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Ukraine on three chess boards

Checkmate on one board will affect the other.

November 8, 2019 - Valerii Pekar - Blogs and podcasts

Ukrainian grandmaster Ruslan Olehovych Ponomariov playing simultaneous chess against 25 challengers in the Zürich central train station. Photo: Jürg Vollmer (cc) wikimedia.org

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

Events in Ukraine are accelerating and becoming more complicated. It would be useful to have an adequate model explaining current events and mixed signals sent by the new Ukrainian authorities, which just a few weeks ago were considered monolithic.

Imagine Ukraine is playing a chess game on three boards: economy, war, and justice. These are three key topics on the country’s agenda. But there are three different teams playing on behalf of Ukraine, and these teams have different motivations, experiences and competences.

The economy board is led by the government, probably the most competent team ever. Due to their strategy, dedication and expertise, Ukraine is likely to win economic growth. During its first 50 days, the government launched more economic reforms than previous administrations did in many months. They unblocked large-scale privatisation, introduced new rules of state property lease, improved the World Bank Doing Business indicators eliminating some of the major corruption schemes, and increased transparency in public procurement rules. Furthermore, they introduced long-awaited concessions, simplified custom procedures, introduced unbundling of state oil and gas company Naftogaz, and improved the regulation of financial markets. Land reform and other major improvements are next in line.

Ukraine seems able to win on the economy board. R&I, Moody’s and S&P have improved Ukraine’s credit ratings. All current debts are being successfully paid, government bonds are attracting a record amount of money, the draft budget was made according to IMF restrictions, and next year’s forecast for economic growth has improved.

The war game is being played by President Zelenskyy and his aides evidently without the help of professional advisers in international affairs and national security. The Ukrainian president does not understand the real motives of the Russian president. He genuinely believes in the possibility of negotiating on mutually beneficial terms, and he hopes to fulfil a key electoral promise and appear as a peacemaker. In order to do this, he must make unilateral concessions to Russia like an unilateral cease fire and withdrawal of troops, which has caused a harsh reaction from a large part of the civil society. If this course of action continues, Ukraine will lose at this board.

It is important to emphasise that there are no signs of national consensus in Ukrainian society on how to stop the war. Most people want the war to end, which has already lasted longer than the Second World War, but understandings of how to do this are quite different. According to a recent poll by Rating Group, 34 per cent of respondents want to freeze the conflict, 23 per cent want to recapture occupied territories, 23 per cent want to give these regions autonomy, and 6 per cent want to separate from them. In this case, any course of decisive action will be criticised as unacceptable for the majority of the population. The only way to move forward is to open an inclusive national dialogue about all important issues of the post-war status of the occupied territories. These include amnesty, restoration of industry, rehabilitation of people, and local self-governance. But this is a topic for another article.

On the justice board, the major player seems to be Andrii Bohdan, the head of the president’s office and former advocate for Igor Kolomoisky, former Privatbank owner. This group also includes some infamous members of the team of ex-president Viktor Yanukovich, (Mr. Bohdan also belongs to this team). On the other side of the board, Ukrainian civil society organisations and international partners are playing. Mr. Bohdan concentrates too much on power, has explicit conflicts of interest, and prefers justice micromanagement to reach his objectives. Some, but not all, of the desires of different interest groups will be fulfilled because of joint local and international resistance. For example, recently, the G-7 ambassadors and Ukrainian NGOs strongly criticised amendments to the judicial reforms. Thus, there will be a draw on this board. Democracy, which is directly threatened by the concentration of power, also belongs to the same game.

Noticeably absent from this discussion is the parliament. At the moment, it is not a player; it is just a set of chess pieces allowing the three teams to play on their respective boards.

Thus, it looks like there are mixed outcomes: one loss, one win, one draw. But this is not true.

The fact is that the boards are not equally important. There is a senior board and there is a junior board. Seniority is determined by influence.

War is the senior board. Failure at this board can make everything else irrelevant. If Russian forces and Russian-backed terrorists come to a city, there will be neither justice nor economy there.

Justice is the middle board. If there is no fair justice system and business is under permanent illicit pressure by law enforcement agencies, there will be no economic growth.

Economy is the junior board. To win at this board, it is important to have good positions on the two senior boards, ensuring national security and justice.

It is important that different boards have different speeds of time. On the senior board of war, things can change in a matter of days. On the middle justice board, the pace is slower and measured in weeks or months. The pace of the economy board is slowest, and it will take years to change.

This model explains the mixed signals sent by the non-monolithic Ukrainian authorities. The coming weeks will bring critically important news: the Privatbank case will show whether the president can oppose the oligarchs who supported him during campaign; voting for transparency in the land market will show whether the president is sticking to economic reforms; and further internal conflicts in the ruling team will show whether the Ukrainian authorities are able to enact changes.

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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