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Are Ukrainians assessing their leaders unfairly?

The last four years have been challenging for the Ukrainian state. Would anyone have dealt with everything better than President Poroshenko?

August 17, 2018 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Petro Poroshenko at the Shevchenko National Prize ceremony in 2016. Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine (cc)

Are Ukrainians being a nation of masochists? This is a good question as Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch was born in Lviv (then called Lemberg) and could from that point of view belong to Ukrainian history.

When President Leonid Kuchma published his well-known book – Ukraine is not Russia, he never focused on major differences in Ukrainian and Russian political cultures. Russians seem to never see anything wrong with their Tsar, Vozhd or super macho President. Ukrainians meanwhile, can find nothing good about their leaders and tend to describe the situation in the country in fatalistic terms. And yet, just today I read a tweet by Melinda Haring, usually a fervent critic of President Petro Poroshenko, saying: “Ukraine lept an impressive sixty-one positions between 2013 and 2018, from 137th place to 76th on World Bank’s Doing Business Index.”

If one compares the Russian and Ukrainian media, one would think that Russia is blossoming as a country while Ukraine is in abject stagnation. The reality though is the opposite as Russia is the only member of the BRIC countries in decline; in contrast Brazil, India and China are rising powers. Contemporary Russia looks like the USSR in the first half of the 1980s. Ukraine has survived Viktor Yanukovych’s mafia state looting of the country and Vladimir Putin’s military aggression and is set to join Europe after leaving the Russian World where it has languished for 300 years.

A case in point of Ukrainian masochism is the evaluation of President Poroshenko’s four years in power by 50 Ukrainian experts. They gave him an evaluation of 6 out of 12, which they describe as neither a breakthrough nor a failure. Perhaps Bankova Street should be happy with this ranking as if it had been made for Viktor Yushchenko’s first four years he would have perhaps received a one or two (and here I am being generous). But, I think that a 6 is unfair and Poroshenko should have received an 8 or maybe even a 9. He obviously would not be given a 12, as no politician even in the Western world, where masochism is less prevalent, would receive full marks. But, as I will show, I believe the experts were overly critical without giving more benefit.

The evaluation gave Poroshenko positive marks for the visa free regime with the EU, Ukrainian foreign policy and ensuring the country survived Yanukovych’s and Putin’s attempts at destroying it. Very good, but what of other positive developments since 2014?

The implementation of a wide range of reforms since 2014 did not happen earlier and as Vox Ukraine shows, this was only possible because of the support given by the 217 MP’s of the Poroshenko Bloc and Popular Front factions. Samopomych and other factions sometimes backed the reforms, but 80 per cent of votes were given by factions loyal to the president and former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk.

The fact that some key reforms such as land privatisation were not implemented, is not the fault of the president but of Batkivshchyna and the radical populist parties who oppose them.

During Poroshenko’s presidency, Ukraine built the best army it has ever had. The Soviet era Ministry of Internal Affairs Militia has been transformed into a Police force and National Guard. Ukraine’s military industrial complex has been re-built and revived, providing new weapons for its security forces and earning hard currency from exports.

A third area of progress is in Ukrainian nation building. During Ukraine’s independence there has been a competition between the eastern and western parts of the country over whose values would dominate. During Yanukovych’s presidency he attempted to impose Donetsk values over Ukraine and failed. Since 2014, the values of Ukraine’s west, which had spread to the centre of the country in 2004, triumphed in the east.

During the last four years Ukraine has made tremendous strides in de-communisation and de-Russianisation. Russian soft power has been severely curtailed in Ukraine with only the Russian Orthodox Church left as an instrument for Moscow’s influence. If Orthodox autocephaly is achieved next month it will signify the end of Russian influence in Ukraine. Ukrainian language, culture and history have been supported and are making progress.

All of the above show that Ukraine has undertaken a lot of steps forward for which civil society, journalists, parliament and government should be given credit for. But, so should the president as he controls the largest faction in parliament and has had influence over both governments.

The three main negative evaluations of Poroshenko’s presidency were the fight against corruption, changing the political system and judiciary.

There are three components to the fight against corruption. Two of these steps have been undertaken in building new institutions which would fight corruption and closing sources of corruption that were previously used. The Anti-Corruption Court is both part of the first step (new institutions) and the third, ensuring elites are held accountable and everybody is equal before the law. Unfortunately, Ukrainian experts and journalists only focus on one of them – how many people have been criminally charged while ignoring progress in the two first steps highlighted in the report prepared by the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting.

The second and third negative evaluations can be discussed together. Poroshenko is certainly conservative and has hence maintained the old guard in power in important cities in eastern and southern Ukraine – Odessa, Kharkiv and Dnipro. But, we should consider two factors.

The first is that Ukraine – like all former Soviet republics – has very weak political parties. Samopomych, the darling of the West as the most reformist faction in parliament, for example, has a rating that hovers around only 5 per cent.

The second is that political systems do not change in such short periods as only four years – if at all. Italy is a founding member of the EU and has been a member for seven decades. Yet, politics and business continue to be conducted in informal ways and real power is in the hands of informal structures. The experts criticised Poroshenko for not changing the nature of informal influence in Ukrainian politics and business and yet long-time EU members have never removed this aspect from their countries. The influence of informal structures and big business has grown, not diminished, in US politics and the reason why there was a populist backlash in the 2016 elections.

Are Ukrainian experts asking more of Ukrainian presidents than Italian or Greek voters do of their leaders?

A final point to be considered is whether any alternative political leader to Poroshenko would have dealt with these three negative areas any better. In 2014, the candidate who came second was Yulia Tymoshenko who is also the most popular candidate in current opinion polls for next year’s elections. I do not believe that Tymoshenko would have reformed the judiciary, removed informality from politics and business and undertaken a better job in fighting corruption. Vox Ukraine ranked Batkivshchyna in fifth place based on its voting record on fighting corruption and supporting reforms.

What of other popular candidates in next year’s election? Anatoliy Grytsenko is sometimes viewed as part of the ‘pro-Western reformers’ but he has no program except criticism, no team and is a supporter of authoritarian methods. In a recent interview he was positive  about Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Obviously, Vadym Rabinovych and Yuriy Boyko would not have been or could become better presidents. Their Opposition Bloc is not only a successor to the Mafiosi Party of Regions it also opposed every reform that Ukraine has undertaken and understandably does not support the fight against corruption.

Criticism is a fundamental right in any democracy and should be welcomed. But, one would hope that Ukrainians expand their democracy at the same time as consigning masochism to history.

Taras Kuzio is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins – SAIS and Professor at the Department of Political Science National University Kyiv Mohyla Academy. His book, Putin’s War Against Ukraine. Revolution, Nationalism and Crime was published in March 2017.

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