Western press dismisses Ukrainian reforms too soon

Two years after Euromaidan 'Ukraine Fatigue' in the West is growing. Negative stories abound in the media: there is no end to corruption in sight, oligarkhs fight back, the war in the Donbass grinds on, some countries want to get rid of the sanctions. Maxim Eristavi, one of the founders of Hromadske tv, thinks the West is too harsh and too dismissive. 

by Maxim Eristavi

​'Post-revolutionary Ukraine failed at launching crucial reforms' - this is what almost all foreign media will tell you these days. They use this line so often that it has become an essential part of almost every draft for reporting on Ukraine. However, while there is some truth to the statement, it is mostly incorrect.

It would be too patronizing to blame foreign newsrooms for simplifying Ukrainian stories to the point of non-informative clichés, as volatile developments in the country of the last two years are confusing even for the local public. The reason we struggle to get a clear picture of the reforms is that Ukraine is still in the process of massive revolution.

Look at human history: every real revolution is more then a process of days or even months. Usually it takes countries years before finishing an identity relaunch. As a person who was born in Ukraine and lived there most of his life, I clearly remember the Orange Revolution of 2004 which failed to bring any real change to the country and inflicted even further decay in the following years. I also remember the months before the Maidan Revolution of 2013 which were full of collective fear, frustration, and disappointment - almost all my friends have left the country, driven out by a lack of opportunity.

Fight for change

Two years after Maidan, the picture is strikingly different. While the old extractive state system stands solidly and while, in terms of corruption and income inequality, the country still has more in common with Latin America than Europe, I’ve also never seen so many young and brilliant people working inside the government or parliament fighting for change. It’s an open question whether their number is sufficient for launching real change, but such a massive and vibrant civil society sector is a rare thing.

In remarkable fashion, the creation and implementation of key reforms are led not by the state but often outsourced to non-governmental groups: in one very illustrative example, the independent news-network Hromadske - launched by journalists during the first days of the revolution (I’m a co-founder of its English and Russian newsrooms) - is serving society as a substitute of a public broadcaster while public broadcasting reform remains blocked by the government. None of this would have been possible in Ukraine circa 2013.

shutterstock 298245464Krimtataarse leider Moestafa Dzjemilev, persona non grata op de Krim, is lid van het Oekraïense parlement

When you look at the reformist process in Ukraine, it is far from black and white. In the last two years, the Ukrainian parliament passed more than 2.000 new laws; most likely the Rada during that time was the most productive legislative body in the world. Still, adopting laws is not the same as implement them. Take, for example, the fiscal decentralization - revolutionary for Ukraine - launched by former Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko: it dramatically increased the proportion of tax revenues staying at the provincial level instead of being transferred to the central government. Still, many funds were left unspent at the end of the reform’s first fiscal year, mainly because local communities weren’t aware of their availability.

The public procurement reforms in the forthcoming launch of ProZorro, an online procurement system, is about to transform the country’s state tenders - a massive source of corruption - into one of the most transparent in the world. Mass changes to top-management at numerous state-run companies are also unprecedented for Ukraine, a place where many oligarchs would normally continue to build their empires on rentier incomes from government-run enterprises.

But oligarchs fight back

Look at Naftogaz, the energy monopolist and once one of the country’s largest sources of corruption: with the recent corporate relaunch, it now leads an unprecedented leap toward Ukrainian energy independence and efficiency. At the same time, recent progress in managing hundreds of state-owned assets would stall without large scale privatization. Many people expect that won't happen any time soon, after the recent comeback of oligarchs into Ukrainian politics. 

And even if it does happen, there’s always a chance Ukraine will repeat the catastrophic privatization of the early 1990s, which cemented the rule of oligarchs in the first place. The latter still keep a strong grip over the Ukrainian economy, where 25% of GDP is controlled by 0.00025% of the wealthiest. This inequality gap has a suffocating effect on the country where, after 7 years of almost non-stop recession, the newly-emerged middle class is disintegrating while the number of millionaires keeps rising.

Corruption can't just evaporate

Corruption is still the most-used word when people talk about Ukraine. Unfortunately, I don’t have many positive things to report here. It is also naïve to expect local corruption to evaporate while oligarchs run the economy and control politics: some of them, such as President Poroshenko, are still in charge of key political institutions. As the recent exposure of offshore accounts run by the Ukrainian president shows, many of the old power brokers aren’t capable of changing their old ways of thinking. At the same time, to break the link between the state and oligarchs is much easier than we would usually think: a sweeping justice reform can break the backbone of this toxic co-existence.

Control over the corrupt court system - but more importantly over the country’s General Prosecutor office - allows the Ukrainian economic elites to not only avoid playing by the rules but also makes it possible for them to set those rules for everybody else and preserve the power equilibrium. This is why not a single one of President Yanukovych’s cronies is prosecuted for running one of the world’s biggest kleptocracies and many open investigations were silently closed as a sign of possible backdoor deals; it’s why even the current corruption scandals inside the Presidential administration and the government and the parliament are never investigated; why President Poroshenko withstood months of public and international pressure before firing his glaringly incompetent, but loyal Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, only to replace him with Yuriy Lutsenko, his old-time friend with no law education. 'The cronyism of the previous presidents is different from my cronyism,' president Poroshenko has recently stated. Sadly enough, that’s exactly what every Ukrainian leader has been telling the public since the country’s independence.

Still, it isn’t accurate to say there’s no progress with the anti-corruption fight: the much-publicized police reform is beloved by the public and has strengthened trust in law enforcement bodies. Unfortunately, this reform for the time being is more symbolical than a real sign of a more effective rule of law: in the first year after the launch of the new Kyiv police, the crime rate in the city jumped 40%. Its overlapping functions with other corrupt law-enforcement bodies have been greatly reducing its effectiveness so far. The new police also has quite a hard time curtailing self-formed paramilitary groups, which popped up in the wake of the recent Russian invasion and the Eastern Ukrainian insurgency. The similar issue of institutional consolidation is facing four new anti-corruption bodies the country has set up. They are to a great extent not operational and still have to figure out how to be truly effective. 

​What we too often ignore when scolding Ukraine for its weak fight against corruption is that corruption is a two-way street: as long as foreign companies keep paying bribes in Ukraine and participate in non-transparent projects, and foreign governments - like the U.K or Cyprus - keep offering safe havens for money of Ukrainian oligarchs, the international community has no moral leverage in pressuring the country for change.  

Kyiv Pride

Finally, for myself, the country’s only openly-gay journalist, issues of civil and human rights equality and media freedoms are important signs as to whether there has been a real shift in Ukraine. The ongoing war against the Russian-led insurgency in Eastern Ukraine is a source of assaults on basic human rights under the cover of security measures. The recent debacle of the UN mission that was being denied access to a suspected underground torture site of the secret service is a prominent example.

Kievpride 2016Kyiv Pride verliep dankzij massale politieinzet dit jaar zonder incidenten

Added to that, the homophobic rhetoric of Ukrainian political elites and zero justice for hate crime victims enable fringe groups to use more violence against gay Ukrainians. Attackers on last year’s Kyiv Pride were set free with a suspended sentence; a murderer of a gay man in Kharkiv got a minimum jail sentence and his ‘gay panic’ defense was recognized as a mitigating factor in the case.

This year, though, the picture was brighter: last weekend Kyiv Pride got a strong security support from local police and the City Hall, attracting a record number of participants (2.000 attendees vs. 200 last year).  A policeforce of 6,000 guaranteed that militant neo-Nazi groups had no chance to disrupt the civil rights march.  Although the largely homophobic public is still far from granting equal rights to LGBTI Ukrainians, a shift in public attitude is under way with many condemning far-right extremists who infringe on the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. This is an important move forward, but hardly enough in a country where an openly gay man like me still has to watch his back when walking down the street alone.

Investigative journalism

As for the media, Ukraine enjoys unforeseen press freedoms, and a number of powerful projects in investigative journalism (including at Hromadske) keep exposing corruption at every governing level. A strong pushback from the local media community made the newly-created Ministry of Information (quickly dubbed 'Ministry Of Truth') largely dead in the water. During the latest press-conference of the Ukrainian president, a Hromadske journalist grilled him over nepotism, while a state-run channel ran a documentary uncovering corruption inside the close circle of his business partners, unimaginable just 3 years ago.

But dig somewhat deeper and you’ll find only a quasi-freedom of the press in Ukraine: 90% of local newsrooms are still under the iron grip of their wealthy owners, who treat journalists as servants and impose direct censorship whenever they want. Investigative journalism is alive and well only at newsrooms that are relying on international support or directly funded from abroad.

Any recent expansion of journalism liberties is under threat as soon as media moguls decide to align with the state again - as has happened so many times before in this country. In a sign of unchanged attitudes of political elites towards the media, the recent illegal publication on the internet of data of international war reporters, accredited in Eastern Ukraine, was embraced by some leading government officials, who called journalists obtaining a life-saving accreditation in rebel-held Eastern Ukraine ‘traitors’. It took a great deal of pressure from local journalists together with diplomats to force officials to open an investigation and the President to condemn the leak.

Western response is weak

This brings me to an important concluding point about reforms in Ukraine: the West underestimates what it can do to help the country to relaunch itself. So far, the Western strategy has been weak in pressuring local elites for change. Fiery speeches of foreign officials focus too much on personalities and rhetoric and rarely result in on-the-ground assistance. Billions in international aid money come without solid strings attached. 'The West’s 25-year long strategy for Ukraine can be boiled down to this: We’ll give you enough aid to sputter along, realizing that your Soviet-like leaders are not salvageable but that hopefully, in a few generations, the grandchildren will ignite the transformation to a prosperous democracy,' Ukraine’s influential English-language daily Kyiv Post lamented in a recent editorial.

However, it is foreigners who Ukrainians are looking up to these days; it is no coincidence that many progressive reformists and popular politicians in the country are foreigners, from former Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, the creator of the Ukrainian police reform Eka Zguladze, to Odessa governor Mikheil Saakashvili. After 25 years of shocking mismanagement by local politicians, Ukrainians these days rarely trust anyone except outsiders. It is definitely not a panacea, but it is what it is.

According to all polls in the last 10 years it is clear that Ukraine has made a generational choice and keeps marching towards Europe - whether Europe wants it or not. Considering that, the West has a unique chance to foster institutional change in the country and to help with its development leap. If that fails, a country of 42 million people will stay chaotic, unreformed, and angry at the West for letting it down in the fight for justice and a better future.​

Gerelateerde artikelen

Lees ook Aleksandr Tsipko over Oekraïnebeeld in Rusland

Lees ook essay Mykola Rjabtsjoek op essay Tsipko


Wekelijkse update?

Iedere donderdag uitgelichte artikelen in uw mailbox

Eerst doorlezen? U kunt zich ook later aanmelden via de home pagina.

Als u in uw browser de cookies blokkeert, ziet u deze popup steeds weer. Daarvoor excuus.