Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, convened this week for the first time since President Zelenskyy’s “Sluha Narodu” party garnered a convincing victory in Ukraine’s recent parliamentary elections. With control of both the Presidency and parliament, Zelenskyy wasted no time in naming a new cabinet, the youngest ever in Ukraine’s history.
His new Prime Minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk, a lawyer and specialist in economic affairs, is only 35. Most of the 17 ministers in the new Cabinet are in their thirties. The youngest, Education Minister Hanna Novosad is 27. She is a graduate of the prestigious Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Deputy PM and Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhaylo Fedorov, is 28. The implied message is clear – the younger generation has taken over, and the era of the old oligarchic cronies is over. The young will now have to satisfy the hopes of the impatient and restless electorate that voted for a radical change.
One notable feature of the new ministers is that most of them are professional and highly educated, and despite their young age, many of them have a credible track record of activism within their specialty field of interest. Andriy Zahorodniuk, the new Defense Minister, previously headed the successful reform effort within the Ministry of Defence, which has done a remarkable job at resurrecting the effectiveness of Ukraine’s armed forces. Vadym Prystaiko, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, previously served as Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada, and most recently, as Ukraine’s envoy to NATO. I got to know Prystaiko when he served in Ottawa and can testify personally that he was a consummate professional as a diplomat.
Zelenskyy is quite cognizant of the fact that the nation’s hopes and expectations are high, and is making the right moves so far. One of the first acts of the new parliament was to introduce legislation stripping members of parliament of their immunity, a notorious privilege that had been much abused by previous regimes. A total of 74 new draft laws were introduced the first day dealing with everything from a new process enabling parliament to impeach a sitting President, reducing the size of parliament to 300 deputies, and implementing an open proportional representation system for electing Parliament. There are also signs that negotiations for a long-awaited swap of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia is nearing a favourable conclusion and that those captured Ukrainian sailors as well as political prisoners being illegally held in Russia will soon be coming home.
Anti-corruption efforts were a main plank in Zelenskyy’s campaigning and his new cabinet ministers made it a point of emphasizing this as one of their main priorities. Prime Minister Honcharuk vowed to accelerate the reform process, noting the notable progress that had already been made in the fields of education and health care. This was a hopeful sign that the significant reforms enacted by the previous Health Minister Ulana Suprun would not be undone as some had feared.
Though there is much to commend in the choices made for the new cabinet, a few doubts and questions still remain. Arsen Avakov, Minister of the Interior in the previous administration, remained in place, despite a dubious record of accomplishments as a minister, and a history replete with numerous accusations of scandal. Vladyslav Kryklii, the new Minister of Infrastructure and an associate of Avakov’s, has also been dogged by accusations of being involved in a money laundering scheme.
There are also doubts as to what role Zelenskyy’s chief of staff Andriy Bohdan will play. As we all know, Bohdan was notorious oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky’s lawyer, as well as having served as a top official in the Yanukovich administration. Will the new Cabinet have the freedom to pursue aggressive reform, or will Bohdan keep them on a tight leash? It is still unclear too, as to what influence Ihor Kolomoisky will have, if any, on what Zelenskyy does.
Time will tell whether Zelenskyy’s administration is the herald of a brighter new era for Ukraine, or just another in a long line of disappointments in Ukraine’s long-standing struggle towards democracy, independence and good government. For the moment there is hope. There is also the universal understanding that Ukraine’s restless young generation is not afraid of radical change, and should Zelenskyy disappoint them, he may equally quickly become the victim of radical change rather than its implementer.