Talkin' 'bout a second revolution.

Ukraine's Revolutionary No. 1 Goes to Parliament

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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In the history of Ukraine's Maidan revolution, which ousted President Viktor Yanukovich in February, Mustafa Nayyem deserves prominent mention. A year after the journalist's Facebook post drew the first protesters to Kiev's main square, he's now a freshly elected member of parliament, conflicted about his role and struggling to find a voice for his generation.

Nayyem, whose Afghan family came to Kiev via Moscow, is an unlikely Ukrainian celebrity. He gets recognized on the street because of his television appearances and has a following on social networks as the former star writer of Pravda.com.ua, the country's biggest news site. His brand of hard-hitting political journalism was often partisan but based on inside information. Nayyem had no problem getting people to talk to him.

So last November, when Yanukovich reneged on his promise to sign a trade deal with the European Union, Nayyem called on like-minded Kievans to protest. They turned out in force. When Yanukovich responded with violence, the rallies evolved into an angry stand-off, then into street battles in which more than 100 people died. Finally, Yanukovich fled to Russia, and the parliamentary opposition, which the street protesters never really accepted as leaders, was left to pick up the pieces and form a government.

By then, Nayyem was exhausted by his involvement in the protests and reeling from the shock of the killings. He accepted a fellowship at Stanford University, where, he says, political scientist Francis Fukuyama and Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, planted the idea of going into politics.

"They never directly advised me to do it, it was like, 'why not?'" Nayyem says. "We were just discussing, how would things ever change if it was always the same people running for office."

Back in Kiev, with the campaign for parliamentary elections about to start, Nayyem and some friends began talking to political party leaders about running for office. During the Maidan protests, Nayyem had become friendly with billionaire confectioner Petro Poroshenko, who helped finance the uprising. By the time Nayyem returned to Kiev, Poroshenko had been elected president of Ukraine.

Poroshenko agreed to add Nayyem and two well-known colleagues to his party list. According to Nayyem, the billionaire set no conditions and said the ex-journalist wouldn't be bound by party discipline and could speak his mind. "I see the party as a bus that's taking me where I want to go," Nayyem says.

The reality of campaigning in Ukraine hit Nayyem hard. He was used to a comfortable life in Kiev's cozy bars and posh restaurants in the company of political wheeler-dealers. Now, he needed to convince ordinary Ukrainians to vote for him. At the same time, he clashed with the Poroshenko bloc's campaign when he discovered it was allowing a notoriously corrupt Kiev politician to win in a provincial constituency. He and another Pravda.com.ua writer on the party list, Serhiy Leshchenko, traveled to a grim industrial town in the Kirovograd region to campaign against the candidate, who, according to locals, was buying votes for as little as $15 each.

"I started talking to people there about getting oligarchs and old regime people out of power, but there were these old ladies who just weren't listening," Nayyem says. "They wanted the roof fixed on the social club."

The candidate Nayyem and Leshchenko tried to thwart won his seat in last weekend's elections. They'll now sit together in parliament. Nayyem says he will quit the Poroshenko bloc, which is now trying to form a ruling coalition, if that legislator joins the alliance.

Nayyem, 33, also frets about what's required of him as a politician. "They told me at headquarters I had to go to a rally and speak as a representative of new, young politicians," he recalls. "At the end of the speech, I was supposed to say, 'Time to unite! For our victory, for peace!' I was like, 'Can you imagine me saying this?'"

He's seen newly elected legislators of his generation revert to a traditional post-Soviet style of talking to voters and the press that makes them sound as if they are shouting across a ditch. His theory is that people with no experience of media attention or politics unconsciously imitate what they see on TV.

He's confident his media background will protect him. "I was actually someone before I got elected, so I'm less susceptible."

Nayyem's plan in parliament is to try to channel the volunteer groups and non-governmental organizations that became important during the protests, Often, these groups, funded by Western grants, are better able to draft legislation than lawmakers. Nayyem also wants to get a law degree, and he and a small group of other young lawmakers are talking to experts, including parliament veterans, about how legislators should function. The idea is to form a generational group in parliament that would try to do things differently and expose the bad old ways.

There's demand for that. "It's important for our generation not to miss our chance, and we're close to missing it," says Vitaly Shabunin, a 29-year old anti-corruption activist who failed to get elected into parliament and is now pushing anti-graft legislation from the outside.

Interestingly, young field commanders from the war in eastern Ukraine who got elected aren't part of these discussions: They're more concerned with making Ukraine combat-ready than setting a pro-European path. Nayyem and other intellectuals have a more forward-looking plan.

One of Nayyem's biggest problems is figuring out how to survive on a Ukrainian legislator's salary of less than $500 per month. Nayyem, who says he has enough savings for about six months, has complained on Facebook that the salary is ridiculous if you're not in business or a thief. The posts met with a storm of condemnation he considers hypocritical. Nonetheless, $500 is a princely sum throughout most of Ukraine.

As we talked, I found myself thinking that someone like Nayyem might have the same problems going into politics almost anywhere, not just in war-torn Ukraine, which teeters on the edge of a financial meltdown. There's a sense of normalcy in the way Nayyem talks about petty political intrigue and plans for a full term in parliament, and not enough about the urgency of saving the country.

That lack of alarm is common among Kiev's politicians and bureaucrats. In Nayyem's case, it may just be the forced optimism of someone working to avoid the worst-case scenario. Whatever it is, I hope for Ukraine's sake that Nayyem's experiment with politics is successful, that he doesn't get discouraged and that more people like him get elected next time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net