Ukraine's Nadiya Savchenko Could be a Political Game Changer

Nadiya Savchenko in parliament
Ukrainian pilot and MP Nadiya Savchenko, center, attends a session of the parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, May 31. Andrew Kravchenko/Pool

Few Ukrainian citizens have endured as much as the helicopter pilot, and recently released POW, Nadiya Savchenko. Captured by Donbass separatists in the early days of the war and delivered into Russian custody, Savchenko was imprisoned for 708 days, subjected to a Kafkaesque show-trial and sentenced to 22 years in prison. When Savchenko was released in a prisoner exchange on May 25, speculation about her political future began before her plane even touched the ground. Her defiance during her imprisonment turned her into a symbol of national resistance. Now she is no longer just a symbol, but a political actor with unrivalled popular support and moral authority, with the potential to become the most consequential political leader in Ukraine's history.

So far the indicators are that Savchenko is preparing to do just that—in a press conference she declared she "could" run for president "if Ukrainians wanted it." But the next election is three years away. For the moment Savchenko will sit on the parliament's defense committee and has pledged to focus on returning other Ukrainians in Russian captivity. This is a shrewd move, one that plays to her strengths and allows her to maintain her profile through popular, uncontroversial causes and gives her a grounding in the day to day business of politics.

Revolutionary hopes remain unfulfilled

If and when Savchenko does reach for the brass ring, her biggest opponent will not be any individual politician, but the structure of Ukrainian politics itself. Despite the high hopes of the Euromaidan revolutionaries, Ukraine's sistema—the corrupt patterns of governance and business that have blighted the state since independence—has proven to be highly resilient. Following the collapse of the Yatsenyuk government in April, reformists were purged from positions of influence, seemingly with President Poroshenko's blessing, signaling a return to business as usual .

The politics of sistema has had a baleful impact on Ukraine. Domestic instability and Russian aggression had already undermined the investment climate, and, combined with the failure of the reform agenda, resulted in a 12.5 percent contraction in GDP last year. Investors and entrepreneurs are willing to endure high levels of risk for a commensurate reward, but will balk if the political system actively stacks the odds against them. The whole purpose of the sistema is to create a nexus between business and politics that serves the economic interests of established "insiders" by preventing the emergence of any competition. While the elite know that the sistema is a roadblock to economic development, its very nature ensures those in power have a stake in preserving it.

Prospects for reform—down, but not out

Savchenko is sui generis in this context—a major political actor who remains untainted and unencumbered by association with the political status quo. Her defiance during court appearances, and multiple hunger strikes demonstrated her willingness to endure hardship, to the point of endangering her own life in the service of her nation. The contrast with the existing political elite could not appear starker. It also demonstrates she possesses the strength of character, and sheer stubbornness, to resist being co-opted by them.

That doesn't mean that they won't try. Poroshenko and Fatherland party leader Yuliya Tymoshenko competed to see who could hug Savchenko tighter—to the pilot's visible discomfort—on her release. Savchenko's placement on the Fatherland party list in 2014's parliamentary elections was itself an early effort to capitalize on her popularity. However, Savchenko the person will be far less pliable than Savchenko the symbol.

Which path will Savchenko take?

This is assuming Savchenko and her supporters remain committed to constitutional politics. The Donbass war has been fought largely by volunteer militias and young officers have no love for the political and military establishment whose seeming incompetence and graft have levied a heavy toll on the battlefield. A "colonels' putsch" led by Savchenko could even have some initial success in establishing the rule of law and fighting corruption. However, the more likely outcome of a military coup is even greater political and economic turmoil, pushing Ukraine towards state failure. Alternately a 'third Maidan' supported by Savchenko would have a strong chance of toppling Poroshenko, but would do little to further a legal and constitutional political culture.

The politics of sistema are those of conspiracy and intrigue among political insiders. In an irony of fate, Ukraine's best chance for breaking this pattern now lies in the hands of a 35-year-old, previously avowedly apolitical, helicopter pilot. The term game changer is a political cliché, but Savchenko's release is the rare occurrence that merits the description. Assuming Savchenko brings the physical and moral courage, not to mention stubbornness, she showed in prison to her political career, a conflict with the sistema is inevitable sometime in the future. The question is whether Savchenko can beat the sistema and if so, what replaces it. The answer will define Ukraine's political and economic prospects for a generation or more.

Daragh McDowell is principal Europe and Central Asia analyst at risk consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft.