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Whatever happened to (Euro) Maidan

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For almost a year, Ukraine has refused to leave the international headlines. But little attention has been paid to what has been happening in Kyiv.

Janek Lasocki
6 October 2014

For almost a year, Ukraine has refused to leave the international headlines. But all media coverage has been only of war, bombing, and instability. The numbers and sheer destruction are staggering: the death toll now stands at well above 3000 and according to the UN likely to be significantly higher. Well over half a million Ukrainians have been forced from their homes. Infrastructure lies in tatters: hundreds of schools and hospitals are closed or badly damaged; homes have been devastated; and there is no water or electricity in towns across the Donbas. This is not even mentioning the annexation of Crimea, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and its 298 dead. The stalemate that seems increasingly permanent in aastern Ukraine, called ‘a Somalia scenario’ by The Economist, is more commonly known in these parts as a (yet another) frozen conflict.

As a result, however, little attention has been paid to what has been happening in Kyiv. It seems easily forgotten that the war in Ukraine that has brought Russia’s relations with the West to a post-Cold War low has its roots in the demonstrations held last winter in Ukraine’s capital. They themselves began with calls for then President Victor Yanukovych to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. EuroMaidan, as it became known, fast became an impressive organisation: thousands of volunteers manned every conceivable post – cooks feeding the crowds, media savvy students tweeting, off-duty medics arranging patrols and medical stations, and afghan-war veterans on security. The heady atmosphere of revolution was contagious. When victory came in February, however, and Yanukovych abandoned Kyiv, it came as a shock to all sides. Governing always turns out to be harder once you cross the picket line. Half a year on then, is it possible to say what they have achieved?

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The death toll in Ukraine stands at well over 3000. Photo (c) Ilya Vasyunin

Governing always turns out to be harder once you cross the picket line.

Beyond the barricades

The clearest demands of EuroMaidan were indeed met: the president, his government and closest circles are gone; their worst excesses – the presidential residence – put on show. Walking around the tents and occupied buildings at the turn of the New Year, no one really believed they would actually be able to depose the president. The Association Agreement with the EU that had sparked the revolution has now been signed (in two separate parts) and ratified with great symbolism simultaneously by the European Parliament and Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada. This obliges Ukraine to pass a whole host of potentially difficult reforms, but has also opened up the possibility of greater trade with, and mobility to the West, as well as advisers and financial backing from the EU. Although there is no specific perspective of membership it is nonetheless, according to Stefan Füle European Commissioner for Enlarge-ment and European Neighbourhood, the ‘most ambitious and complex agreement the European Union has ever negotiated with a third country.’

These actions and achievements, however, were really a means to an end rather than an end in themselves; the demonstrators in Kyiv – but also those across the country be it east or west – were really looking to first bring down and then reform an entire political system; and that was always going to be a far larger task.

By any measure, Ukraine is poorly governed. Transparency International calls it the most corrupt country in Europe (worse than Russia), scoring badly on a number of other indexes including global competitiveness and ease of doing business. By way of illustration, one can point to the oft-repeated statistic that Poland and Ukraine were similarly run and sized economies in 1990; and yet today Poland’s economy is three times larger. Expectations for the post EuroMaidan government to turn this situation around were high.

Fighting against yesterday’s system

A growing chorus in Ukraine says that since February, reforms have been going too slowly, or are proving impossible to implement because of unbreakable ingrained self-interests; and the wish list of things left not done is long.

A growing chorus in Ukraine says that since February, reforms have been going too slowly.

The downfall of many revolutions is the inheritance of a bad economy, and consequent inability to turn it around fast enough; and this is exactly the risk in Ukraine. The country was already in recession and in need of international assistance before the conflict. The projections for Ukraine’s economy keep on being revised downward – in September the EBRD predicted a contraction of 9% in 2014 and further contraction next year. Prices have risen with inflation close to 20% (as have taxes) while the Ukrainian Hryvnia has been in freefall – the second worst performing currency in the world (below even the Syrian pound).

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Ukrainians are fighting against yesterday's system. Photo CC: Alexandra Gnatou

In August, economics lecturer turned Minister of Economics Pavlo Sheremeta tendered his resignation, voicing frustration at not being able to move faster on his reform agenda. He no longer wanted to ‘fight against yesterday's system.’ Deregulation was a flagship idea that Sheremeta was unable to push through, designed not only to reduce the opportunities for corruption but also to make life easier for business. ‘It's sad ... The economy will never advance if the government continues to behave like a predator towards business,’ he told journalists at his last press conference. Moreover, there has been no comprehensive tax reform; instead of trying to get better at collecting taxes, the government has introduced new ones. There have been no meaningful attempts to reform an enormously bloated welfare state and inefficient public sector. Dmytro Shymkiv, now of the presidential administration but until recently head of Microsoft Ukraine, calls it a ‘barely altered Soviet bureaucracy.’ No big projects have been launched to improve energy efficiency or energy subsidies; a problem, which all Ukrainians know, cripples the budget and ties them to Russian economic sabre-rattling.

Instead of trying to get better at collecting taxes, the government has introduced new ones.

Anti-corruption failures

The economy as well as the democratic legitimacy of government cannot improve without tackling the scourge of corruption that affects Ukrainians at every level of society – the issue that a majority of Ukrainians see as priority number one. Tetiana Chornovil, an investigative journalist beaten during the EuroMaidan after investigating government corruption, and then appointed Commissioner for Combating Corruption, also resigned in August having given up hope of changing the system from the inside. Announcing her resignation on her blog she wrote: ‘It became clear to me that my stay [in the government] was for nothing. Ukraine does not have the political will to wage an uncompromising, large-scale war against corruption.’

The biggest signal that said how right she was, came when the long-prepared flagship anti-corruption project was not passed by parliament in September, even while being an IMF requirement and a priority of President Poroshenko. It was meant to establish an anti-corruption bureau that would target corruption in the state sector, especially among high-ranking officials, its tasks to include clawing back money and assets that were obtained illegally. As if to prove the need for change, a major corruption scandal has now embroiled the Deputy Prosecutor General Anatoly Danilenko, in the alleged massive theft of land, as well as the Prosecutor General himself, Vitaly Yarema, in the physical intimidation of investigative journalists looking at the case.

And then there are the oligarchs, whose dominance has in some cases only strengthened. Most visibly, Ihor Kolomoisky, governor of eastern region Dnipropetrovsk, who, in exchange for keeping his province stable and defended from separatists, has had his businesses interests left untouched, been allowed to keep his own militia, and increased influence in Kyiv, including the appointment of an ally to the governorship of Odessa. Still trying to play the parliamentary system, Dmitry Firtash (recently released on bail in Vienna) is sponsoring Poroshenko’s party; Serhiy Lovochkin is funding Lyashko’s Radical Party, while Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, who has been living outside of Ukraine too long (in Monaco) to qualify for the elections, has been allowed to stand, contrary to electoral law.

Opening up the state

Yet, despite all these serious shortcomings, government and civil society have been ploughing ahead with initiatives. A National Council of Reforms was set up under the chairmanship of the newly elected president, bringing together experts to focus on a broad range of changes. The IMF, which is conditionally providing billions of dollars, has, after a number of months, said that the government is generally implementing reforms that are expected of it. Indeed, reforms have passed, to improve high education, harmonisation with EU law, and modernising the army.

Nataliya Popovych, co-founder of the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre says that ‘the single biggest achievement of EuroMaidan is that the mentality of people has changed in Ukraine... People are becoming more responsible for their own future.’ Certainly, EuroMaidan, which was never directed by the political parties, spawned a number of civic initiatives filling gaps where a normal state would work. In dealing with the war, this has meant the formation of numerous volunteer battalions that have gone to fight in the east or man road blocks, as well as organisations such as SOS Vostok and SOS Crimea that have become vital volunteer organisations coordinating and providing help to the internally displaced, mainly from Donbas, that number some 300,000.

‘The single biggest achievement of EuroMaidan is that the mentality of people has changed in Ukraine...’

In the same way, a number of organisations have sprung up to help push reform. The ‘Reanimation package of reforms’ group, brings together 300 experts and activists to work on draft laws and lobby for them in the Verkhovna Rada. They say they have managed to help 11 bills pass through the Rada including most notably, one on making the state more transparent. The whole process of public procurement, a massive source of corruption, is to change, by making the process open to scrutiny and putting a stop to state purchases being made through connections on tender committees. Access to information on the salaries and benefits of state employees has also been opened up.

As part of this openness, ministers have been appearing on TV more to explain their plans and ideas. Meanwhile, media outlets set up during EuroMaidan, have become established, trusted independent sources for citizens. Channels like Hromadske, set up almost a year ago online to provide unbiased information on the protests, are now mainstream.

A great victory of the activists was also the law on lustration, ratified by Poroshenko at the beginning of October. It excludes from office, former members of the Communist Party, Komsomol, and KGB as well as those who worked in President Yanukovych’s administration – and failed to resign. Although a flawed piece of legislation (excluding most officials elected to office including the president, and focusing too much on the previous administration), it is another way to bring more accountability, and increase the credibility of the state. Now the challenge is to find new people and new managers to run a reformed state machine.

All this was done with a parliament elected before the revolution. An ad-hoc coalition was needed to pass anything including those from the Party of the Regions (of President Yanukovych) who had limited interest in cutting corruption and making the state more transparent. Yet through all the quarrelling, slow progress and negative economic prospects, the president and government have still managed to maintain high levels of public support, which bodes well for what comes next.

Redrawing the political map

On 26 October, Ukrainians head to the ballot boxes again, and all polling shows this will – like the presidential elections last May – redraw the political map of Ukraine. The established parties that have run the country for over a decade have either been wiped out (the Party of the Regions) or been marginalised (the party of Yulia Tymoshenko). President Poroshenko’s new grouping seems a likely winner. People want new faces; and hundreds of activists and journalists on different lists are now hoping to take their seats in the Verkhovna Rada. Reformers are hoping that these new parliamentarians will bring not only a renewed belief in the Rada but also a decisive new momentum. In anticipation, the president has already announced his 2020 strategy with 60 new reform projects, and the aspiration for even more European integration.

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Ukraine's established parties that have run the country for over a decade have been wiped out or marginalised.

There is a lot that the government failed to achieve in the past 7 months but people seem both more engaged and patient. Unfortunately, this is all happening against the backdrop of a war in the east that has drained both finances and government (and international) attention. Only a fraction of voters in the Donbas will get their say come these elections, which were supposed to be a new start for the whole country. Still, the best way to win back popular support in these regions will be to be successful back in Kyiv.

The risks of failure are great. The likely reformist majority could fall exactly apart as the Orange coalition did 10 years ago; negotiations with Russia about gas for the winter could collapse; and since the IMF programme ‘hinges on the assumption that the conflict will begin to subside in the coming months,’ a lack of permanent solution would require serious new international aid.

But EuroMaidan did imbue a lot of Ukrainians with a determination to not repeat the mistakes of the Orange Revolution; and the war has given them more of a united cause. Although fighting goes on, and the country sits on an economic precipice; and although it’s far too early to really assess the impact of this ‘revolution,’ there is reason to be quietly optimistic that there could yet be a changed Ukraine beyond the barricades.

Image 3: CC Ivan Bandura

 

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