Ukraine’s New President Secures More Supportive Parliament as He Pursues Talks With Moscow

By Dimitri Simes | July 22, 2019 | 2:08am EDT
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife, Olena Zelenska, vote in Kiev on Sunday. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Moscow ( – Voters in Ukraine have handed a convincing victory to the political party of President Volodymyr Zelensky, providing him with a more supportive parliament as he pursues an agenda which includes renewed dialogue with Moscow but also the aspirations to join NATO and the European Union.

Just two months after the former comedian took office as president, his newly-founded Servant of the People party looked set to take about 126 seats of the 250 that were up for election in Sunday’s snap election, with 42 percent of the vote.

The Russia-friendly Opposition Platform For Life party was running in a distant second place, with 12.7 percent.

Former President Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party and former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party received 8.7 percent and 8.2 percent respectively.

Syatoslav Vakarchuk’s Golos party took just 6.4 percent of the vote, but it appears poised for a kingmaker role in the new parliament. After polls closed, Zelensky invited Vakarchuk, the lead singer of a popular rock band, to form a coalition government.

For Zelensky, the result represents a drop off from his victory in the presidential election, when the political novice most famous for playing a fictional president on television won 73 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, it is the strongest showing for any party since Ukraine instituted its current parliamentary electoral system in 1998.

Sunday’s election is an important one for Zelensky. Under Ukraine’s constitution, the president’s powers are considerably limited by the parliament, and he or she may not appoint or even dismiss members of the cabinet without lawmakers’ approval.

Up to now, parliament was controlled by allies of Zelensky’s predecessor, Poroshenko, and the new president was forced to spend his early months in office working with a cabinet comprising Poroshenko holdovers, a fact that caused some visible friction.

Last month, Zelensky publicly clashed with Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, a Porosheko-appointee, accusing him of conducting diplomacy with Russia behind his back.

Now with a parliament more closely aligned to him, Zelensky is better positioned to implement his political agenda.

Since taking office, the new Ukrainian president has signaled his interest in talking with Russia, and earlier this month he proposed holding a summit with President Vladimir Putin in neighboring Belarus. Days later, Zelensky called Putin to discuss the war in eastern Ukraine and an exchange of prisoners.

The two former Soviet allies have had a highly antagonistic relationship over the past five years. Moscow was alarmed after pro-Western protestors ousted Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

In the months that following months Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine that continues to this day. Some 13,000 people have been killed, one-quarter of them civilians, according to U.S. figures released last February.

Zelensky ran for president on a pledge to seek negotiations with Russia an end to the conflict. While on the campaign trail, he argued that talks with Moscow were necessary to “stop the shooting, so our guys stop dying.”

At the same time, however, Zelensky has shown no interest in returning Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence. Like his predecessor, he has publicly declared Ukraine’s intention to pursue further integration into western institutions like the E.U. and NATO.

“The strategic course of Ukraine is aimed at full membership in the E.U. and NATO,” he said during a visit to Brussels in June, adding that joining those organizations “remains our unwavering foreign policy priority.”

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