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Three Ukrainian Reformers Pay an Unexpected Price for Their Success

OtherThree Ukrainian Reformers Pay an Unexpected Price for Their Success

When I first met Sergii Leshchenko, in the spring of 2016, he and I spoke among the creaky parquet and colonnaded halls of the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. Leshchenko, who was then thirty-six, had been a member of parliament for two years, where he was often a novel—and for his many adversaries unwelcome—presence. In 2014, after years working as an investigative journalist, he decided to enter politics, following the Maidan revolution, which had swept away Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former President and a figurehead for a grotesquely corrupt system, making way for a new generation of politicians inclined to pursue democratic reforms.

That summer, I wrote a story for The New Yorker on the journey of Leshchenko, along with his friend and fellow-journalist, Mustafa Nayyem, and their close ally, Svitlana Zalishchuk, describing their transition from the world of journalism and activism to the realm of post-revolutionary politics. In the months after Maidan, they chose to hitch a ride on what Leshchenko called the “tramway” of the party launched by Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch and political chameleon who was elected President in May, 2014. Joining Poroshenko’s party list was a way into parliament for the three reformers, but, once there, they quickly soured on his rule, which they felt mirrored the very kleptocratic politics that the revolution had sought to overcome. “Poroshenko played a small game,” Nayyem told me at the time. “It’s not worthy of the kind of leader we wanted to see after Maidan.”

As deputies, Leshchenko, Nayyem, and Zalishchuk added their votes to some reforms but more often found themselves battling figures from the country’s old guard, politicians who relied on a culture of backroom deals and favor-trading, and didn’t much welcome the arrival of those who would disrupt this system. Beyond the three of them, there were another couple dozen young deputies in parliament with similar ambitions—a loose coalition of self-described “Euro-optimists”—but the fledgling group was unable to translate their shared values into a movement or party of their own. They lacked money, organizational muscle, and access to national television; the inevitable clashing of egos and personal ambitions didn’t help, either.

Still, they represented a new model for what politics could be in Ukraine. “The usual image of a Ukrainian member of parliament is a guy with a big belly and a lot of money, sitting in the Rada deciding people’s destinies,” Zalishchuk told me in 2016. “But Sergii and Mustafa are two young, stylish guys—hipsters—who are the antithesis of the old style of Ukrainian politics.”

Earlier this month, in Kiev, I met up with Leshchenko at a park in the city’s Podil neighborhood, where he was holding one of his regular campaign stops, which are essentially meetings with local voters. As Leshchenko listened, they bemoaned the condition of Ukraine’s roads, courts, health-care system, and the other myriad arms of the state that have reliably disappointed them over successive political regimes. Leshchenko is again running for a seat in the Rada—parliamentary elections will be held this Sunday—but this time as an Independent, fighting alone for his political life in a “single-mandate” district, instead of as a member of a party list, as he did five years ago.

These days, the Ukrainian political landscape looks completely different, primarily thanks to the unexpected and triumphant rise of Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and actor who parlayed his popularity on “Servant of the People,” a television series in which he plays an everyman turned President, into the real thing. This April, Zelsenky defeated Poroshenko to win the Presidency with seventy-three per cent of the vote. Fed up and desperate, the country’s electorate was eager to sweep away the existing political caste and make a bet on Zelensky, whose status as an outsider was his greatest advantage.

But that mood has also seemingly swept away the would-be assemblage of reformers that includes Leshchenko. Zelensky’s party, also named Servant of the People, declared it would not place any current parliamentary deputies on its party list. That was doubly ironic in Leschenko’s case, given that he was an early supporter of the comedian turned President. When we spoke, Leshchenko called the decision of Zelensky’s party to exclude incumbents “certainly understandable for P.R. reasons,” but added that there was “something unjust about it, this suggestion that we’re all automatically guilty of something.”

When we met, Leshchenko was sober about the current political reality and his own place in it. He considered his first term in parliament a success—even if that success led to a far different outcome for him personally than he had imagined. “Our mission was to bring a new generation to politics,” he told me. “But, then, when this new generation showed up and fully took power, it turned out it wasn’t us, but Zelensky.”

Leshchenko, along with Nayyem and Zalishchuk and their allies, had helped shift Ukraine’s collective political imagination, but those efforts left them partially sidelined. “Yes, in a way it’s unfortunate that this niche was filled by other people, but I’d like to think that we were a part of this historic process all the same,” Leschenko told me. By now he is the political veteran, and others play the role of the upstarts. “We can’t represent ourselves as fresh air if we didn’t spend the last five years under the dome of the Rada,” he said. “But, then again, serving as fresh air is not the only positive role one can play.”

At the meeting with local voters, Leshchenko sat in faded gazebo tucked in the middle of the park. A dozen or so constituents had shown up. One asked about the terrible state of the nearby Kyrylivska Street, which had been recently renamed as part of a post-Maidan “decommunization” drive—it was previously known as Frunze Street, in honor of Mikhail Frunze, the Bolshevik revolutionary. It was a rutted mess, full of potholes and loose gravel. Leshchenko said that renaming the street was all well and good, but it was a cruel joke when compared with the fact that the road, like many others in Ukraine, hadn’t been properly repaired in the nearly thirty years since the end of Communism. Another person shouted about the number of criminal cases launched against high-ranking politicians that magically fall apart when they reach court.

A woman in the crowd suggested that Leshchenko walk across the street and take a look at her building, a five-story, government-owned brick apartment building constructed in the early nineteen-sixties. Near her entryway, she showed him a metal sewage pipe hanging off the exterior wall, its spigot aimed in the direction of the muddy courtyard. “Excuse me for the expression, but the building is swimming in shit,” she told him.

At another entryway, residents pointed out a small recessed area under the stairwell that, during periods of heavy rain or increased humidity, pools with moisture and fills the apartments above with the overpowering smell of dank mold. To let in fresh air, residents leave their windows open for days on end, even in the middle of winter, when temperatures regularly hit well below zero. Some years ago, with great fanfare, the government had swapped out their old windows and installed new, energy-efficient ones as part of program to cut down heating costs—an initiative that was rendered useless by the need to keep them open in freezing temperatures. Leshchenko listened to the complaints and suggested that while he still has his parliamentary mandate—even if he loses he’ll be a deputy through the end of the summer—the building’s residents should write him an official appeal, which he would then use to pressure the relevant government organs into addressing the problem.

Afterward, Leshchenko looked tired. “It’s exhausting, but an important experience,” he told me. The last weeks of campaigning had already taught him a great deal about his fellow-citizens. “Even though I thought I had stayed connected to people over the last five years, I’ve learned that I was farther away from them than I realized,” he said. “I underestimated the feeling of hopelessness and desperation, this mood of rejection of everything and everyone.”

He admitted that he made a few political mistakes of his own: perhaps he could have better answered questions that arose after he and his wife purchased a three-hundred-thousand-dollar apartment in the center of Kiev. Maybe he didn’t need to enter into such a public fight with Rudy Giuliani—and, by extension, Donald Trump—over a cache of so-called black ledgers that revealed the corrupt and pernicious role of Paul Manafort in Ukrainian politics. (Before he was Trump’s campaign chair, Manafort was a consultant to Yanukovych, and the ledgers, cited by Leshchenko, suggest that he may have received illegal, off-the-books payments for his services.) It’s hard to say what Leshchenko’s chances are in his current race. On the one hand, he doesn’t face a powerful incumbent. But, on the other, there is a candidate from Servant of the People, an affiliation that, given Zelensky’s popularity, will automatically attract a sizable number of votes.

Like Leshchenko, Svitlana Zalishchuk also chose to run in a single-mandate district, in Zhashkiv, a small town eighty-five miles south of Kiev. She faces an even more uphill race. It is Zalishchuk’s home town, but she hasn’t spent much time there in recent years, and is running against the kind of long-standing political boss who enjoys deep ties with local élites, and is seen as providing concrete benefits and protection to the local population. “It can be very uncomfortable here—at times, the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been—but that’s why it’s important,” Zalishchuk told me when I reached her by phone last week. (Unlike in the center of Kiev, she joked, “There are no coffee shops here, and in a lot of places there aren’t event toilets.”)

In her town, Zalishchuk said that she has seen the other side of the reforms she and other like-minded deputies had been pushing in parliament, which may be necessary and virtuous for the country in the long term but in her community are often painful for constituencies like the elderly and rural poor. “We can’t represent only the views of the internationally connected population, that is a very small layer of society, five or ten per cent of the country at most,” she said.

Many of her meetings with voters devolve into angry sessions of public catharsis, with locals venting years of pent-up frustrations. “People are screaming and shouting, and though maybe it’s not exactly directed at me, for many of them I seem a representative of power,” she said. In a way, she went on, people like herself and Leshchenko and Nayyem became victims of their own message. “People agreed with our criticism of the old system, but ended up thinking of us as part of it.”

In a recent piece that examines why the self-described Euro-optimists weren’t able to cohere into a lasting political movement, Christopher Miller, a correspondent in Ukraine for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, wrote about how this group of young politicians are now confronting the challenge of “trying to prove they remain principled outsiders after five years inside one of the institutions least trusted by a populace that is unhappy with the ongoing war against Russia-backed forces in the east, displeased with the pace of anticorruption reforms, and hungry for change.” Miller spoke with Volodymyr Fesenko, the director of the Penta Center for Political Studies, in Kiev, who compared the coterie of Euro-optimists to the “three hundred Spartans who sacrificed themselves.” As Fesenko put it, “They were avant-garde, but small, weak, fragmented, and without a strong popular leader.”

This time around, Mustafa Nayyem, unlike Leshchenko and Zalishchuk, has decided not to run for parliament at all. As he saw it, he didn’t want to enter the Rada without a team: he and the others had not managed to create a party, and even if he won a single-mandate race he’d effectively be on his own. As a parliamentary deputy, Nayyem was involved in the project to reform the country’s police force—and said it was these kinds of concrete initiatives that interest him the most. He’d like a position in the executive branch working on law-enforcement issues, or maybe something connected to the Donbass, the region in the country’s where a war with Russian-backed separatists continues to fester.

“It’s a natural process,” Nayyem told me when I saw him in Kiev last week. “You enter the system, gain some experience, become wiser, and go on to to something else.” The past five years in parliament rid him of many illusions about how Ukrainian politics work, he said—but, then again, if he didn’t have those illusions in the first place he might not have tried at all. “What did people always say about those without political experience? ‘Sorry, guys, you don’t have the skills. You can’t be trusted. It won’t work out.’ I’d like to think we played a big role in showing there was another way.”

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