ZHASHKIV, Ukraine — Surrounded by clucking chickens in the yard of a cottage without electricity and running water, lawmaker Svitlana Zalishchuk is a long way from the gilded halls of Ukraine’s parliament and the hipster cafes of Kyiv — her regular haunts for the past five years.
Nevertheless, she’s comfortable in Zhashkiv, a town of around 13,000 that sits sprawled along the highway down to Odesa, 140 kilometers south of Kyiv in the heart of Ukraine, and is known for livestock breeding and plants churning out bread and butter. Zalishchuk feels at home here, literally: It’s where she grew up.
But this homecoming was not planned.
Zalishchuk is fighting to keep her seat in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. She won it in October 2014, one of several young liberals who sailed into the legislature in elections held months after the pro-Western Euromaidan protests pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power and ushered in a new political era.
Now that era is over, swept away when comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the presidency in April, upending Ukraine’s political landscape like never before, and scheduled snap parliamentary elections for July 21 in a bid to capitalize on the momentum that catapulted him to power.
The changes have left Zalishchuk and her peers — members of a once up-and-coming group known as the Euro-optimists — struggling to stay afloat.
For Zalishchuk that means campaigning tirelessly in Zhashkiv and the nearby towns and villages, which together comprise electoral district No. 199.
It’s an uphill struggle. Elected as a member of then-President Petro Poroshenko’s party in 2014, she is running as an independent in a “single-mandate” district — meaning that candidates face off against each other directly and the one with the most votes wins.
In Zhashkiv, she faces a formidable opponent: Valentyn Nychyporenko, a wealthy incumbent who is known to hand out food on campaign stops — and, critics say, to lavish village council officials with free stays at his Carpathian mountain resort. A poll she commissioned recently showed him leading her by what may be an insurmountable 27 percent.
“I was told that he said about me, ‘She has no chance whatsoever. I’m the king here,’” Zalishchuk told RFE/RL last week at the cottage that doubles as her campaign office after a day of meet-and-greets and passing out fliers.
“And this is true, unfortunately,” she said of Nychyporenko’s ‘king’ quip and his clout in the district — though she thinks she does have a chance, if not a great one.
It was not supposed to be this way for Zalishchuk — fighting tooth-and-nail for political survival on her own.
Yet her predicament is emblematic of a broader problem facing her 2014 parliament class of Euro-optimists — a name they coined themselves — who were elected easily then on party lists: 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.
At least that is the case for those who are running. A frustrated few have thrown in the towel, unable to join the lists of their preferred parties or simply finding the struggle too much.
Hitching A Trolleybus
A group of some 25 young and idealistic former civil society members widely respected in the West, where many received a higher education, the Euro-optimists were leaders of the uprising that broke out when Yanukovych, already seen by critics as corrupt, scrapped plans to sign a landmark agreement with the European Union and called for closer trade ties with Russia.
The Euromaidan protests drove Yanukovych from power in February 2014. While an unintended consequence was the aggressive reaction from Russia, which seized Crimea and fomented separatism in the eastern Donbas region, helping spark a war that persists today, the victory over Yanukovych also promised a wind of progressive change in Ukrainian politics.
The Euro-optimists entered parliament on the candidate lists of established politicians and their parties, which were looking to show they recognized that hunger for change.
Zalishchuk, along with former journalists and anticorruption activists Mustafa Nayyem and Serhiy Leshchenko, ran on the ticket of the party led by Poroshenko, who had won a snap presidential election in May 2014 with over 50 percent of the vote. She recalled Nayyem referring to Poroshenko as “a trolleybus for the three of us to get into parliament.”
Some, like Hanna Hopko and Olena Sotnyk, joined with then-Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy’s Samopomich (Self-Reliance) party. Others, like Oleksiy Ryabchyn and Alyona Shkrum, joined former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshyna (Fatherland) ticket.
‘Politics Could Be Different’
In parliament, they delivered on some of their promises.
They authored hundreds of progressive bills and most observers agree they were essential to pushing through groundbreaking legislation that saw the creation of anticorruption institutions, public-asset declaration and e-procurement systems, and police reform.
They also brought transparency to a historically opaque chamber and showed how politics could be done with civility inside a raucous, sometimes even violent legislature, Ryabchyn contended in an interview with RFE/RL in Kyiv.
“We proved that politics could be different,” he said.
“We can call these people pioneers,” said Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace whose research focuses on Ukraine. “They were there at an important time.”
Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Kyiv-based Penta Center for Political Studies, argued that the work of the Euro-optimists in parliament “can’t be called very successful,” but added that “it was not a complete failure.”
“I would draw attention to what their common problems were,” Fesenko said. “In parliament, they were in a clear minority; they were politically fragmented, found themselves in different factions, they did not have a strong, bright, and popular leader who could unite them; and almost all of them were on the sidelines [and] did not become the leading political figures in the current parliament or in the new political wave.”
The Euro-optimists sometimes broke ranks with their parties to vote together on key bills, and began criticizing their party leadership as time passed and changes that many argue would help Ukraine thrive and resist Russia were slow to materialize. Zalishchuk, Nayyem, and Leshchenko, in particular, often accused Poroshenko of dragging his feet on crucial reforms and voted against the party. Earlier this year, they officially broke from it.
Nevertheless, being “co-opted” by establishment politicians whose popularity among voters would drop dramatically in the ensuing years ultimately contributed to their downfall, said Jarabik.
Of the parties the Euro-optimists joined, only Poroshenko’s newly named European Solidarity and Fatherland stand a real chance of winning seats in the new parliament. Polls show their support diminishing by the week, placing them right around the 5 percent threshold.
The 450-seat Rada is elected through a mix of party-list voting, with seats awarded proportionally based on nationwide voting, and races between candidates in individual districts — like Zalishchuk’s No. 199 — who may run with party endorsements or independently.
Polls indicate that political novice Zelenskiy’s party — created recently and called Servant Of The People, after the hit TV comedy in which he played a president — could win the ballots of about half of Ukraine’s decided voters in the party-list contest.
Egos And Infighting
Party affiliation aside, the Euro-optimist group also did plenty to undermine themselves, analysts and members themselves say.
Several attempts to form a party from the group of 25 failed in large part because some of them felt they could accomplish more by remaining in their elected parties and coordinating on key legislation.
In Kyiv, Leshchenko told RFE/RL that “big egos” got in the way of potentially greater success. Still bitter about the group’s failure to unite, he declined to say more about the issue.
“It’s really hard to create a party when everybody has ambitions, when everybody believes they are the best of the best,” Ryabchin said.
As an example of the types of disagreements that spoiled relations among the group, Ryabchyn pointed to the relatively simple task of deciding on a name for their alliance in the Rada.
“We spent three months just trying to decide what to call ourselves,” he said. One person suggested wryly that they call themselves the Junta — a label used by Russian officials and state TV to describe the Euromaidan leaders and the government that replaced Yanukovych.
In the end, it was not one of the group members but a strategist who suggested “Euro-optimist” after seeing it used in an advertisement on the side of a bus during a trip to Strasbourg.
Some Fighting, Some Quitting
As a result, five years later, as parliamentary campaigns heat up and as Ukrainians again demand new political faces to a far greater extent than in 2014, the once tight-knit group of Euro-optimists has largely been pushed aside, ignored, or forgotten.
Both Zelenskiy’s party and rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s party, Voice, have said they want to bring all new faces into parliament and have refused — with a couple of exceptions in the latter’s case — to allow sitting members of parliament into their parties.
That news was met with great disappointment by Zalishchuk and Leshchenko, who had hoped to run on the Vakarchuk and Zelenskiy party lists, respectively. Like Zalishchuk, Leshchenko has opted to try his luck in a single-mandate district. With no powerful incumbent running in Kyiv’s Podil neighborhood, he may stand a better chance than his colleague.
Other Euro-optimists, too, were frustrated by those parties’ decision or else by the lack of support from their current party.
Last month, Nayyem and Hopko announced they will not run for reelection.
“The unification of those with whom I would like to work did not happen,” Nayyem wrote on Facebook, explaining his decision. “Many like-minded people are running for parliament on different lists. And I consider it wrong to run in a majority district and once again be in parliament without a team.”
Explaining her decision, Hopko, who was dismissed from the Self-Reliance party in 2015 for breaking with it on constitutional amendments to decentralization law, wrote on Facebook, “For me, the state was and is more than a party and political interests, and a person is more than a post and a rank.”
After being ninth on the Fatherland ticket in 2014, and guaranteed to win a seat in a parliament, Rybachyn has found himself 32nd on the party list this time and quite possibly out of reach of a seat. Shkrum, who was fifth five years ago, is slightly better placed at 22nd. Like she did with Ryabchin and Shkrum in 2014, Tymoshenko wants to capitalize on the demand for new faces and has added many toward the top of her party list.
“I’m a veteran now,” Ryabchyn said, explaining why he had been bumped down. If Fatherland gets less than about 10-11 percent of the national vote, he is unlikely to keep his seat.
Sotnyk switched parties and is running on the ticket of the Strength And Honor party, which polls show is unlikely to clear the 5 percent threshold.
Others are in similar difficult positions.
‘Like 300 Spartans’
“With a very high probability, we can predict that the composition of the Verkhovna Rada will change by more than 70 percent,” Fesenko said. “And the factions of such parties as the Servant Of The People and Voice will almost entirely consist of people who have never been deputies before.”
This will represent a “radical change” in Ukrainian politics, Fesenko said. He suggested it may not have been possible without the Euro-optimists, who blazed a trail for a new class of young, democratic-minded politicians but seem to have burned themselves in the process.
“They were like the 300 Spartans who sacrificed themselves,” Fesenko said. “They were avant-garde, but small, weak, fragmented, and without a strong popular leader.”
“Therefore, they lost.”