Sunday

22nd Sep 2019

Opinion

Ukraine needs reform to survive

  • Poroshenko signed the EU association treaty - a blueprint for reform - in May (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

With a shaky peace in the east agreed and parliamentary elections approaching, the focus in Ukraine is shifting back from war or peace to the country’s internal malaise.

After all, the Maidan events were not only a protest against former president Viktor Yanukovych’s foreign policy pivot to Russia. They also called for an end to wide-spread corruption and lack of democratic reforms.

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President Petro Poroshenko recently declared the need to not merely walk down the path of reforms now, but to actually run it.

He has a point.

In the 23 years since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, the political elite talked the talk of reforms but did not walk it, severely weakening the country at home and abroad.

Across the two decades since independence, business and politics have become indistinguishable.

Parliamentary seats were an economic asset, commanding a high price for bestowing political influence and immunity against criminal prosecution.

Russia complains that Ukraine’s east is marginalised, but it did not object when Yanukovych made a point of centralising the country.

Centralisation meant more control of resources to enrich his family and political allies.

Ukrainians had little reason to identify with a state riddled with corruption to the benefit of the few, undermining a sense of wider nationhood for the many.

Indexes of economic freedoms rank Ukraine lowest of all countries in Europe, due to political interference and corruption.

Even the debate on delivering weapons to Ukraine is overshadowed by concerns about middlemen who may try to make a profit.

Corruption then is an important reason why Ukraine finds itself in such a weak internal and external position in the face of Russia’s onslaught.

The principle concerns have remained the same since 1991 and all point at governance weakness by design: electoral arrangements that enable vote-buying and central control of political parties; a badly defined relationship between parliament and president; an over-centralised state; an executive that controls judges and a Soviet-era prosecutors office to ‘supervise’ the entire legal system.

This undermines any notion of a separation of power, and provides tools for political control and rent-seeking.

In short, an entrenched political economy built on obscurity and cronyism stands in the way of building a strong country and a viable European partner with transparent and accountable institutions, attractive to investors and political allies alike.

Given the many vested interests in maintaining the system, it is not surprising that passive resistance against real change is in rude health.

In March this year policymakers in Kiev confidentially spoke about their intention to reform the constitution this year. A parliamentary committee was created, deliberated behind closed doors and did not come to any conclusion.

To understand the extent of the problem, one only needs to glance through the analyses and recommendations made over these two decades by the Council of Europe, the pan-European human rights and democracy body.

On thousands of pages of painstaking analysis, their legal experts laid out how every relevant layer of the state apparatus should be reformed to make Ukraine start looking like a European democracy, something it committed itself to do long ago.

Throughout this time, the Ukrainian response was mostly the same. Reforms steps were made: a few forward, a few backwards and many sideways.

There is no question in Ukraine why something has to change urgently. And there is no question in Ukraine how change needs to look.

The reform agenda agreed between the EU and Ukraine covers all the areas that define Ukraine’s political economy. Ukrainian experts and civic groups, such as the "initiative to re-animate reforms", agree.

The only question that is facing Ukraine is how to make change happen. How can the political energies of Maidan be used to overcome the formidable resistance of the political-cum-business class.

A class that has secured Ukraine’s place as the most corrupt country in Europe by a wide margin, according to the corruption perception index of Transparency International, the graft watchdog.

These days Ukraine’s passive resisters argue that with the economy contracting and parts of the country under Russian pressure or occupation, internal reforms are a luxury they can ill afford.

Yet, standing with the back to the wall, the one decisive move Ukraine can make is to dramatically improve its international standing.

The citizens who risked their lives on Ukraine’s squares last winter, have another struggle to fight for lasting change.

Jean Monnet, one of Europe’s founding fathers, once remarked: Nothing changes without individuals, nothing lasts without institutions.

Central European countries showed after 1989 how the will for change led to new, democratic institutions.

The government of PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk has made a start, for example with a new public procurement law. But the real test lies ahead.

Ukraine will elect a new Parliament on 26 October. Then the time has come for real reforms.

The writer is the director of Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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