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What should be the West’s strategy in Ukraine?

Ukraine: The European frontier – a blog curated by Valerii Pekar.

February 14, 2017 - Valerii Pekar - Articles and Commentary

eu ukraine

Ukrainian-European romance began some years ago in a totally different atmosphere. A strong and united European Union welcomed Ukraine’s adherence to European values, which was expressed during and after EuroMaidan. The country held transparent and democratic presidential and parliamentary elections, signed an Association Agreement and declared the launch of radical reforms. United States policy makers were also unanimous in supporting Ukraine in its aspirations for sovereignty and democracy.

But ever since, things have gotten more complicated. The European Union is disjoined and mostly disoriented, concerned with their own problems. The new American administration is trying to chart a fresh course in the turbulent waters of international politics. Russia has chosen a strategy of a protracted war of attrition. Ukraine has proven its ability to contain the aggressor, but has failed to implement fast and efficient reforms as well as fight corruption. All policy makers from San Francisco to Vladivostok look embarrassed by the world’s political realities.

The Western world has been disappointed with Ukraine’s slow reforms and continuing corruption. However, Ukrainians are also disappointed with the European Union, since the promised visa-free regime has not been introduced (for EU internal reasons), even though Ukraine has fulfilled all the required conditions. The failure to fulfil the promise has damaged the reputation of the EU and may diminish the community’s influence in Ukraine in the long term.

Some readers may think that Europe does not needs a policy on Ukraine, especially as some observers have spoken about Europe’s “Ukrainian fatigue”.. But Europe can no more remove Ukraine from its radar, than it can move the large neighbour away from its borders.

What would be the right strategy for the West to take in Ukraine in this complicated environment? Here are seven key recommendations based on the lessons learned from past mistakes.

1. Set a clear agenda and goals. An abstract appeal, “please introduce more reforms, fight corruption” does not work.

2. Set rewards for reached goals. There is no motivation without rewards. In many cases changes are painful, so people have to understand gains.

3. Always fulfil promises. When Ukraine completes its tasks, Europe has to do what has been promised. Remember that Ukrainians made the European choice of order and justice, not of disorder and irresponsibility.

4. Never slow Ukraine down, let us make drastic changes when we need to destroy communist legacy and corruption.

5. Demand sentences for top corrupt officials; this is the only way to keep social tensions at bay.

6. Concentrate on key reforms which could make Ukraine a more reliable and predictable partner such as: public administration reform, judicial reform, state finances reform, and electoral reform. Do not set too many priorities.

7. Demand implementation, not just formal paperwork: introducing nice laws in line with European practice does not mean that real changes are being made.

The public administration reform should be the first priority. Only new people with new values can change the game in public service. But new people who come from the private sector cannot survive on low salaries, much below the market level, while corrupt officials benefit from enormous additional incomes, and old-fashioned low-skilled bureaucrats are happy with any low-paid job. The long-expected European project of decent salaries for reform task-forces should solve the problem.

The judicial reform is a second priority. People demand justice. Business demands justice and property right protection. For European observers it is hard to imagine just how corrupt the whole judiciary is. All anti-corruption cases have fallen apart in corrupt courts. The reform should start with new and independent anticorruption courts, which would complete the circuit of the recently established National Anticorruption Bureau (that nevertheless has not had any major successes), a specialised anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, and the National Agency on Preventing Corruption.

State finances reform is the third key priority. It consists of inseparably connected reforms of taxes, pensions and the budget. Ukraine needs economic growth, not only to be an attractive trade partner, but to ensure its ability to defend itself. Enormous state expenses, a Soviet-style pension system, an unbalanced tax system (high taxation of labour and low taxation of capital go a long way to support inefficient old enterprises and suppress new innovative businesses), and the shameful tradition to adopt the state budget during a sleepless night on the last day of December undermine the country’s economic potential.

Electoral reform is another key issue. The gates to politics and public service have been closed to new people. This is the only area of reform from the list in which nothing has been achieved yet. The existing system helps to consolidate and protects old political clans: in majority districts mandates are bought for half of the parliament; the existing rules of party list formation provide party leaders with unlimited power; enormous political advertisement pushes out any content-oriented debates and increases the role of TV channels’ owners; and electoral committees are under total control of a few parties.

But let us ask ourselves again: Why should the West focus on Ukraine?

Today, when Europe suffers from disunity and uncertainty, it is reassuring to know that behind its eastern border there is a big nation whose people died for freedom under European flags. Throughout European history, people have fought and died for their respective states and nations, but never for the European idea. It happened only at EuroMaidan.

Ukraine is a strong nation able to defend itself, which contained a potential refugee crisis of a scale greater than the Syrian one. Ukraine may even teach Europe how to be efficient: the Ukrainian public procurement platform, ProZorro, won the most prestigious international awards showing it to be more advanced than existing European projects. I have to emphasise that there are many people in Ukraine aspiring to bring change. These people have not enough resources, and the West can help them by using the right strategy, without spending more.

Europe needs Ukraine as a big market and a pool of labour. Europe needs Ukraine as a source of new energy and values. Europe needs Ukraine as a shield against Russian hybrid aggression, which is more evident to people in Central Eastern Europe than in those Western countries who are farther away from the threat. But there are no borders and distances as far as cyberwar and information war are concerned. Ukraine is too big and too critical a neighbour to be forgotten. A failing Ukraine will undermine the whole of Europe. A successful Ukraine will strengthen the continent in terms of security and economic development.

But to conduct a successful Ukrainian policy, the West has to treat Ukraine as an adult, not a child. Today the West chides and reproaches, makes threatening gestures at times, but in the end forgives the pranks and gives a candy. Adults sign contracts and demand their fulfilment. This would be a much more rewarding strategy.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council. He curates a blog titled Ukraine: The European frontier.


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