COMMENT: Ukraine needs a 'Plan B'

COMMENT: Ukraine needs a 'Plan B'
By Kateryna Kruk November 18, 2015

Activist, journalist and co-founder of Global Ukrainians, an international network of Ukrainians worldwide, Kruk was awarded the Atlantic Council Freedom Award for her work communicating the Euromaidan revolution to the world via Twitter. She predicted a frozen conflict in July 2014, which has largely come to pass, and now assesses the progress of crucial reforms in Ukraine.


Last year, Ukrainians were way too preoccupied with the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which was soon followed by a Russian invasion, to be able to concentrate on other aspects of the functioning of the Ukrainian state.

War indeed changes everything. It is the most horrible thing that can happen to a state, to a nation, to a human being. Unfortunately, Ukraine found itself in a situation where both fronts – the eastern front and the so-called reform front – required equal attention and devotion. And if in eastern Ukraine we were able to hold our positions, when it comes to evaluation of the progress with reforms, the situation seems to be much worse.

Often the ability to diagnose a problem, and being sincere about its nature, is the most important part of the treatment. Right now Ukraine is going through a painful process of realising that in many aspects we have wasted chances created by Euromaidan and must try to understand how should we act now.

On the level of political decision-making, Euromaidan created an opportunity for quick regime change. It is clear now: regime change didn't happen. If I would be writing this piece few months ago, I would definitely be more positive in my comments. But the last few months revealed to us the real face of authorities, which can be described rather simply: currently the ruling elites can be referred to as post-Maidan only when we talk about when chronologically they entered office, not when we talk about their nature.

Obviously, we shouldn't forget about the positive changes that have taken place. Undoubtedly, one of the most important developments was the restructuring of Ukrainian debt. Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko and her team have done a fantastic job to start negotiations, find a common position acceptable for Ukraine and its international debt holders, and to finalise a decision. True, Ukraine still has problems with bonds owned by Russia, but it is purely because of the Russian position towards Ukraine, not a result of mistakes from the Ukrainian side.

Real progress has also been made by the team at the Ministry of Economy. The main focus of their efforts was deregulation, creation of a transparent system of state purchases, and launching the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. Even though most of these initiatives, except for the state procurement system, are still in the development phase, the ministry is trying to be open and transparent in its work.

The new Ukrainian police force is probably the most visible and best-known reform that Ukraine has made so far. Creation of an entirely new service instead of the highly unpopular and untrusted militsia was needed, both in terms of the success of the reform, as well as showing to the public that changes really are taking place. Yet more legislative work is needed to make the new police force a working structure with real power, not just a nice PR move.

It is also impossible not to mention the breakthrough decision to proceed with the decentralisation of Ukraine. Even though it was strongly overshadowed by unclear provisions for East Ukraine regarding the status of the region, which were presented to the Ukrainian parliament in one package with the decentralisation reform, the fact that this very necessary reform was brought to the constitutional level is a huge step forward. Even though now it is almost impossible to predict whether it will be passed by the parliament or not, decentralisation alone could be one of the biggest steps we have made so far to distance Ukraine from the Soviet-style centralised-state model.

Hard graft

Nevertheless, all those positive developments seem incredibly small and insufficient compared to the continuing problem of corruption in Ukraine. Economic hardship can be partly explained by the lack of stability caused by war, but lack of progress in the fight with corruption can only be explained by a lack of political will. And that is why it is so dangerous.

Sadly, General Prosecutor Viktor Shokin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko have chosen to create the illusion of a fight against corruption. There has been no investigation into [former president Viktor] Yanukovych and his allies. No evidence has been sent to European courts that would make it possible to prolong personal sanctions against Yanukovych. The creation of an anti-corruption prosecutor's office has been sabotaged, which endangered the whole process of lifting the visa-regime between the EU and Ukraine. There has also been pressure put on prosecutors who had started investigating their corrupt colleagues this summer. And there has been no investigation into the bloody shootings on Maidan in February 2014, which resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people.

Undoubtedly, both Ukrainians and our foreign partners might be wondering why this is happening. Bringing in new people and creating new structures could galvanise the process, but authorities have decided to rely on the "good old boys" of the Prosecutor General's office. This is one of the facts that prove the president is not serious about fighting corruption, because the young generation of Ukrainians would never be as corrupt as the one that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The people who are currently running Ukraine were all born, raised and spent most of their adult life in the state that seemed to them to be the strongest in the world. And suddenly they see this state collapsing: something that seemed to be eternal and unbreakable appeared to be fragile and weak. The chaos of the 90s as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union taught people that they can only rely on themselves, not on a state. That is one of the reasons why corruption in Ukraine reached such an unprecedented level: because of the feeling that you have to take care of yourself first and foremost.

The latest developments in the Ukrainian revolution and the conflict with Russian don't encourage those who were already questioning the durability of the existence of the Ukrainian state. That might be one of the reasons explaining why corruption is still flourishing and its influence on the state might be more devastating than ever. My generation, the generation of people born and raised in a free and independent Ukraine, know no alternative. That is why we feel responsible for what is going on in the country now and how our actions influence it.

The struggle with corruption and the explanation for it continue in the differences seen in our society, allowing you to understand the challenges that face Ukraine on the meta-level. After Euromaidan, Ukraine made a few really big steps forward, but now it seems like it has stopped. Because of that, many have started questioning the importance of Euromaidan and whether anything has really changed in Ukraine.

The price you pay

Ukrainians often repeat: "We paid a high price; this time it should work." The last two years showed us it is not enough just to pay a price; you must cherish what you got for that price. Now we know it was naive of us to expect that people with old-styled thinking would transform Ukraine into a country based on new rules. Ukraine has lost its chance to make quick changes that would allow the country to move further foward.

Now only two possible paths remain: a coup d'etat or a slow and time-consuming evolutional change of generations. Ukrainian society is right now torn between these two options and I so much hope it will be wise enough to choose the second!

If it is, both we Ukrainians and our foreign partners should be prepared for a long process of gradual transformation of society by educating it according to Western norms and values. Why do I mention education (and by it I don't only mean schools or universities, but all kinds of traineeships and informational campaigns)? Ukrainians want to change, but sometimes they simply don't know how to. The Soviet model is unacceptable, yet not so many know the Western model well enough.

So now Ukraine is in a situation of trying to find a balance between its own expectations and reality. 'Plan A', quick and decisive changes in the country after the Euromaidan revolution, didn't work. But that doesn't mean Ukraine has failed and has no chance to improve. That only means we must think of a 'Plan B'. That is not easy, but the very fact that we are trying hard to make it work means that despite all failures and losses, we haven't given up on trying to make our country a better place.


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