There is clear progress in Ukraine
Interview with Paweł Kowal, a post-doctoral fellow at the College of Europe in Natolin and former Member of the European Parliament. Interviewer: Iwona Reichardt
IWONA REICHARDT: You were the first politician representing the European Union to speak on stage at the Maidan in 2013. What are your memories from that time?
PAWEŁ KOWAL: I was informed that things were very serious and I could not wait for any permission, just go quickly to Kyiv. And I went straight away. When I arrived I met up with some experts from the Gorshenin Institute, a think tank in Kyiv. They told me that I had to act quickly and give a speech on the Maidan to show that somebody from the EU was interested in what was going on in Ukraine. I went to the Maidan. I met Mustafa Nayyem who said that of course it was a great idea. So I went on the stage. However, at that time there were two protests. One was the demonstration that convened after Nayyem’s Facebook post, while the political opposition was gathering on the European Square. I decided to go there after I had met with Petro Poroshenko. At European Square we were approached by Arseniy Yatseniuk who asked us to get on stage. After me the head of the Lithuanian Parliament, Loreta Graužinienė, went on the stage.
I would say that this was a symbolic moment when different EU politicians started to come to the Maidan to support the demonstrations. Later these demonstrations were united, but at that time there were still two protests. I participated in both – at the Maidan and at the European Square protest. The speech that was recorded and available on YouTube is the speech from the European Square, which was my second speech that day.
The demonstrations were attended by many politicians – you mentioned some already – who are today actively building the new Ukraine. Poroshenko is Ukraine’s president, and Nayyem is a deputy to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament…
Well, things are not 100 per cent the way you said. The persons in charge of the protests at the European Square were: Yatseniuk, Oleh Tiahybuk and Vitali Klitschko. These three were back then making the political decisions on behalf of the opposition.
Yes, we remember them being called the Three Tenors…
Right. At that time Petro Poroshenko was treated with some distance by those politicians.
Was it because he was one of the oligarchs?
I don’t think it was because of his wealth, but more because they were aware that there was something new politically going on and were unwilling to share the space. This in my view is the genesis of Poroshenko’s success – he saw that they were not accepting him fully, so he focused on working with public opinion and the demonstrators. I saw it, coming later to Kyiv almost every week, sometimes more, and walking with him on the Maidan. I could see how his charisma was growing. I could see how he was turning from a politician who was treated with distance into a politician increasingly admired by the people. Demonstrators were willingly approaching him, making small groups, listening to his short speeches. This was growing and growing and at a certain point, Poroshenko did not need the stage at all; his sheer presence at the Maidan was generating enthusiasm among the demonstrators.
Five years after these events, what is your assessment of Ukraine?
I think that we have a right to make a comparison with the post-Orange revolution period, which is the most important reference point. We shouldn’t judge events by our own idealistic ideas, but rather focus on a realistic assessment of what was possible and compare it with what was achieved after 2004.
So what has been achieved?
In my view, if we base our assessment on events from 2004, the balance is clearly positive. Ukraine has become a politically stable state with a politically stable government. It has managed to maintain the interest of the West and the political protection of the EU and the United States.
It has managed to carry out deep reforms in some areas, for example in the army. In this regards the war in Donbas somewhat helped as military combat has forced the reform and a different approach to, for example, military procurement as well as a different organisation of civilian-military matters. It also forced the government to tackle difficult issues such as how to properly design the command structure. Yes, I would say the army is one of the main institutions that has really improved in Ukraine.
Another great success is the change of atmosphere around the army which can be seen in a large number of non-governmental, volunteer-based organisations that have been supporting the army. The fact that for the first time in its history Ukraine has a national army, and not a regional army connected to one political camp as in the past, is a huge success.
I would also highlight scientific research, where corruption has been largely curtailed and many western standards have been introduced. Maybe this is not true for all areas of science yet, but there are definitely visible improvements. The fight against corruption, which is the greatest challenge, has also seen some success, especially at the high level.
The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) was created. One can argue, and indeed people do, that NABU is just an isolated institution but it was created nonetheless. And it works. This means that we can talk about very concrete successes for the Ukrainian state after the 2013-2014 revolution. But, of course, there are problems. The price that Ukraine is paying is the occupation of Crimea and Russian military intervention in Donbas.
But these are external factors. I agree that a lot has been achieved, but at the same time when you look at internal changes, including corruption, which you started to talk about, I would argue that the success is partial at the most…
True, but there can never be complete success in this area. When you talk about corruption in Ukraine, and it is an issue that around the world is often brought up in relation to Ukraine, we have to be more precise and point out where there was success and where there was not. I think that in some areas there has been success, but there are areas where there hasn’t been any, that is indeed true.
What is the source of this inability to carry out a comprehensive anti-corruption reform?
The thing is that people’s expectations for Ukraine are too much based on expectations that were formulated towards Central European states in the 1990s, at the time of their systemic transformations. We need to remember that Ukraine is not undergoing a transformation from communism to a market economy, but a transformation from an oligarchic state to some kind of a democratic-oligarchic state, where the democratic element will be playing an increasingly more important role. That is why comparisons with Central Europe of the 1990s make no sense.
One more thing, maybe the most important but the least discussed one. Let’s not forget that for the first time in history, the transformational processes that are taking place in Ukraine go in parallel with the unification of the state. When we take into account the whole history of Ukraine, we see that this is the first moment when Ukraine is becoming a state that is inhabited by ethnic Ukrainians. So a better comparison might be the 19th century unifications of Germany or Italy. This process will, naturally, last for some time and will likely be marked by more twists and turns that we cannot predict right now.
I get the sense that when looking at Ukraine’s future you are rather an optimist…
To be honest I think that Ukraine today is facing one fundamental problem and it is a problem shared by rich countries. Here I am referring to demographics. This, in my view, is an issue which can pose a real threat to Ukraine.
However, the process of change which we are analysing through the prism of the last 30 years in a research project focusing on Ukrainian revolutions carried out by the College of Europe in Natolin (Warsaw), shows quite clearly that progress has taken place. It has been made in the areas of social structure, social activity, civic control of authorities and an increasing civic responsibility for the state, as well as a much higher level of identification with the state among the Ukrainian people. All these phenomena are taking place today in Ukraine.
However, it is true that the speed of development may not be as fast as some people had hoped. This is true possibly for two reasons. First, the process of state unification is underway. Second, support from the West, even if it is there, is nonetheless not as large as that received by Central Europe after 1989.
Paweł Kowal is a post-doctoral fellow at the College of Europe’s Natolin campus. He is a political scientist, historian, essayist and political commentator. He previously served as a Member of the European Parliament and was Secretary of State at Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is a member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board.
Iwona Reichardt is the deputy editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.