No Experience? No Problem: A Look At Some Of The New Faces In Ukraine's Parliament
By Robert Coalson, Tony Wesolowsky July 22, 2019
Ukraine's political establishment is on the verge of more groundbreaking change. After electing the comic-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelenskiy as president earlier this year, Ukrainians have voted in hundreds of new lawmakers in the country's snap parliamentary election on July 21.
Many have no political experience whatsoever -- apparently a plus in the eyes of voters fed up with the political old-guard and corruption many associate it with.
From a Greco-Roman wrestler to a coke plant director, Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada will have a new look when it reconvenes. Here's a snapshot of some of the new faces in parliament.
Olympic medal-winning Greco-Roman wrestler? Check. Son of a Rwandan pilot? Check. Zhan Belenyuk has one of the most distinctive biographies of any Ukrainian lawmaker, past or future.
Number 10 on the Servant Of The People party list, Belenyuk is the son of a Ukrainian woman and a Rwandan military pilot who was killed in combat in 2002, when Belenyuk was 11.
Now 28, the Greco-Roman wrestler grew up in Kyiv and won a silver medal for Ukraine at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
In June, he won gold at the European Games in Minsk in the under 87-kilogram class.
The first person with an African parent ever elected to parliament in predominantly white Ukraine, Belenyuk told AFP in an interview before the vote that he does get "some abuse" because he does not "look like other Ukrainians."
But he said his candidacy proves "we're really a country that's modern and that treats all races, all ethnic groups the same."
Belenyuk has said that China, Russia, and Azerbaijan have offered him citizenship and financial rewards if he agreed to compete for them, but that he is "100 percent Ukrainian" and will continue to compete for his country.
He hopes to make it to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and told AFP he would "most likely" take unpaid leave during his training for that competition.
He has been a junior lieutenant in the Ukrainian Army since 2017.
At the age of 23, Svyatoslav Yurash may be the youngest Rada deputy ever.
When he was just 18, Yurash was a prominent figure in the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests that pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovuych from power. Among other roles, he was a coordinator of the EuroMaidan PR blog, an information resource. He was awarded a state medal by Yanukovych's successor Petro Poroshenko for his activism in the Revolution of Dignity, as Kyiv refers to the protest movement.
During the protests, Canada's Macleans magazine described Yurash as "a second-year university student with side-swept blond hair and a white cable-knit sweater" who "cuts a figure quite different from those who dominate the television coverage of Ukraine's uprising – the bruised and battle-weary heavies of the front line."
He was a senior spokesman for Zelenskiy during his successful presidential campaign earlier this year.
His father, Andriy Yurash, heads the Department for Religious and Nationality Affairs of the Culture Ministry.
No. 23 on the Servant Of The People party list was avant-garde artist and filmmaker Geo Leros.
The 30-year-old is the founder of Art United Us, a project to install 200 murals in cities across the country. He invites street artists from around the world to participate in the projects, which he hopes will put Ukraine on the global art map.
Last year he curated a project that installed eight murals in the Kyiv metro system, many of which touched on the themes of Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and the war in parts of eastern Ukraine.
From 2016 to 2018, he served as an adviser to Information Policy Minister Yuriy Stets and Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko.
In June, Zelenskiy named Leros an "adviser-at-large."
The election to represent district No. 45 in Donetsk Oblast was won by Opposition Bloc candidate Musa Magomedov, the 49-year-old director of the Avdiyivka Coke Plant.
The massive plant, the largest of its kind in Europe, has periodically found itself on the front lines of the conflict between Kyiv and separatist formations backed by Russia.
Despite continuous rocket and artillery strikes, electricity blackouts, the deaths of plant workers, and more, Magomedov and the workers at the plant were able to keep its massive furnaces burning. If they had cooled, they would have cracked and needed rebuilding at a cost of around $1 billion, according to The New York Times.
In February 2017, Magomedov told RFE/RL that his 4,000 employees were working overtime in an effort to provide heat to local residents, even though shelling had knocked out electricity to the plant.
If the plant were to shut down, Magomedov said, the city would empty out and become "a village."
Among the candidates Magomedov defeated was Vira Savchenko, sister of outgoing Rada deputy and Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko. Nadia Savchenko was seized in the war zone in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and taken to Russia, where she was imprisoned until she was exchanged in May 2016.
Nadia Savchenko sought a single-mandate seat from Donetsk Oblast's district No. 51, but received only eight votes of the 837 cast, according to Hromadske television.
Like Zelenskiy, Koryavchenkov has a thespian background. In fact, he and the Ukrainian president performed together in comedy acts for years, with Koryavchenkov playing the role of a bumbling Cossack warrior. And like Zelenskiy, Koryavchenkov, who measures two meters in height, also hails from Kryviy Rih.
On Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party ticket, Koryavchenkov won a single mandate contest in the hardscrabble Ukrainian mining town. Koryavchenkov told the Financial Times that his acting background was a plus, giving him a chance to gauge the pulse across the country. "We travelled the entire country with our performances and saw the situation firsthand…. People are supposed to live happy and pleasant lives, but it's not so. The people want change."
The 28-year-old Yasko comes from Ukraine's world of culture, having worked as a film producer making documentaries about Crimea and the history of the Soviet KGB.
In 2018, she co-founded Yellow Blue Strategy, which, according to its website, aims "to promote the development of cultural diplomacy, creative economy, creative education and public policy in Ukraine and worldwide."
Yasko studied at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.
The 39-year-old Sushko cut his political teeth heading Zelenskiy's presidential election campaign office in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city.
Like many other associates of Zelenskiy and his political party, Sushko has an entertainment background – he has worked as a film producer and screenwriter. He also founded and headed a production company called rime Story Pictures.
Copyright (c) 2019. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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