UkraineAlert

Ukraine’s opposition is a mess—but this is hardly news. Through Ukraine’s nearly three decades of independence, its opposition has never gotten its act together. Consequently, the same corrupt elite continues to govern the country of 45 million to its detriment.

Ukraine managed to squander the gains of its street revolution in 2004, and as the country approaches the second presidential and parliamentary elections after the 2014 Euromaidan that ousted pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych, it’s seeming possible that the country will face a similar outcome.

The 2019 presidential election doesn’t look promising. Ukrainians are sick of their leaders—sick enough to consider electing inexperienced rock star Slava Vakarchuk or comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Incumbent president Petro Poroshenko is tanking in the polls, but it’s still quite possible he could be reelected for a second term, despite the fact that Ukrainians traditionally don’t like incumbents; voters have only given one president a second term since 1991. The other real possibility for the presidency is wily and everlasting politician Yulia Tymoshenko. Neither outcome would be good for the country’s long-term health or for US national interests.

Subsequently, hopes are high for reformers. There are at least six political parties or movements vying for that vote, which makes up 15 percent of the electorate, but no leader to unify them. In Kyiv, three names are being discussed to lead the Maidan opposition movement.

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Ukraine wants to reframe its approach to resolving the ongoing conflict with Russia. Beginning last month, the military is now in charge of ground operations.

The launch of the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) replaced the four-year Anti-Terrorism Operation (ATO) and marks Ukraine’s shift to a more active defense. President Petro Poroshenko thinks that the new combat operation should more effectively coordinate the defense and security agencies and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the long run. The move also demonstrates that Poroshenko’s administration hasn’t abandoned the Donbas and is serious about winning it back.

Covering a much larger area from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to the Azov seashore, the JFO is a set of military and legal measures to counter Russian aggression.

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No state can function without justice, and Ukraine is no exception. 

For years, corruption and the absence of justice, together with Russian military aggression, have held back the country.

After four years of struggle and numerous pieces of legislation, there has been little progress.

Ukraine started out with a good idea: reformers wanted to create a new Supreme Court from scratch and vet the remaining judges through a comprehensive procedure, checking their competence and integrity. The process failed in its implementation however.

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Kyiv’s preparations to host the 2018 Champions League Final on May 26 have been something of a rollercoaster ride that has highlighted the very best and worst of Ukraine. The international media buildup to the big match began with a flurry of negative stories criticizing Ukrainian hoteliers and apartment rental services for inflating prices to astronomical levels. Absurd increases of 1000 percent and higher risked pricing fans out entirely and turning the prestige event into a complete farce. However, by May 10 the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper was positively jubilant as it reported, “Liverpool fans rescued by Kyiv locals after Champions League hotel price hike.” Elsewhere, Reuters added to the optimistic mood with the memorable headline, “Ukrainians offer Champions League fans free bed and borscht.”

The sudden change was due to an online initiative launched by Kyiv residents who responded to evidence of price-gouging tactics by inviting football fans into their homes.

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“Finding myself in Kyiv now, I smell blood and diesel from time to time. These triggers will always be there,” says Alina Viatkina, a paramedic for the volunteer Hospitallers Medical Battalion. “But you can’t lose control for three days every time. You are learning how to calm yourself: OK, this is the smell of blood. But you’re in Kyiv. There is no blood here.”

When Ukrainian fighters come back from the unfinished war in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, they must learn how to live in a different reality. Many discover their way and find new passions. They live their lives. They become successful businessmen, artists, actors, or scientists.

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As Ukraine’s economy begins to grow modestly, its Central Bank is striving to become an anchor of stability. The country needs to preserve the fragile macroeconomic stability it has achieved and use the upswing in the global economy to conduct reforms and stimulate economic growth. The task, however, still meets formidable obstacles; a number of important reforms, including the creation of the anticorruption court, gas reform, and privatization, are held back by what many see as attempts by the oligarchs to find their way back into the system.

On March 15, President Petro Poroshenko picked Yakiv Smolii, a banking veteran with over three decades experience, to lead Ukraine’s Central Bank, after Valeria Gontareva resigned in May 2017. Smolii had served as the acting NBU governor for nine months. 

Smolii’s formal endorsement from the president and Rada signals that the Central Bank is committed to reforms.

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In 2014, Russian-backed rebels used a Moscow-supplied missile to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Russian state TV made wild claims such as the passengers were already dead, a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down the plane, and the CIA was behind the plot.

Since 2016, Russian hacking, influence, money laundering, and collusion in US elections has been the subject of headlines and Congressional or legal probes against dozens of individuals, including President Donald Trump and his team, as well as social media companies. “So what if they’re Russians, said Putin in an interview. “They do not represent the interests of the Russian state.”

In 2018, a Russian military intelligence officer, convicted of being a double agent for Britain, was poisoned with a rare nerve agent in London, and with his daughter, years after relocating there. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, claimed that Russia did not possess the nerve agent, but the United States, United Kingdom, and NATO did. Russian TV news suggested that Skripal's daughter has been abducted and hidden and the British had destroyed evidence and ignored international norms.

These are examples of the Kremlin’s disinformation playbook when it comes to crisis management abroad. But they are also saturation bombing their citizens and others beyond their borders, with ongoing false narratives designed to undermine elections, governments, and societies. Putin’s info-war has now metastasized and afflicts all media and politics.

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Ukraine's post-Maidan leadership has focused on building patriotism to unite the nation as it suffered from turbulence and war. The patriotism that emerged from the Euromaidan promoted a nationalistic symbolism that rejected and replaced the prevailing Russian and Soviet identities. But instead of uniting the country, the current effort has expanded the divide between Ukrainians who absorbed the Soviet Union as an element of their identity and those who see it as a forcibly-planted mythology. Violent confrontations often characterize the divide between these two perceptions.

The May 9 Victory Day holiday that commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany was celebrated throughout the Soviet and post-Soviet space. Before the Russian invasion, May 9 was the most popular holiday in Donbas and Crimea, and was a popular holiday in the rest of the country. In 2010, 58 percent of Ukrainians recognized it as their favorite celebration. This dropped to 37 percent in 2017, after Crimea and part of Donbas were invaded, and fell to 31 percent this year, according to a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

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A decade ago, I received a four word message from a close German acquaintance who had accompanied Chancellor Angela Merkel to the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, that was tasked to decide whether to provide Georgia and Ukraine with a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). It read: "Yes, but not now!" Having just seen a couple of episodes of World at War on the History Channel, I laconically and almost whimsically responded: "Fateful decision."

Ukraine and Georgia didn’t get their MAP status in Bucharest, and were left with an open-ended—and some might say useless—promise of eventual membership.

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Countries like Ukraine, afflicted with systemic corruption, need new leaders at the top, but also those willing to engage in erecting bulwarks against graft at the local level.

And while the president and parliament disappoint and foot drag on implementing major revolutionary reforms, real change at the Kyiv City Council, the biggest local government in Ukraine, is underway.

Spearheading the effort is entrepreneur Sergiy Gusovsky, who heads the 22-member Samopomich faction at city hall, among 120 deputies in total. They have gained approval for several notable anti-corruption measures which should be a template for other cities in Ukraine.

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