Zelenskyy’s Government and the Challenge for Checks and Balances
BY MYKHAILO MINAKOV
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who took office more than a hundred days ago, has finally assembled the government that he will use to fulfill his political program. On September 2, at a joint meeting of the president, his office chiefs, the Cabinet members, the leadership of the Rada, and the general prosecutor, Zelenskyy conducted himself as a captain giving orders to his crew—perhaps forgetting that all of these assembled officials are representatives of different branches of power in a parliamentary-presidential republic. The abovementioned officials, however, seemed to be equally forgetful of their positions. Instead, the prime minister and the parliament’s speaker accepted the situation as natural, and duly made notes of the tasks assigned to them.
The ruling team that now controls parliament, the Cabinet, the Office of the General Prosecutor, the army, and the security services seems to follow presidential orders in spite of the demands of the constitution.
Furthermore, on September 4, Ukrainian parliament has amended the Constitution abolishing parliamentary immunity. The immunity of president and judges, however, remained intact. Zelenskyy’s draft law on impeachment effectively makes dismissing a president impossible, while MPs can still easily be arrested or dismissed.
This situation is not new. For example, in the post-Euromaidan government, President Petro Poroshenko also become a highly influential political figure, especially after Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk resigned in April 2016. Poroshenko even sought to extend his authority into the Ukrainian church, an obvious contradiction of the constitution (Article 35). However, Poroshenko’s authority was limited by Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Avakov, an ally of Yatsenyuk, provided some balance to the informal distribution of power in Ukraine. Since Ukraine's formal institutions are weak, and became even weaker after each maidan, the balance of power has long been mediated among informal groups within the country. This unspoken balance became particularly visible during the 2019 presidential elections, when Avakov demanded that the incumbent’s political team abide by the law, a stricture that worked in favor of Poroshenko’s rivals.
Zelenskyy's group contains numerous people who are new to politics. It was Zelenskyy’s idée fixe to avoid "old time" politicians and officials in his administration. This idea was linked to his aim to bring an end to corruption in the public sector anymore. He brought into power his new Servant of the People (SP) party, which was built during his parliamentary campaign of June and July 2019 and which has a minimum of cadres with previous exposure to national politics or public service.
However, in spite of Zelenskyy's declared mission to change Ukraine and end political corruption, his new team seems to be avoiding any effort to construct a more formal system of checks and balances. At least, this is the conclusion I have drawn from the political decisions made between August 29, when the newly elected Rada met for the first time, and the September 5. Within this short period, Ukraine’s parliament appointed the new leadership of the Verkhovna Rada and the Cabinet, and President Zelenskyy issued his orders to the new senior officials.
Let’s look at the construction of Ukraine's current government.
Through the Ukrainian people's democratic choices, the SP is a one-party majority in the Rada. In this situation, the ruling faction is responsible for delivering their promises (which are identical to Zelenskyy's own promises) to the people, adhering to the Ukrainian constitution, protecting citizens' liberties, and distributing authority among the branches of power.
The composition of the new weakened Rada leadership and membership of the parliamentary committees demonstrate an attempt to balance efficacy and constitutional democratic principles. The SP majority diminished the number of parliamentary committees from 27 to 23. Of these 23 committees, SP members (254 of the Rada's 450 members [MPs]) will preside over 19 of them, and will have 49 deputy chairs and secretaries in the committees. The SP members also have a majority in each parliamentary committee.
Unlike in the previous Rada, the SP majority has provided the diverse opposition groups of the noncoalition parties with an opportunity to chair four committees. Yurii Boyko’s Opposition Platform – For Life faction (43 MPs) will chair the Freedom of Speech Committee; it will also have 14 deputy chairs and committee secretaries. Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkyvshchyna faction (26 MPs) will chair the Youth and Sports Committee and will have 10 deputy chairs and secretaries. Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity (25 MPs) will chair the European Union Integration Committee and will have a total of three deputy chairs and secretaries. Finally, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s Voice (20 MPs) will have a total of 13 deputy chairs and secretaries. Although this composition strengthens the president’s control of the legislative process, it also provides opposition groups with a more powerful voice than they had in the previous parliament.
The same Zelenskyy dominance is visible in the new Cabinet as well. The Cabinet, which also was reduced in size from 19 minsters and six vice prime ministers to 15 ministers and two vice ministers, now contains 11 men and six women with an average age of 39. The vast majority (80 percent) are political novices. With the exceptions of Arsen Avakov (who remained Interior Minister) and Oksana Markarova (retained as Minister of Finance), the new Cabinet consists solely of SP members or President Zelenskyy’s appointees.
Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk presides over this youthful Cabinet. At only 35 years of age, he is Ukraine's youngest ever prime minister. In spite of his previous sympathies for President Poroshenko, Honcharuk joined the Zelenskyy team in spring 2019 and soon became vice head of the presidential office. With no history of allegiance to any oligarch, he is a Zelenskyy loyalist who seemingly has agreed to run the Cabinet to fulfill the presidential program of reforms. For the time being at least, there does not appear to be any real competition between the president and the prime minister. Accordingly, the SP has shown goodwill to provide opposition with some influence, but its majority is too large for it to be outweighed. The president’s control over the legislature and the executive is now significant larger than under previous administrations, and it is much greater than envisaged by the constitution.
Three years ago, Tymofiy Mylovanov (now the Minister of Economy and an influential intellectual in the governing team) and I published a joint article on the threats that unchecked presidential power brings to post-Soviet political systems. I hope that he and his comrades in Zelenskyy’s crew will keep these risks in mind, manage to avoid the negative results of imbalanced, personalized power, and are able to implement a more constitutional set of checks and balances in Ukraine.
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange. Read more