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

, by Charlotte Felbinger, Klara Lindahl and Elena Leuschner

Reforms Aren't Zip Ties: Understanding Ukraine's Current Struggle
Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: David Mark, Pixabay

When Mykola Tomenko, a leading opposition figure in Ukrainian politics, talks about the future of his country, his language is analytic and pragmatic. 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, a climate of frustration with the reform progress soon developed. Petro Poroshenko, who was president of Ukraine between 2014 and 2019, attempted to fix the judicial system, boost the economy, and, above all, effectively fight corruption. However, these reforms 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. 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. 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. In 2018, more than a third of the population said they had not experienced any effects of the reforms since 2014, indicating that the perception of reform stagnation has commanded the public discourse for some time. Moreover, 43% of the Ukrainian population believes that corruption is increasing rather than declining. This perceived lack of improvement is bound to cause major frustration.

Pressure for Reform 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. Over a million public servants have disclosed their assets, the public procurement market has increased by 35%, 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, 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.

“We have seen more happening in the past 5 years than in the last 25 years”.
 EU delegation in Kiev

As Reforms Progress Slowly, The Demand for Quick Fixes Grows

Despite these successes, the Ukrainian public judges the ongoing reform efforts through tangible results - or lack thereof. A student from Kiev 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. 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. 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. 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.

This article was initially published in the peer-reviewed journal Policy Corner. With thanks to them for allowing The New Federalist to republish it.

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