By Serhiy Takhmazov
TRUSKAVETS, Ukraine (Reuters) – What’s your biggest weakness and could it get you into trouble?
Those were some questions put in front of the political novices representing President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party in the next parliament, as they attended a boot camp in a spa town in western Ukraine this week.
Having won a snap general election by an unprecedented majority in July, Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party wants to prepare its 254 lawmakers – none of whom have ever sat in parliament before – for battle.
A former comedian who played a fictional president in a popular TV series, Zelenskiy swept to power promising to clean up Ukrainian politics and root out entrenched corruption.
He did not allow former lawmakers to run on his party’s ticket. Instead, the slate ran the gamut from a wedding photographer to a world champion Greco-Roman wrestler.
Some 80% of the next parliament will be new lawmakers, a level unseen since the early years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their average age is just 41 — Zelenskiy’s own age, and more than seven years younger than the last incoming group.
One of the new intake, interior designer Yelyzaveta Bogutska from Crimea, 55, compared it to starting out at university.
“Nobody enters university as a well-trained specialist. We will start from the very beginning but we will gain experience.”
She said some Ukrainians were sceptical of so many novices, but “it seems to me that in a very short period of time, people will conclude that this was a most successful experiment.”
Gwendolyn Sasse, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote that the wholesale change was remarkable even when compared to the fall of communism, calling it an “immense challenge”.
“The key question is whether such a radical turnover in one of Ukraine’s least-trusted political institutions will translate into effective legislative work”, or “will vested interests and rivalries emerge and divert the reform process, as in previous political cycles?”
The new lawmakers gathered in a hotel conference hall in the town of Truskavets in the Carpathian foothills for a week-long course, where classes last from 9 in the morning to 10 at night.
The curriculum included lessons on subjects ranging from crisis communications to public policy to drafting legislation.
“It is almost impossible to teach 250 people in a single week. It feels as though they’ve been enrolled in an academic army, a sort of special forces unit. And it is very difficult to endure it,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, honorary president of the Kyiv School of Economics, who runs the course.
The lawmakers were split into groups of eight. The evening lessons included role-play scenarios of sitting on committees.
At one stage, the students were given the names of former lawmakers and asked if they remember anything they did in parliament — a lesson that they should use their time.
“Man is always learning, always developing,” Dmytro Razumkov, the head of the Servant of People party, told Reuters.
“And if a person who has come into politics is ready to gain more knowledge in order to become more effective, more nimble, of a higher calibre, not only as a politician, but also a person who will change this country, I think this is a big plus.”
Zelenskiy won the presidency in April but had to deal with a government and parliament mostly loyal to his predecessor, prompting him to call a snap parliamentary election.
High on the agenda of the next parliament will be fulfilling a major Zelenskiy election promise: that lawmakers should vote to remove their own immunity from prosecution.
“As I used to always say: ‘I live in Ukraine, I adore it as a country, but I hate the state,’” Bogutska said. “I want this division to disappear.”
(Additional reporting by Margaryta Chornokondratenko and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Peter Graff)