UKRAINE’S POLITICAL elite has repeatedly blown chances to stabilize the country and ensure its independence from Russia. Now, a whole new group will have a chance. On July 21, frustrated voters replaced more than 60 percent of the parliament, relegating the parties that have run the government in the past to the margins. The big winner was neophyte President Volodymyr Zelensky, who called the snap election after taking office in May. His party, stocked with first-time candidates, won an absolute parliamentary majority — the first political force to do so since Ukraine gained sovereignty in 1991.
Mr. Zelensky, whose previous job was playing the role of president in a television comedy, now has an extraordinary opportunity to deliver on his promises: ending the war with Russian-backed separatists, fighting corruption and jump-starting the perpetually underperforming economy. The first might be difficult to deliver because it depends on the goodwill of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is bent on undermining any Ukrainian government that will not accept his suzerainty. But Mr. Zelensky could transform his country and ensure its future if he uses his unprecedented authority to push through long-overdue legal, institutional and economic reforms. He should act quickly.
The president has sent some positive signals. He already asked parliament to end its members’ immunity from prosecution, authorize the prosecution of officials for graft and approve the replacement of the chief prosecutor. He has suggested that he will nominate an economist with no political history as prime minister; reports say he is considering a couple of respected technocrats known for their pro-reform views.
It’s hard to overstate the scale of Ukraine’s corruption problem. Oligarchs routinely sway government policies to benefit their interests; the judiciary and prosecutors’ offices are riddled with crooked officials. Reforms designed by experts and backed by Western governments and the International Monetary Fund have repeatedly been blocked. Mr. Zelensky can show that his government will be different by installing new prosecutors, pressing judicial reform, backing an anti-corruption court and cleaning up the customs agency. Meanwhile, he should keep his distance from Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch with whom he partnered on his television show, who has been accused of looting a bank.
The prime minister Mr. Zelensky appoints will need to seek a new deal with the IMF, which will want to see economic reforms as well as anti-corruption moves. There is much to be done: Private sales of agricultural land in Ukraine are still not legal , and there are 3,500 state-owned companies, most of which should be privatized. Action on these items, which the IMF and Western governments have urged for years, could persuade Western companies that Ukraine is finally worth investing in.
Mr. Zelensky’s landslide electoral victories have set Ukraine apart from other nations in Eastern Europe, where democracy is compromised or nonexistent. If he succeeds, he could transform the region’s political climate and deal a potentially crippling blow to Mr. Putin’s authoritarian model and his imperalist ambitions. The United States, which under the Trump administration has been supportive of Ukrainian sovereignty, should do whatever it can to help. But it will be up to Mr. Zelensky and the new political elite he has created to show that Ukraine can succeed.