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Open Call: Crowdsourcing Catches On As Ukraine Preps For Another Big Vote

Volodymyr Zelenskiy's administration has launched a public call for project ideas and applications for positions on the team through a new online platform.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy's administration has launched a public call for project ideas and applications for positions on the team through a new online platform.

KYIV -- Candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy crowdsourced his winning presidential campaign platform and potential cabinet picks on social media.

Then, on May 27, the freshly inaugurated president's Servant of the People party announced an online contest for spots on its party ticket in snap parliamentary elections set for July 21.

Now, sticking with his unorthodox and digital-focused style, Zelenskiy's administration has launched a public call for project ideas and applications for positions on the team through a new online platform.

Called Lift, organizers describe it as a way of utilizing the knowledge and skills of the public to help solve some of Ukraine's most pressing problems.

At the very least, it is his fledgling administration's attempt to further cement Zelenskiy's outsider image and allay average Ukrainians' bitter distrust of politicians after decades of cronyism and abortive reform.

"We need a lot of people at every level," Svyatoslav Yurash, a 23-year-old Zelenskiy campaign adviser who is expected to appear on the Servant of the People's party list in July, told RFE/RL. He said the outreach effort was "genuine" and "necessary" in order to find people untainted by old politics and corruption.

Crowdsourcing is rare in the world of Ukrainian politics, an almost impenetrable bunker controlled for decades by well-connected insiders wary of new ideas or outsiders.

But coming off Zelenskiy's landslide April election win -- by the biggest margin of victory in Ukraine's post-Soviet history -- there are signs that crowdsourcing and online recruiting could become a more common method of building political teams going forward.

At least one other politically aspiring outsider appears to think so. Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a Western-educated rock star whom some describe as Ukraine's answer to Bono, announced the creation of his aptly named Holos (Voice) party this month and has promised to launch a related crowdsourcing initiative.

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk announces the launch of his political party, Holos, on May 16.
Svyatoslav Vakarchuk announces the launch of his political party, Holos, on May 16.

Borrowing From U.S. Political Playbook

In recruiting members of civil society online, Ukrainian politicians appear to be borrowing a page from the playbook of American progressives, whose own online recruiting efforts after 2016 helped spur youth and minority participation in congressional races in 2018.

Groups like Run for Something, She Should Run, and Launch Progress PAC, which provided resources to prepare young people for a run for office, saw some of their candidates win down-ballot races.

Zelenskiy's administration and party members said they weren't modeling Lift on those platforms but acknowledged similarities.

Yurash, who claimed to have people interested in joining the Zelenskiy team reaching out to him informally "every day," said the Lift launch was about "structuring outreach to the public and finding qualified people."

The Lift website describes the platform as one that "brings together skilled specialists and innovations. It is aimed at positive changes in the country and its comprehensive socioeconomic and cultural development."

A presidential adviser and digital director, Mykhaylo Fedorov, wrote on Facebook that the administration had received 573 resumes and 834 suggestions for projects or solutions within one day of Lift's unveiling.

A poll conducted this month by the "Rating" Sociological Group found that 43.8 percent of Ukrainian voters support the Servant of the People party -- not enough for a parliamentary majority but close -- despite the fact that its party list remains unfilled or at least secret.

Offsetting Controversial Appointments

But some experts see the crowdsourcing for fresh faces as an attempt to mask others. They suggest Zelenskiy's allies may be trying to neutralize criticism surrounding some of the administration's more controversial picks.

Oleksiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy and head of research at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a think tank, told RFE/RL that Zelenskiy's appointment of Andriy Bohdan as his chief of staff was particularly worrying.

Andriy Bohdan
Andriy Bohdan

"The appointment of Bohdan is a very bad sign" not only because of his connections to a controversial oligarch, Haran said, "but because it is a clear violation of the law."

Bohdan, a lawyer for tycoon Ihor Kolomoyskiy who worked as legal counsel to Zelenskiy during the campaign and claimed to have planted the seed in his mind to run for the presidency, once held a government position during ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's administration.

A 2014 law bars senior Yanukovych-era officials from posts in future Ukrainian governments.

The Justice Ministry has ruled that Bohdan falls under the law and the Public Lustration Committee, a nongovernment organization created to watchdog the law, has filed a lawsuit over Bohdan's recent appointment.

Bohdan has argued that the law does not apply to him because, under another law, the presidential chief of staff is not considered to be a civil servant.

Zelenskiy himself is linked to Kolomoyskiy through the oligarch's ownership of Ukrainian TV station 1+1, which hosts Zelenskiy's comedy programs and hit sitcom, Servant Of The People, which shares the name of his political party, as well as through advisers and other resources.

But Zelenskiy has insisted he is not beholden to the oligarch, a bitter enemy of defeated presidential rival Petro Poroshenko's who returned to Ukraine shortly before Zelenskiy's inauguration for the first time in two years.

Haran said not all of Zelenskiy's appointments were bad ones and that it was expected that the president would "rely on people whom he knows."

"I think the guys he appointed to the [presidential administration] are creative, they are smart, they are kind of spin doctors," Haran said. "But the question is how professional they are, whether they will be able to promote the president's priorities."

A New 'Voice' In The Crowdsourcing Arena

Challenging Zelenskiy's party in parliamentary elections -- seemingly through similar tactics -- will be the Voice party of Vakarchuk, who introduced the party and his candidacy by saying he hoped "to destroy the old way of doing politics and create a new way of doing politics."

Looking to capitalize on the antiestablishment sentiment in Ukrainian society that helped sweep Zelenskiy into office, it is also reaching out to civil society for new people and ideas. A message on the party's website reads, "Welcome to the team of real changes! Our team is open to anyone who is ready to join."

Yarema Dukh, head of Voice's press service, told RFE/RL that the party had received more than 8,000 inquiries from people interested in joining it. This week, the party plans to officially launch an online application system "for anyone who agrees...and supports" the party's manifesto.

"The main thing is we are trying to change the old way of politics to a new one," Dukh said. "One cornerstone is bringing in new people."

But current lawmakers need not apply.

"They had their chance already," Dukh said.

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