Ukraine’s new political class: wrestler, pizza man, wedding snapper, comedian

Discredited old guard trounced and replaced by colourful cast of political novices

Olympic medallist  Zhan Beleniuk training young wrestlers at a sports school for children in Boyarka, near the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, on July 4th. Beleniuk is Ukraine’s first mixed-race member of parliament. Photograph: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Olympic medallist Zhan Beleniuk training young wrestlers at a sports school for children in Boyarka, near the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, on July 4th. Beleniuk is Ukraine’s first mixed-race member of parliament. Photograph: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

 

An 80-year-old aerospace tycoon fell to a young wedding photographer; a veteran power broker lost his seat of two decades to the owner of a small pizza chain; and a mining billionaire was ousted by an employee of a firm that fights graft.

When Ukraine’s parliament meets after a historic election shake-up, three-quarters of its deputies will be new to national politics, one in five will be a woman, and most will represent President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s fledgling Servant of the People party.

If the comedian Zelenskiy’s victory in April’s presidential vote was a political earthquake, then Sunday’s ballot was the ensuing tsunami that swamped ranks of long-serving deputies, who enjoyed legal immunity and other parliamentary privileges while displaying no apparent sense of duty to help ordinary Ukrainians.

Servant of the People invited would-be deputies to apply through its website, and it chose candidates with an average age of 37 from fields including activism, business, medicine, sport, law, journalism and entertainment.

Though lacking experience, their pledge to bring honesty and fresh ideas to politics – coupled with Zelenskiy’s popularity – made Servant of the People the first party in post-independence Ukraine to singlehandedly claim an overall majority.

The newcomers include wrestler Zhan Beleniuk, winner of a world title in 2015 and a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, who will become Ukraine’s first mixed-race deputy.

The son of a Rwandan pilot and Ukrainian dressmaker, Beleniuk (28) says he has encountered some prejudice in Ukraine and admitted that politics “won’t be as comfortable for me as training but ... for me it’s a challenge”.

“I got a chance ... to influence the situation and it would be cowardly for me to say I’m not ready to do this,” he told the AFP news agency.

Olha Saladukha, a former world and European champion triple-jumper, will join him in parliament, where two of five parties will be led by political novices – Zelenskiy and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, lead singer of rock band Okean Elzy, whose new Holos (Voice) party won about 20 seats.

Money and influence

Servant of the People’s most striking successes came in individual constituencies where local business and political bosses were expected – as usual – to use money and influence to retain seats for themselves and their allies.

Few in Ukraine have more resources than mining magnate Kostyantin Zhevago, yet he was beaten in his erstwhile stronghold of Kremenchuk by Oleksiy Movchan (25), a project manager for a firm whose computer platforms combat corruption in state contracts and asset sales.

In Odessa, local restaurateur Alexey Leonov defeated Serhiy Kivalov, one of the big beasts of the Black Sea port’s politics and a former close ally of disgraced ex-president Viktor Yanukovich, who fled to Russia after the 2014 revolution.

Meanwhile in the southeastern city of Zaporizhia, wedding photographer Serhiy Shtepa (29) toppled Vyacheslav Boguslyaev, president of the Motor Sich aircraft engine works and another onetime supporter of Yanukovich.

Two powerful dealmakers for former president Petro Poroshenko, Ihor Kononenko and Oleksandr Hranovsky, were also beaten, as public frustration and the power of Zelenskiy’s new brand shredded old political certainties across the country.

Several prominent reformists were punished by voters for failing to affect real change, and the stentorian tones of Oleh Lyashko will also be absent from the new parliament after his populist Radicals flopped at the ballot box.

When deputies were obliged to declare their assets in 2016, this self-styled man of the people and deputy of 13 years revealed that the Lyashko household held more than $1 million in cash.

To explain the source of some of his wealth, he claimed to have won the national lottery three times. Like so many of his colleagues, Lyashko’s luck has now run out.