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Reforming Ukraine – slow progress or unrealistic expectations?

Some western observers of Ukrainian reforms become frustrated with the slow pace. Perhaps they have unrealistic expectations considering the challenges the country faces?

October 2, 2018 - Stefan Jajecznyk - Articles and Commentary

Delegation of the European Union to Ukraine. Volodymyrska street. Kiev Photo: Tohaomg (cc) wikimedia.org

Of the varying demands made of opposition forces at the height of Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution, the calls for reforms at all levels of government and society were largely universal. While for some groups reforms were fundamental to their new visions for the country, others considered reforms necessary but not a priority. All political forces paid at least some lip-service to the issue of reforms as part of both their presidential and parliamentary campaigns. This included the old guard – Yulia Tymoshenko, Petro Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatseniuk, and others – who with varying degrees of populist rhetoric called for reforms as part of a range of policies aimed at all levels of society. But it was new faces with predominantly media backgrounds, such as Mustafa Nayyem and Serhii Leschenko, who with genuine conviction made EU-style political reforms central to their campaigns and subsequent terms as MPs.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Western governments and institutions who backed regime-change in Ukraine agreed to support Ukraine financially. The IMF, amongst others, made financial support conditional on reforms backed by up by solid legislation. More than five years on from the upheaval of the Maidan, western media and political commentators seem to have grown impatient with the slow pace of reforms, evidently forgetful of the extent of Ukraine’s challenges: currency collapse, political instability and the unwavering spectre of a war that has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions and cost the government billions. In a recent article for the EU Observer, Ariana Gic and Roman Sohn, argue that Ukraine’s achievements to date are impressive in light of these difficulties. She makes a strong case that Ukraine’s top priority must be to reach a satisfactory conclusion to the war on its eastern border. Implementing sweeping reforms in the midst of a conflict could be socially, politically and economically traumatic. But reforms are a strict requirement of Ukraine receiving western financial aid and are codified in the EU Association Agreement that came into effect in September 2017, and the country is therefore under tremendous pressure to accelerate the pace of transformation.

Gic’s and Sohn’s anger, shared by many, reflects a concern to defend Ukraine from an inexplicably impotent western press that seems to use reforms as a stick with which to beat Ukrainian President Poroshenko and the country in general. The west seems to ignore the financial impact of the war: a vastly increased defence budget now takes up 5 per cent of Ukraine’s GDP, while many NATO countries struggle to meet that organisation’s 2 per cent target. Poroshenko cuts a divisive figure in Ukraine. His handling of the war has made him extremely unpopular with right-leaning ‘patriots’, while his reluctance to relinquish his business interests has made him unpopular with a new generation of liberals who for whom the dream is a Ukraine integrated with the west. Poroshenko is increasingly seen as a liability, inhibiting or mishandling reform. A cynical public, who for the past four years have seen all kinds of hardship, is growing impatient.

Western commentators and pro-Europe liberals in Ukraine are quick to point the finger of blame in the President’s direction. A recent op-ed in the Washington Post by Daria Kaleniuk and Melinda Haring argued that while changes and reform in Ukraine have taken place, “the accomplishment isn’t his to claim. In fact, his role is more deserving of questions than kudos.” The reality is somewhat different. His party, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, have in fact supported all votes for reform policy in Parliament, according to Vox Ukraine.

They found that the Popular Front (loyal to former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk) comes in first while the Poroshenko Bloc comes in second, according to attendance rates of MP’s and number of votes in favour of reforms. Vox Ukraine writes that without the support of these two factions “there could not be in practice the adoption of any laws.”

Another misconception touted as fact by western commentators is that political will for reforms is missing. While it would be naïve to argue that the old mentality of corruption died after Euromaidan, there is huge public and political support for change. They are hampered above all by the opaque addiction of certain powerful interests to graft and deception, old habits left over from soviet times. This is the real and present threat. Take medical reforms for example. There is an ongoing hate campaign personally directed against the minister for health, Ulana Suprun, obstructing her from carrying out essential reforms. The venomous media campaign against the US-born minister has descended bizarre rumours, deplorable hate speech and downright lies from her opponents. This is because of her attempts to westernise Ukraine’s ailing Soviet relic of a healthcare system. Her nefarious detractors cynically exploit the fears of a public poorly informed about the nature and scope of the problem.

For western commentators, the inability of reformers to swiftly do away with the nay-saying old-guard (whose power and networks have been accumulated over decades, and whose revenue streams are topped-up by exploiting the old system) is given little reflection and simply taken as evidence of the country’s unwillingness to reform. Yet since 2013, Ukraine has slowly but surely been building a legal framework for an Anti-Corruption Court. And leaders have already laid the foundations for its accompanying institutional structure, the National Anti-corruption Bureau and a specialised Anti-corruption Prosecutor’s office. These are tangible achievements in which mainstream western media show no interest.

Ukraine deserves praise

Thankfully, experts are taking notice. A new report, published by the Institute of Economic Reform this year, highlights two positive achievements in the fight against corruption. First, the report praises the institutional framework being built to fight corruption. As well as new anti-corruption courts and police, the country has embarked on a more transparent public procurement and political e-declaration system to combat what has traditionally been a major area of corruption in Ukraine. The report also brings to attention reforms targeting specific problem areas of corruption, namely taxation, the gas industry and banking. These are reported to be saving the state approximately 6 billion US dollars per year

Ukraine’s parliament is not perfect, but it has “accomplished the most in adopting reforms that bring Ukraine closer to Europe of any Ukrainian parliament in nearly three decades of independence,” writes Taras Kuzio, a prominent British expert on Ukraine. Yet the stereotype of Ukraine as poor, inefficient and corrupt has proven hard to shake off, and is still willingly and erroneously touted by many in the west. But the reality is not so bleak. Ukraine is performing well. It is complying with its EU and IMF obligations and implementing tough nation-wide reforms that, if carried through, will transform the power architecture of the state. This is going on over a background of war, mass internal displacement of citizens, and decades of post-Soviet graft. There is good reason to believe Ukraine can continue in its positive direction. More solidarity from friends in the west would be a very welcome boost to this process.

Stefan Jajecznyk is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies at University College London and has an MA in Journalism from the University of Salford. He is a freelance reporter with extensive experience working in busy newsrooms in the UK and abroad.

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