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We need to put pressure on the government

An interview with Anna Korbut, an editor at Tyzhden/The Ukrainian Week. Interviewer: Iwona Reichardt

February 15, 2016 - Anna Korbut Iwona Reichardt - Interviews

Photo courtesy of Anna Korbut

IWONA REICHARDT: On February 16th, Ukraine’s government is going to present a report with an assessment of its work since the elections in October 2014. The government’s level of support is very low and the resignation of the minister of economy, Aivarus Abromavicius, has raised serious concerns in the European Union and the West over the situation in Ukraine. What do you expect to be the government’s next steps?

ANNA KORBUT: The main message that the government has already sent was expressed in the resignation of Abromavicius. Obviously, there will be positive things to say about 2015 in the report: relative macroeconomic stability, e-systems that increase transparency and minimize corruption opportunities in public procurements and monitoring of the way public funds are spent, to name a few. However, these are not the systemic changes that deal with the sources of corruption, cronyism and impudence among top and mid-level officials. And that is the key expectation of people from both the government and president.

It is not only that the EU diplomats who are concerned, but a large part of the Ukrainian society as well. Many Ukrainians were frustrated with the resignation of the minister of economy and his whole team, which was preceded by resignations of other ministers who then came back to the government. The impression is that the Ukrainian government is trying to balance its rhetoric and some insignificant steps to create an image that it is doing what Ukrainians want it to do, while protecting the oligarchs and influential people in governmental circles.

Such things like the resignation of Abromavicius are, on the one hand, bad for Ukraine but, on the other hand, they help highlight the problem and help Ukrainians realise its scale. I hope that Ukrainians will react to this before it turns into the proper comeback of the old system. The pressure of our western partners on the Ukrainian government, such as by linking visa liberalisation to anti-corruption measures or saying they will suspend financial assistance unless reforms take place, is also necessary. This is exactly what we need and we welcome that. Although I must say that average Ukrainians, not those who live in cities and have relatively good jobs, are really struggling financially – that can sour their moods in a way that plays into the hands of populists and revanchist forces.

There is an important anniversary also approaching in Ukraine – the second anniversary of the EuroMaidan bloodshed. What is Ukraine now, two years after the revolution?

Ukraine is still struggling today. There are lot of people who do not understand how politics work and they probably had high expectations after the revolution. At some point we – journalists and activists – also had high expectations, but we realised they were emotionally-based. What we needed, first and foremost, was a government that, even if it did not change everything upside down, would listen to the people; a government we could put pressure on. While it has become increasingly difficult to put pressure on the current government, there is still some room since after the Maidan. Civil society plays the strongest role here, with monitoring, watchdog groups and other organisations that receive support from the West.

We do not see a huge success story yet in Ukraine. It is all very painful and very slow, but at the end of the day, there is some change.

Back in 2014, Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government started with a pretty high level of popular support. Now it has shrunk to almost zero. But there are other figures hungry for this position, just to name a few, Yulia Tymoshenko or Mikheil Saakashvili…

It appears that we may have early parliamentary elections in Ukraine, probably in the autumn. Different people are trying to develop their political profile for that prospect. I personally would not like to see Tymoshenko or Saakashvili as prime minister. Yatsenyuk is not doing the job either, although I do not see an alternative so far that could gain enough votes if the Parliament votes against Yatsenyuk after he presents the report. Ukraine needs someone who is not a populist but also not a complete technocrat. The best fit would be a skilled politician who could resist the influence of the corrupt politicians and oligarchs.

It is important to say, however, that by now Ukrainians are disappointed with Yatsenyuk just as much as they are with President Petro Poroshenko who has not delivered on the promise of reforms and anti-corruption moves. Plus, there is also a very difficult economic situation in the country. This creates a very fertile ground for the rise of populists like Tymoshenko, or even Saakashvili to some extent, and that is dangerous. At the same time, I can see a rise of post-Maidan politicians who could become a serious counterweight to the mainstream parties and eventually change the country. But they need to consolidate to be able to do that. It would take some time, of course, and I am not sure if they could manage to do it before the next elections.

This would be the second parliamentary election after the EuroMaidan. In October 2014 the main rhetoric in the election campaign was an anti-Yanukovych regime one. What would it be this time?

Minority parties who are in parliament or used to be, but did not make in the latest election, will probably play on the issues of economy and war as they have not been in charge, and of course the mistakes of those currently in power (importantly, they themselves made the same mistakes while in power earlier). The ruling parties will most likely touch upon economy as well, but since they are in charge their room for manoeuvring is much smaller.

I would expect in the pre-election campaign to see the ruling parties try to carve out some social benefits for people and argue that they managed to resist Russia. There will be also forces that will play on the anti-corruption agenda as there really is a lot of demand in the society to tackle it.

Out of all these, I see few people who could actually deliver on their promises, act independently and in the interests of the state. These are mostly new people who came to parliament or government from journalism, business or civil society after the Maidan. Whether they have a chance to form a serious political platform depends on whether they manage to consolidate efforts and communicate with frustrated electorate. The next six month-year will be the interesting period to watch in that regard.

Many in the West express impatience about the progress of Ukraine’s reforms. What do you think is the main obstacle with the pace of these reforms and the biggest threat that Ukrainian economy is facing now?

The main obstacle is that our politicians are trying to balance between creating a reform-friendly image and satisfying their own and their friends’ financial interests. We do not have a political majority which is accountable to the society. Ukraine has potential for having one, but it will most likely take more than one or two years to shape with all the resistance from the old-school system, and be based on the new people I mentioned above.

The Revolution of Dignity was meant to bring more hope and optimism. However, what we see now is a rise of pessimism. Would you say that the EuroMaidan’s hopes are gone for good or there is still some room for optimism?

I think that some hopes related to the EuroMaidan were too high. If one was not naïve, then people would understand how complex Ukraine’s situation is and how much struggle it would take to change the country. Right now there is a sober understanding of the difficulty of the situation. It leads to a lot of frustration, this is true. But at least the understanding exists and if you have a sober understanding of the situation, you are better prepared to deal with the challenges you are facing than when you are more emotional.

Anna Korbut is an editor at Tyzhden/The Ukrainian Week.

Iwona Reichardt is deputy editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe. She holds a PhD in political science.


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