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Lawmaking 101: Before Parliament Convenes, Ukraine's Incoming Freshman Class Is Getting Schooled

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (second right) and participants sing the national anthem during his Servant of the People party's conference before the recent parliamentary elections. Many of the candidates chosen at this event will now be entering parliament for the first time.

KYIV -- President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party won Ukraine's first-ever majority in parliament in elections this month, giving it unprecedented power.

But before its 254 deputies are seated in the Verkhovna Rada and get down to governing, they're going back to school.

At the initiative and expense of the party, the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE) is opening its doors, so to speak, in summer to give Servant of the People's incoming neophyte deputies a crash course on economics and lawmaking.

The endeavor is part of a broader approach being undertaken by the some of the five parties that won seats in parliament to prepare first-time lawmakers, who account for about 75 percent of its makeup, for work inside of an institution that is among the country's least trusted and is notorious for the fistfights that erupt in its session hall.

When the new parliament convenes in late August or early September, these newcomers will have their work cut out trying to reform the country.

They will almost certainly face great resistance from powerful tycoons in their efforts to enact progressive policies, crack down on endemic corruption, and fix the economy. And they are likely to be targeted by public criticism when making tough decisions about how to end the half-decade-long war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

No Political Experience

Like Zelenskiy, a former comedian who rose to prominence by playing a fictional president in a television comedy series after which his party was named, many of Servant of the People's new lawmakers had no political experience before their history-making victory on July 21.

They include an actor, a wrestler, a wedding photographer, a pizzeria owner, and a fitness-club director, as well as others from various non-political backgrounds.

"We are trying to give the people who are responsible for our state the best instruments and identify international practices that will help address the challenges facing them now," KSE President Tymofiy Mylovanov wrote of the upcoming training for the group in an announcement on Facebook. He said the intensive, weeklong program was inspired by Harvard University's adult learning courses.

In a separate post, he said training would be conducted in bucolic Truskavets, a resort city in western Ukraine's Lviv Oblast, since its classrooms in Kyiv are not big enough to accommodate 254 people.

But with a grueling schedule, it will be no summer vacation, he said.

His colleague, Olha Faryatyeva, head of KSE's public policy and governance department, told RFE/RL that the course would run all day, every day from July 27 to August 4, and that it would cover political strategy, budgeting, public policy, lawmaking, and strategic communication.

Depending on each lawmaker's interests and planned focus once in parliament, they will also get training on issues such as regulation, decentralization, education, and security and defense.

"The key is to build on what skills they already have," Faryatyeva said.

No Politician Professors

Teaching the lawmakers will be some 30 to 35 professors, faculty members, and practitioners with expertise in necessary fields — none of whom worked previously as a member of parliament.

"We try to exclude those professors who are involved in politics," Faryatyeva said. That also means former members of parliament.

One KSE official who will not be conducting any of the sessions is Inna Sovsun, its vice president, who was elected to parliament for the first time on the Holos (Voice) party ticket of rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk.

But Sovsun is participating in her party's own training course. Finishing fifth in elections with 5.8 percent of the vote in party-list balloting, Voice will get 20 seats in parliament.

The party required that all its candidates had not previously been elected to parliament in an effort to bring people without connections to establishment elites to the 450-seat legislature. It is seen as a possible ally or even a coalition partner of Servant of the People, should the latter decide to try and further strengthen is position.

Servant of the People lawmaker Svyatoslav Yurash says he and other parliamentary first-timers need the lessons "to understand how to avoid the pitfalls" of parliament. (file photo)
Servant of the People lawmaker Svyatoslav Yurash says he and other parliamentary first-timers need the lessons "to understand how to avoid the pitfalls" of parliament. (file photo)

For at least one day a week over the course of the past month, Voice has been training its candidates and now-elected deputies on the ways of the Verkhovna Rada, says Mykola Davydyuk, a Voice political advisor who studied at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The party will continue with the training until the new parliament is convened.

The topics studied include those that will be covered for Servant of the People lawmakers at KSE.

Also similarly, Davydyuk said Voice is not involving former members of parliament in the exercises.

"Their experience is not so good for the future of Ukraine, because a lot of them were very corrupt," he said. "But it's quite easy to find some good people who worked in the parliament and may share some good experiences," he added, referring to aides of past deputies.

While the Voice training sessions have been mostly kept under wraps until now, the KSE course for Servant of the People lawmakers has been widely discussed since Mylovanov's announcement this week.

Mixed Reaction

Public reaction to the latter has been mixed.

"Fine. But how can all this be learned in a week?" one Facebook user commented on Mylovanov's post.

"To save time and money, let's just replace their pituitary glands," quipped another.

But experts have applauded the economics and lawmaking courses.

"I think it's a great idea and indeed a very necessary one as three quarters of the new parliament have never been MPs before and most of them are completely newbies in the 'big politics,'" Volodymyr Ishchenko, a senior lecturer at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute Department of Sociology, told RFE/RL.

"I am in favor when photographers, primary school teachers, and pizzeria owners can vote in the parliament," he said.

Defending the course, KSE's Mylovanov, welcomed "the desire of [Servant of the People] lawmakers to devote a week to intensive training instead of taking a summer vacation!"

"This is just the first week of a broad plan that the party plans to take" to educate their lawmakers, he added.

Svyatoslav Yurash, a Servant of the People lawmaker who may be Ukraine's youngest ever at 23, told RFE/RL that he and his colleagues entering parliament need the lessons "to understand how to avoid the pitfalls" that torpedoed the agendas of previous reform-minded lawmakers who failed to get re-elected and "to confront corruption and the difficult realities facing us."

"We are all clearly novices as far as lawmaking in parliament is concerned," he said. "This is a chance to learn the procedural realities of parliament."

Moreover, Yurash added, "learning new things is a part of life whether you're 20 or 50 years old."