Ukraine’s new parliament approves top Cabinet officials

National News
Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks to newly elected Ukrainian parliament deputies during parliament session in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. Parliament in Ukraine has opened for its first session since an election last month. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s president on Thursday urged lawmakers to help liberalize the economy and pursue integration into Europe as the newly-elected parliament swiftly approved his appointees for top government jobs.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian elected president in April, told parliament that the public expects lawmakers to help return Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and settle the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Facing a hostile parliament after his landslide victory, Zelenskiy called a snap parliamentary election in July that gave his Servant of the People party the parliament majority. The party takes its name from the popular television sitcom in which Zelenskiy played a high school teacher propelled into the presidency.

Like Zelenskiy, a newcomer in politics, none of the Servant of the People lawmakers have previous experience in parliament. Many Ukrainians, who have grown tired of the old elites they see as corrupt and inefficient, see it as an advantage.

The Verkhovna Rada on Thursday quickly named Oleksiy Honcharuk, 35, as the nation’s new prime minister. In his speech in parliament, Honcharuk pledged to focus on encouraging economic growth, raising living standards and combating corruption.

“No one will be allowed to steal in the new government,” he said.

Some observers saw Honcharuk as a creature of oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who owns the television station that aired the sitcom that made Zelenskiy a star. Honcharuk has been reportedly close to Andriy Bohdan, Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, who had close ties with the oligarch.

“Honcharuk is a technical figure, who will convey the interests of the group of people linked to Kolomoyskyi and Bohdan,” said Volodymyr Sidenko, an analyst with the Razumkov Center, an independent Kiev-based think tank. “These people will now play a key role in distributing financial flows.”

Sidenko noted that Honcharuk will face a tough task of introducing unpopular measures that Ukraine’s Western investors expect the government to take to shore up the economy.

“The new prime minister will have to do dirty and unpopular work, reducing state subsidies and social assistance as required by the International Monetary Fund and other Western lenders,” Sidenko said.

The lawmakers also quickly approved other Zelenskiy’s appointees for top jobs.

Ivan Bakanov, who directed Zelenskiy’s campaign, was named the chief of Ukraine’s Security Service, the SBU.

Dmytro Razumkov, who served as Zelenskiy’s campaign adviser and later became the leader of his party, was elected parliamentary speaker.

The Rada also approved the new foreign minister, Vadim Pristaiko, who previously served as Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada and later its envoy to NATO.

Speaking to lawmakers, Pristaiko pledged to push for settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where fighting between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces have killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

“We need peace and stability,” he said.

Andriy Zahorodniuk, who was named defense minister, pledged to streamline the military and free it of graft.

“Everyone knows that they steal in the army,” he said. “People have grown tired of those problems.”

Two of the members of former President Petro Poroshenko’s Cabinet kep their jobs — Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and Finance Minister Oksana Markarova.

Markarova is a technocrat, while Avakov helped Zelenskiy win by speaking out about Poroshenko’s alleged attempts to buy voters’ support before the election.

Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta Center think tank said Zelenskiy wants the new Cabinet to speed up liberal economic reforms, but is aware of the challenges.

“President Zelenskiy wants the new parliament and the new Cabinet to serve as instruments to achieve quick reforms,” Fesenko said. “The new Cabinet will inevitably face a dilemma of how to conduct swift reforms without a further plunge in the already low living standards that could provoke a social explosion.”

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