisons to one of the United States’ well-known reformers, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during the Great Depression.
“It’s huge. I was discussing earlier that it’s comparable to Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days from the libertarian, free market point of view. Start with the land market, when that’s up and running starting next summer and over the next few years, that will be Europe’s largest farmland market, 42 million hectacres.”
But this pace draws criticism from MPs like Oleksandra Ustinova from the Golos party, who believe that the pace of submitted bills has not allowed enough time for lawmakers to examine the proposed changes:
“Passing almost 70 bills in a week... It’s a very short period of time and we already see that it can be a problem in the future, because a lot of the bills are being changed at the last minute. You don’t have a clue what you’re voting for,” Ustinova said.
Servant of the People MP Sviatoslav Yurash (L), Editor-in-Chief of Ukraine Business News James Brooke (CR), and Golos MP Oleksandra Ustinova (R) discuss new government in Kyiv, Ukraine on September 8, 2019. Photo: Hromadske
Brooke concurred, adding that he thinks “what you’re going to see here, in Ukraine, the Rada, is sort of a maybe a Lee Kwan Yue temporary authoritarian express democracy where stuff’s going to be McDonalds, you pass through the drive-by window pretty fast, and as [Oleksandra] said maybe not with adequate debate.”
What It Really Means To Be an MP
Besides the pace of bills, the new parliament has a clear opponent – corruption. Corruption is always at the heart of Ukrainian politics, but the mandate given to the Servant of the People party, and by extension, President Zelenskyy, is aimed at changing that system entirely. And Sviatoslav Yurash, the Servant of the People MP, is adamant that unlike previous administrations, Servant of the People will work to ensure that the new liberalization and privatization drives will not end up in private pockets.
“The fact is that when you look at matters of liberalization...Ukrainians will get jobs, will get an increase to salaries because of the freeing up of so much money, and the fact is that the state-based industries which are essentially a drain on the Ukrainian economy will finally be released to the economic wilds so to speak to progress in the same fashion the whole Western world is progressing in.”
This tallies with Yurash’s idea of what being an MP means, at its core: “We mean what Ukrainians have always wanted in their members of parliament, the fact that they would serve not only themselves but the Ukrainian nation as a whole…”
And this new idea of public service is gaining traction not only with Servant of the People, as Ustinova added, “We told our voters that we would be their voice inside the parliament. We went out a lot just to figure out what their demands are, and we see ourselves as a constructive voice inside the parliament.”
Law Enforcement And Immunity
These ideals of service are immensely popular, judging by Servant of the People’s majority, to Ukrainian voters and MP, driving hope that they’ll extend to the highest reaches of power, such as the Cabinet of Ministers. Even MPs like Ustinova have expressed their admiration for the new government, stating that “This is one of the best Cabinet of Ministers we’ve seen so far, very professional, young faces, people who used to work for a lot of international companies…”
But it’s not all flowers and roses, as Ustinova pointed out that the retainment of Arsen Avakov, the highly controversial Minister of Internal Affairs, leaves a sour note when considering the new government. “Unfortunately we see some people in this government that I would never want to see ever in any kind of structure in this country,” she said, criticizing the failure of police reform under the previous government, adding that “what I see so far is just changing the names for departments, and that’s not reform, that’s what the previous government and President was trying to do.”
Ukrainian Internal Minister Arsen Avakov (C-L) speaks with Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk (C-R) at the Presidential office in Kyiv, Ukraine on September 2, 2019. Photo: SERGEY DOLZHENKO / EPA
There’s also criticism of one of the biggest legislative accomplishments by Servant of the People as well – namely, lifting parliamentary immunity, and while that has happened, presidential immunity has remained in place.
Sviatoslav Yurash acknowledged that presidential immunity remains on the table but said “It’s part of a package. In reality we’re doing that as well as reforming our law enforcement, which is key to avoiding the risks...corrupt deals done by law enforcement as we know by Ukrainian history...Everyone that is in the parliament except for one understandable party promised this exactly to the people.”
A New Ukraine In The Making?
A lot remains to be seen as the new Zelenskyy administration moves forward with its ambitious reform goals. Law enforcement remains a key factor, as Golos MP Ustinova pointed out that “law enforcement is the immune system of this country. If we do not reboot it, if we do not restart it, all the other reforms are going to fail.”
But that’s not the only challenge facing Ukraine and the new government – Yurash noted that Russia remains a threat, and that he believes Russia to be the biggest obstacle to the plans of his party.
“As always it's the Moscow question...Russia has a lot of instruments in our conversation...The fact that Ukrainian reforms are successful depends on whether Russia is going to intervene more heavily in Ukraine.”
/Interview by Andriy Kulykov
/Text by Romeo Kokriatski