OPINION | Ukraine’s Reforms will Succeed, but Conditions Applied by Andreas Umland
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OPINION | Ukraine’s Reforms will Succeed, but Conditions Applied by Andreas Umland

By Andreas Umland

OPINION | Ukraine’s Reforms will Succeed, but Conditions Applied by Andreas Umland

Will Ukraine make it? Some conditions necessary for Ukraine’s current reforms drive to succeed look more promising than in 2013, before the Euromaidan revolution and war with Russia. Ukraine presently has not only its most pro-European parliament and reform-oriented government since achieving independence in 1991. There are at least four other significant shifts in domestic politics that, taken together, render an equation of pre- and post-revolutionary Ukrainian society misleading.

First: Civil society as a major political factor

Following the Revolution of Dignity, the impact of Ukrainian civil society on the country’s legislative and executive decision-making processes has grown significantly. The most visible sign of this is the election of 19 prominent civic activists to parliament. These Euromaidan campaigners form the core of a new inter-party group calling itself “Euro-Optimists” consisting of 27 MPs. The “Euro-Optimists” have taken on the tasks of pushing implementation the EU Association Agreement and preventing oligarchs from exerting influence on legislation. Not only has the presence of civil society organizations in public discourse noticeably increased, but also has their interaction with civil servants and political actors in- and outside Ukraine intensified.

Second: International players with more domestic political sway

The role played by foreign reform-drivers, both governmental and non-governmental, in preparing, shaping and evaluating Ukrainian economic, foreign and domestic policies has also grown since 2013. First and foremost, this applies to the European Union and its member states. Drawing on the large, almost fully ratified Association Agreement and the new common EU-Ukrainian institutions it stipulates (Association Council, Association Committee, etc.), Brussels is playing an ever more prominent role in Kyiv’s daily political life. The EU has also recently established – in addition to its regular delegation at Kyiv – a special and well-staffed observer mission in Ukraine.

One of the few positive aspects of the current severe economic crisis is the International Monetary Fund’s increased leverage over implementation of long-overdue macroeconomic reforms, spurred by the dire state of Ukrainian public finances. Moreover, other Western organizations, media, foundations, aid programs, developmental agencies, and think tanks have an increased interest in Ukraine, as a result of the Euromaidan and Russian-Ukrainian war. This has created a new atmosphere in Kyiv as well as more intensive interaction between Ukrainians and the West resulting in more favorable conditions for sustainable transformation of Ukraine.

Third: The Ukrainian diaspora as an accelerator for change

The role of the large émigré community, comprising around 20 million descendants of Ukraine living abroad, in their native country’s politics and society has markedly increased thanks to national mobilization triggered by the Euromaidan. Among others, it has been expressing itself in the diaspora’s ongoing support of Ukraine’s defensive efforts since the summer of 2014. The appointment of Natalie Jaresko, an American economic expert with Ukrainian roots, as finance minister – perhaps the most challenging Ukrainian government position – exemplifies the new level of involvement by often well-educated Ukrainian repatriates from the West.
Euromaidan led to substantially closer ties between different Ukrainian expatriate groups around the world, as well between these communities and Ukraine’s government and civil society. The diaspora’s new presence in Ukrainian domestic affairs reinforces the nations’ ability and will to carry out sweeping reforms.

Fourth: The war as a stagnation-preventer

The role of the war in the Donbas, which Ukraine has effectively been fighting against Russia since late spring 2014, is profound, but not in all regards negative. While catastrophic for many families, polarizing for political discourse, and corrosive for society, at large, in some respects, the war is also having a disciplining and consolidating effect. One could even claim that the war – abstractly expressed – has positively impacted Ukrainian political nation-building.

The war creates feelings of national solidarity across different social strata, a patriotic focus among citizens on governmental capacity, and a state of permanent mobilization. The human and material sacrifices made during war also generate new impatience with the sluggish realization of reforms, as well as growing intolerance towards corruption and cronyism in the executive, legislature and courts. The war is prompting the state and civil society to work together and spawning cooperation between various Ukrainian societal actors across regional, ethnic, religious, social and political lines. Paradoxically, the war thereby is performing a function reminiscent of the effect of EU membership perspective for a post-communist country. Rather than an attractive vision for the future, an existential danger in the present is today pulling previously separate political and societal actors together.

The improved attendant political circumstances and societal framework for radical reforms do not mean that these will be rapidly and comprehensively implemented. Instead, Ukraine’s transformation will be erratic as well as accompanied by many scandals and occasional setbacks. Nevertheless, the new background of Ukrainian political and administrative decision-making outlined above make it unlikely that reform initiatives will simply evaporate, as frequently happened in prior years. The social context has so fundamentally changed that the still extant opponents of reform – new oligarchs and old bureaucrats, above all – will find it more difficult to water down or subvert reforms, as they successfully did in the past. Against this backdrop, it is likely that a deep socio-economic transition of Ukraine will be carried out, sooner rather than later. 

Nonetheless, a cloudy future

What could happen, however, is that even properly enacted reforms may not result in substantial economic growth, as long as Russia pursues its “hybrid war” against Ukraine designed to cause continuous instability, uncertainty and indeterminacy. Improved legal conditions for foreign investors, for example, could be ineffective if Kyiv cannot reasonably guarantee the physical security of investments into buildings and equipment in Ukraine. Not by accident, this dilemma applies, first and foremost, to the Russian-speaking regions of rump-Ukraine. They are located in geographic proximity to the regular Russian troops and irregular armed formations stationed in the area near the Russian-Ukrainian border, the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics and Crimea. As long as the social, political and business climate in Ukraine is marked by fear of more Russian escalation, invasion, occupation, annexation or/and expropriation, a sustainable economic recovery cannot be expected. But Ukraine's state – reformed or not – cannot survive for long without massive domestic and foreign investment. If Russia does not cease its subversion of social stability and state security in Ukraine, even a thoroughly reformed Ukrainian state formally ready for EU accession would be doomed to failure.

Translated from German by Andrew Kinder, University of Cologne, Germany. An edited version appeared first on the website of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

About The Author:

Andreas Umland, Dr. phil., Ph. D., is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv and General Editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society“ published by ibidem Press at Stuttgart. Thomson Reuters ResearcherID : I-5395-2015