Reforms Aren’t Zip Ties: Understanding Ukraine’s Current Struggle

March 14, 2020

When Mykola Tomenko, a leading opposition figure in Ukrainian politics, talks about the future of his country, his language is analytic and pragmatic.[1] There is no trace of the heated tone that has recently dominated Ukrainian politics. When asked about the greatest challenges Ukraine is currently facing, he speaks of corruption, the national economy, and the military threat in the East. To him, however, Ukraine’s biggest problem is the public’s desire for quick and easy fixes. After a brief period of optimism following the 2014 political upheaval,[2] a climate of frustration with the reform progress soon developed. Petro Poroshenko’s attempts to fix the judicial system, boost the economy, and, above all, effectively fight corruption did not meet the expectations of those who took to the streets to topple his predecessor. This frustration resulted in the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian without political experience who promised to turn the political system upside down.[3] To pursue a sustainable reform agenda, the government must better communicate achieved progress in order to displace the public perception of stagnation and effectively portray the slow but steady political change.

Perceived Stagnation of the Reform Process Causes Frustration

Recent media reports on Ukraine’s reform progress depict a daunting picture. Accounts of persistent corruption and calls for stepping up reform efforts dominate.[4] Public opinion polls reflect this discouraging situation, with corruption seemingly pervading every aspect of life. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Ukrainians consider corruption to be so severe that the country ranks 120th worldwide, together with countries like Mali and Liberia.[5] In 2018, more than a third of the population said they had not experienced any reform effects since 2014, indicating that the perception of reform stagnation has commanded the public discourse for some time.[6] Moreover, 43% of the Ukrainian population believes that corruption is increasing rather than declining.[7] This perceived lack of improvement is bound to cause major frustration.

Reform Pressure has Yielded First Results 

Contrary to public perception, however, the progress made in the past five years has been significant, far outpacing what many would have imagined possible in 2014. Civil society has pushed for reforms from below and international actors have applied pressure from above. This strategy of countering vested interests from both directions– occasionally referred to as “the sandwich”– has achieved notable results.[8] Over a million public servants have disclosed their assets, the public procurement market has increased by 35%,[9] and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) was implemented as part of a larger institutional structure to tackle corruption. Although the bureau is frequently criticized for not having achieved convictions in any major corruption cases so far,[10] its defenders argue that NABU’s greatest achievement is its mere existence. It was created and upheld despite consistent pushbacks from the Poroshenko administration, demonstrating that change is underway, even if it is slow.

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“We have seen more happening in the past 5 years than in the last 25 years”.
-EU delegation in Kyiv-
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As Reforms Progress Slowly, The Demand for Quick Fixes Grows

Despite these successes, the Ukrainian public gauges the success of ongoing reform efforts through tangible results. A student from Kyiv says that, while in theory he acknowledges the work that has been done, when driving to his grandparents’ village on roads that haven’t been repaired in 30 years, he doesn’t feel that change is happening in Ukraine.[11] This statement demonstrates that while the public should look closely to see the progress that has been made, their reasons for disappointment remain clearly visible.[12] The enthusiasm and optimism following the revolution has been extinguished by the perception of stagnation. Instead, impatience permeates, again filling the air with a desire for meaningful change. The recent election of the political newcomer Zelensky, who promised radical change and won a landslide victory, illustrates this hunger for change. Now, Zelensky is left with the challenge of meeting the Ukrainian people’s expectations of progress.

Efforts to implement change are complicated by a system of rigid structures and interests that are resistant to such change. While quick measures, like appointing new officials and jailing corrupt ones, may be necessary to demonstrate progress, larger and slower systemic change is also necessary.[13] Zip ties won’t fix a country. They might be easy to use and provide quick, temporary relief, but they won’t provide structural change. Continued progress in Ukraine will require patience and pressure on the part of the Ukrainian public.

Against the backdrop of current political developments, Ukrainian policy makers must earnestly consider Mykola Tomenko’s warnings of impatience. They must collaborate with international supporters to raise public awareness not only of the progress made, but also the remaining obstacles. This will give Ukrainians the confidence and resources to actively support the long-term reform agenda. By focusing on open and transparent communication between the government and its people, Ukraine’s policy makers may be able to secure much-needed structural changes.

References

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

[1] Mykola Tomenko, Interview by authors, Kyiv, May 29, 2019.

[2] Allison Smale, “Young Ukrainians Brush Aside the Crisis and Voice Optimism About the Future,” New York Times, May 7, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/08/world/europe/young-ukrainians-brush-aside-the-crisis-and-voice-optimism-about-the-future.html.

[3] Shaun Walker, “Comedian wins landslide victory in Ukrainian presidential election,” The Guardian, April 22, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/21/zelenskiy-wins-second-round-of-ukraines-presidential-election-exit-poll.

[4] Linder Kinstler, “The corrupt shall inherit Ukraine,” Foreign Policy, February 17, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/17/the-corrupt-shall-inherit-ukraine/.

Ed Butler, “Corruption in Ukraine has to be stopped,” BBC, March 20, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47571043.

Maryan Zablotskyy, “Why is reform so slow in Ukraine?,” Forbes, April 14, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/04/14/reform-ukraine-aid/#3e6625b5e0ad.

AP News, “EU urges Ukraine to step up anti-corruption efforts,” AP News, November 9, 2018, https://apnews.com/2b1499b104a4430295898379bf842630.

[5] Transparency International, Corruption Perception Index 2018 (Berlin: Transparency International, 2018), https://www.transparency.org/files/content/pages/CPI_2018_Executive_Summary_EN.pdf.

[6] USAID/Pact, ENGAGE. Enhance Non-Governmental Actors and Grassroots Engagement: Semi-Annual Performance Report (Washington: Pact Inc, 2017-2018), https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PA00T3RB.pdf.

[7] USAID/Pact, ENGAGE. Enhance Non-Governmental Actors and Grassroots Engagement: Semi-Annual Performance Report (Washington: Pact Inc, 2017-2018), https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PA00T3RB.pdf.

[8] Silviya Nitsova, Grigore Pop-Eleches, Graeme Robertson, Revolution and Reform in Ukraine. Evaluating Four Years of Reform (Washington: PONARS Eurasia, 2018), http://www.ponarseurasia.org/sites/default/files/policy-perspectives-pdf/Revolution%20and%20Reform%20in%20Ukraine_Nitsova_Pop-Eleches_Robertson_July2018.pdf.

[9] Silviya Nitsova, Grigore Pop-Eleches, Graeme Robertson, Revolution and Reform in Ukraine. Evaluating Four Years of Reform (Washington: PONARS Eurasia, 2018), http://www.ponarseurasia.org/sites/default/files/policy-perspectives-pdf/Revolution%20and%20Reform%20in%20Ukraine_Nitsova_Pop-Eleches_Robertson_July2018.pdf.

[10] Olena Tregub, Ukrainian Activism for Transparency and Accountability: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (Washington: United State Institute of Peace, 2019), https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2019-07/sr_448-ukrainian_activism_for_transparency_and_accountability_two_steps_forward_one_step_back.pdf.

[11] Андрей Вашека, Interview by authors, Skype, Konstanz, June 19, 2019.

[12] In order to modernize Ukraine’s infrastructure the European Investment Bank has, for example, launched a 3 billion Euro program:

European Investment Bank, Investing in Ukraine’s future (Luxembourg: European Investment Bank, 2017), https://www.eib.org/attachments/country/eib_in_ukraine_en.pdf.

[13] Ryhor Nizhnikau, Arkady Moshes, “A mixed record: Assessing Ukraine’s domestic reforms under Volodymyr Zelenskiy,” London School of Economics and Political Science, December 12, 2019, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/12/12/a-mixed-record-assessing-ukraines-domestic-reforms-under-volodymyr-zelenskiy/.

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Charlotte Felbinger, Klara Lindahl and Elena Leuschner are research associates from the universities of Konstanz and Gothenburg. The article is the result of a field trip to Kyiv, during which they had the unique opportunity to hold interviews with various international organisations (EU, UNDP, OECD) and local actors. In their piece they have had the aim to condense their experience into a fresh perspective on Ukraine’s struggle to reform.