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Ukraine's Zelenskiy Inducts Politically Untested Government

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses parliament in Kyiv on August 29, announcing the country's new government.

KYIV -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his ruling political party have formed the youngest and least-experienced government in Ukraine’s post-independence history.

With participants averaging just under 40 years old, the new government announced on August 29 comprises 12 men and six women who are some of the president’s friends, former business partners or associates, and technocrats, civil society activists, and two holdovers from the previous administration.

Oleksiy Honcharuk, 35, became the nation’s youngest prime minister, beating the previous record held by his predecessor, Volodymyr Hroysman.

Zelenskiy, a comedian-turned-politician who has pledged to "break the system" in Ukrainian politics, is Ukraine’s youngest president at 41.

Lawmakers easily approved Honcharuk with 290 deputies in the 450-seat house voting in favor of his appointment.

He has spent much of his career as a lawyer, eventually becoming a lead partner at a firm that specializes in real estate development. In 2015, he ran the EU-funded nongovernmental organization BRDO that focused on reforms and advised Stepan Kubiv, the first deputy prime minister during ex-President Petro Poroshenko’s administration.

"It will be very difficult for this government," he said in a speech to parliament.

Oleksiy Honcharuk, 35, became Ukraine’s youngest prime minister.
Oleksiy Honcharuk, 35, became Ukraine’s youngest prime minister.

Honcharuk said Kyiv will start talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a new program in the coming weeks, signaling that Ukraine is seeking a new longer-term deal to replace an existing $3.9 billion standby aid agreement.

"You all know about these problems that we have in the country. These are the debts we have inherited," he added.

Other appointments included former NATO Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko, 49, as foreign minister. Before his confirmation, Prystaiko told parliament that Ukraine’s path toward EU and NATO integration would remain unchanged.

The deputy head of the president's office, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, was confirmed as prosecutor-general. He was a mid-level official of the Justice Ministry in 2001-10 before joining former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s cabinet until he moved to corruption watchdog Transparency International in 2013-2014.

Andriy Zahorodniuk, 44, is the new defense minister. Previously, he sat on the supervisory board of the state-owned military concern Ukroboronprom. When the Donbas conflict started in eastern Ukraine, he volunteered to help the armed forces in 2015-17, eventually making it to the Defense Ministry’s reform office.

Zelenskiy’s former business partner, 45-year-old Ivan Bakanov, was appointed head of the SBU security service. The chairman of the Servant of the People party, Dmytro Razumkov, was chosen as parliamentary speaker.

At age 28, Mykhailo Federov is deputy prime minister for digital transformation. His digital service company once boasted Zelenskiy’s Kvartal Concert entertainment firm as a client and the IT guru headed the president's social media outreach during the presidential campaign.

Dmytro Kuleba, 38, is deputy prime minister for European and Euroatlantic Integration and the former ambassador to the Council of Europe.

Minister of Education Hanna Novosad is aged 29 and headed the ministry's strategic planning and European integration directorate, an in-house think tank.

Keeping their posts are Arsen Avakov, 55, as interior minister and Finance Minister Oksana Markarova, aged 42.

Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party took a solid majority of 254 parliamentary seats in last month’s elections for the 450-seat legislature.

That unprecedented mandate is expected to give Zelenskiy a free hand to carry out his campaign pledge in April to turn Ukraine's political system upside down.

In his state-of-the-nation address before lawmakers, Zelenskiy noted that this legislature has the chance "to achieve the impossible" and accomplish what previous parliaments failed do in the last 28 years.

He named bolstering national security and defense as the highest priority, along with "ending the war" against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and "returning" the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine’s fold.

Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 and has backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.

Zelenskiy also said he wants to end the practice of "raiding," a reference to company takeovers enabled by crooked notaries and judges, resulting in transfers in the ownership of assets. Another priority is achieving energy independence.

The president called on lawmakers not to fight in the chamber, skip sessions, or engage in multiple voting. Otherwise "this parliament will last only a year," Zelenskiy said.

Among the 37 draft laws that the president and his party registered on August 29, one would lift lawmakers' immunity from prosecution. Because it’s a constitutional amendment, the bill requires a two-thirds majority vote that Servant of the People lacks.

Abolishing immunity has for Ukrainians consistently been one of the most desired anti-corruption measures, according to public opinion polls.

Zelenskiy also registered a bill on corruption whistle-blowers and presidential impeachment.

With reporting by Interfax, 112 Ukraine, Ukrayinska Pravda, and the Kyiv Post