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What should the West demand from Ukraine in 2019?

It has long been commonplace to say that as long as the old political class of Ukraine is not interested in changing the system, reforms in Ukraine are achieved only by joint pressure from the West and Ukrainian civil society. Why is that so?

January 22, 2019 - Valerii Pekar - Blogs and podcastsUkraine elections 2019

Aerial of Girl with embroidery in Kyiv Photo: Marco Verch (cc) flickr.com

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

Does the West really need Ukraine? How to overcome “Ukraine fatigue”? And what should the West demand from Ukrainian authorities in 2019 in exchange for further support?

Actually, there are two drivers of reforms in Ukraine, namely the active minority of Ukrainians involved in civil society organizations on the one hand, and Western governments and international financial organizations on the other hand.

The majority of Ukrainian NGOs represent Ukrainians with civil responsibility, liberal values, and often better education. Now unfortunately, five years after the Revolution of Dignity (December 2013 — February 2014), this active minority has no political representation. There are many reasons why a viable liberal political party was not established, including objective factors like long period of statelessness and weakness of political culture, almost total absence of modern political parties in a climate where all entities are old-fashioned patron-client clans, high entry barriers and lack of resources like media (owned by oligarchs) which are necessary to create a nation-wide structure, and so on. Other observers point out subjective factors like lack of trust between leaders or their personal ambitions.

That is why all political organizations in Ukraine generally are opponents of reforms and base their activity on preserving the status quo and maintaining a lack of social demand to change. It is surprising reforms have been pursued at all, and this is the merit of the two above-mentioned drivers, including a few people which active minority managed to promote to some high positions in the government and the parliament.

The second question is does the West really need Ukraine. The answer is definitely yes, because a failed Ukraine will fuel further Russian hybrid aggression against European security, institutions and values, including support of left and right-wing radicals, cyberattacks, provocation of local conflicts and separatism, penetration into elections and referendums, terrorist acts, and even possible direct military aggression during moments of maximal disunity of the West (predicted by many Western analysts, which most people prefer not to notice). No doubt, a failed Ukraine also means millions of refugees flooding European cities, which would challenge Europe much more than refugees from the Middle East.

Meanwhile, a successful Ukraine is the only force able to militarily contain Russia on the ground and at the same time is a great market and huge investment field. Moreover, some Western policymakers used to say that supporting Ukraine is investing into European security. These reasons are enough to overcome fatigue regarding Ukraine (this fatigue was caused by excessive expectations and thus is very similar to despondency and frustration overwhelming an essential part of Ukrainian civil activists now, five years later). And Western support could be very efficient either through strong international institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) or on a bilateral basis.

So, what should the West demand from Ukraine in 2019? During previous years the West concentrated its demands around financial stability and transformation of institutions. The first goal was achieved, the second is more problematic. Institution building is a long process, which took in some Western countries half a century or even more. The Ukrainian case is even more complicated, because the country was stateless during all these centuries when near and far neighbours afforded to build theirs. Some brand new institutions, created from scratch, show disappointingly poor results, like anticorruption bodies, which served as the West’s first priority in Ukraine in recent years. Indeed, institutions are extremely important and have to be kept in focus, but this process can provide few low-hanging fruits.

My suggestion is that the West should now focus on two major areas: economics and security. These two areas are the most important reasons why the West really needs Ukraine, and they will provide answers on other issues. And Western pressure in 2019 could be efficient, like in all other cases, when Ukraine needs financial support.

Economics is the key for many important changes. Economists believe that Ukraine can be an economic tiger of Eastern Europe, with its big educated population, massive local market, innovative entrepreneurial initiative and giant natural resources. Fast economic growth will provide the security sector and social reforms with greater budgets, will help to overcome populism and paternalism, will lead to better social cohesion and decrease all tensions, and finally will create a middle class to strengthen the democracy. Last but not least, this is an important attractor to those Ukrainians who live in the occupied territories under pressure of Russian propaganda, which talks constantly about Ukrainian economic problems (as well as European and American ones, but keeps silent on Russian ones). The list of long overdue economic reforms was compiled long ago, it includes transparent privatization and land reform, tax reform and deregulation, antimonopoly measures, pension reform and labour code changes. Many observers see the window of opportunity for at least part of this list in 2019.

Another priority should be security. Despite unique and valuable war experience (which highlighted many military talents), the Ukrainian security sector is old-fashioned and obsolete. There are a lot of changes at the level of battalions, but at the level of command practically nothing has changed. The ministry of defence, the general staff, and intelligence and counterintelligence bodies demonstrate disappointing underperformance. But they could be pilots and drivers of changes for the whole system of Ukrainian state institutions, providing success stories, case studies, practical hints, and experienced state managers. History of Western countries is full of stories telling how security challenges forced institutional reforms first in the security sector, then diverged like waves throughout the state systems. Systemic implementation of NATO standards, a fully civil ministry of defence, installation of a civil control over the defence sector, an independent board at Ukroboronprom (military industry state-owned holding company), and the introduction of private-public partnership in security sector to open cooperation with Western technological leaders are just few bullet points from the list.

Economy and security are two answers on questions why the West really needs Ukraine. These two also answer what the West should demand from Ukraine to improve its stability and increase performance.

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 on New Eastern Europe titled Ukraine: The European frontier.



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