Ukrainian Politicians Fight for the Future
In his office in Kyiv, Andrii Zhupanyn, a young Ukrainian member of parliament from the party Servant of the People, sits between two screens.
On the laptop to his left, he is attending a meeting of the energy committee to vote on the budget for gas supplies in the coming winter. On his phone in front of him, he is talking to GMF for this article. Each time his name is called in the committee, he turns from the GMF interview toward to his laptop and casts his vote.
This kind of work—drafting laws, finding compromises, and finally voting on them—used to be his main task. Since the start of the war, it has become much more infrequent.
“We’ve had a significant reduction in our workload as legislators,” Zhupanyn says. “This is, I think, only the third meeting of the energy committee in the last five months.”
In a country at war, most of the work of the state is done by the army and the government, he explains. Most actions must be taken immediately, and proposing legislation is a process that usually takes time.
“Laws are drafted for the future,” Zhupanyn says. “They are long-term ideas that are voted on and come into force at a certain time.”
But this planning became almost impossible with the beginning of the war—and this is still true today. “It is still not clear when this war will end, how it will end, and under what conditions. And that significantly affects the role of the parliament,” Zhupanyn says.
In recent months, his parliamentary work has been replaced mainly with running a humanitarian hub, located in his hometown in western Ukraine, which distributes aid supplies throughout the country.
However, support from abroad is slowly fading. “In the beginning, we received 100 tons a week. Now we have received about 10 tons in the whole month of July,” Zhupanyn notes.
With less to do at the humanitarian hub, he’s now back to work on the committee. In recent weeks, he and his colleagues have begun to pass legislation that is imminently required, for example, expenses in the state budget that must be reallocated. Long-term planning remains elusive.
Many Ukrainian politicians share Zhupanyn’s experience over the past few months. Many seek to support the population and army as best they can, often devoting little time to politics. Now, however, many are trying to bring back democratic life in Ukraine.
Democracy in Ukraine
It is a relatively young democracy, Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk explains. “Ukraine was semi-democratic since its independence in 1991 and can be considered a functioning democracy for around eight years.”
One of the most remarkable elements of Ukraine’s response as a democracy to Russia’s invasion is that it was able to hold on to its values, Gumenyuk says. “Even at the time of the war, Ukraine chooses more moderate politics, and the authoritarian sentiment isn’t there.”
This is very much opposite to Russia, which has a rather “authoritarian, imperial idea of itself,” she says. “Ukrainians see their clear difference and the way they distinguish themselves from Russia in identifying themselves as democratic.
This identity was even reinforced through the war. People became even more aware of who they are and what is really important to them.”
The ongoing war is taking place in a country whose political elite has grown up in a completely different social climate than its predecessors.
“If you look at the MPs, the government members and the ministries, there has been a real generational change,” Gumenyuk notes. “Most of today’s Ukrainian politicians have been in politics for less than 10 years. In large part, the country is run by people who are in their thirties.”
In many cases, the older politicians are not necessarily the moral compass to look to for guidance, so while their younger counterparts have less experience, they bring a breath of fresh air to the country’s politics. “There is less cynicism in Ukrainian politics today,” observes Gumenyuk.
“We Have Grown Very Quickly over These Last Six Months”
This lack of cynicism may have been why many politicians did not fall into despair faced with Russia’s invasion in February, but instead enforced resistance, making up for their lack of experience along the way.
“We have grown very quickly over these last six months,” says Lesia Vasylenko, member of the Holos party, a liberal and pro-European party in Ukraine.
“The first two weeks were really what showed who is who in Ukrainian politics,” she says.
Some members of parliament have left the country since the beginning of the war, but Vasylenko chose to stay. “As a politician, as a representative of the people, my duty is to stay with the people and to be in the country,” she states.
“It’s the choices you make. Life takes you to places that sometimes you wouldn’t choose for yourself, but you’re there for a reason. And I think that reason may become apparent a little later in life.”
After some months, the parliament is now back on track, Vasylenko says. “We’re back in committee work, we are voting the laws. Even deliberations in parliament and politics are back in the picture.”
It has become much easier to adopt international conventions and pro-European laws, she notes, such as with the ratification of the Istanbul Convention in June. “We have understood that our only way forward is to align ourselves with the European and international community,” she says. “That is why the parliament has become more open to adopting laws necessary to achieve this goal.”
With the average age of its members skewing young, the parliament has become “very dynamic” in the last year, Vasylenko says. Decisions are made much more quickly, there is less formalism, and communication both within the parliament and—thanks to more English-speaking members—at the international level is much better.
Looking at Ukrainian parliamentarians today, one sees ambitious politicians who want to move the country away from its past and lead it out of war into a better future. According to Vasylenko, “this parliament is the face of the new Ukraine.”