Amid All the Bad News, Ukraine Is Fighting Back: With Reforms

President, Prime Minister and Civil Society Groups Push for Transparency; Parliament and Bureaucracy Will Be Obstacles

The past week’s news from Russia’s mad proxy war in southeast Ukraine has been brutally shocking: the shooting down of Flight MH17, the remains of passengers left in wheat fields and train cars as investigators negotiated with separatist thugs, and the continued warfare.

This painful news has obscured better developments elsewhere in the country, as Ukraine’s pro-democracy forces and the still-new government fight back with one of the strongest weapons they can use: reforms to combat corruption and strengthen Ukraine’s vibrant but still very incomplete democracy. In his seventh week in office, President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree July 23 creating a National Reform Council to coordinate work across the government, and with civil society, on administrative and economic changes.

And indeed Ukraine’s civil society, driven by the spirit of last winter’s Maidan pro-democracy movement, is continuing to push the reform process, not leaving it up to the government. Last weekend, 200 activists and policy experts gathered in Kyiv at a conference retreat organized by the Open Society Foundations and its Ukraine branch, the International Renaissance Foundation. Civil society leaders, international donors, independent experts and former high-level officials from Georgia, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland met for three days to plot out how to move reform forward. The clear consensus was: Ukraine’s government to needs push changes faster, get more legislation through the parliament and implement them quickly.

In the five months since Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenuyk took office, he has led the passage of ten laws to reform government systems. These include a new public procurement law, requiring transparent and competitive bids for public purchases; a new higher education law; a law on public broadcasting and the law on access to public information.

The Ukrainians who stood on the Maidan for months in subzero temperatures want more. They, and experts at last weekend’s conference, have called on the government to move forward on constitutional reform, decentralization, the establishment of e-governance, civil service reform, increasing the independence of the judiciary, deregulation, a new elections law, change to the party financing law, public health reform including the establishment of a universal health care system, a new taxation code, safer and enforceable property rights, and the list goes on and on.

Ukraine faces a massive task in pursuing its difficult but essential reforms while it also must fight a war imposed by Russia in the southeast and deal with an economic crisis. Less visible abroad is that reforms will have to be implemented despite the resistance of powerful blocs in Ukraine’s parliament and its state bureaucracy.

After the Maidan revolution forced out former President Viktor Yanukovych, the country reversed constitutional changes he had made to concentrate powers in the hands of the presidency. By reverting to Ukraine’s 2004 Constitution, the country significantly reduced the powers of the president in favor of the parliament and its governing coalition.

Yet Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, remains a holdover from Yanukovych’s administration and about a quarter of its members are chronically absent. Ukraine’s democratically inclined parties elected Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and have passed some legislation with the support of defectors from Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, but these defectors are not supportive of anti-corruption reforms. In short, the legislature lacks the strong political mandate and legitimacy that a government needs to readily implement a difficult reform package. With new parliament elections schedule only in 2017, President Poroshenko has called for an early vote to be held in October, but the constitution provides only narrow conditions for this, such as a collapse of the current coalition.

Also, while many of Ukraine’s cabinet ministers are reformist, the government bureaucracy is poorly paid, conservative and deeply entrenched in practices that all too often have allowed corruption to affect decision making.

Experience from elsewhere in post-communist Eastern Europe may help. At last weekend’s conference, former Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnaj underlined the necessity to make quick wins to amplify the impact of reforms. Ivan Miklos, ex-finance minister of the Slovak Republic explained that reform had been made possible in his country because after several months of getting buy-in from civil society and the media, the political leadership took responsibility and pushed ahead with changes, willing to suffer the risk of losing popularity with voters. As former prime pinister of Georgia Nika Gilauri explained, government needs to work as a team. He recounted that, to incentivize young reformers throughout Georgia’s state structures, he gave out bonuses to those who implemented change most effectively.

Until now Ukraine’s reform has been piecemeal. But the election of President Poroshenko with an overwhelming majority gives it a new impulse. He named the former head of Microsoft in Ukraine, Dmytro Shymkiv, to lead that effort in his administration. The National Reform Council established this week “should unite the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, the Verhovna Rada and the civil society and should be the platform where decisions are made on reforms. This is super-important for the reforms to be implemented further,” Shymkiv told journalists in Kyiv.

Many experts at the conference called for an end to the soft approach to change, instead saying “we need to go cold turkey.” One government official promised that the time for gradualism was over and his motto was “screw it, let’s do it.”

Bringing better governance to Ukraine is central to the fight against the Russian-backed militias in southeast Ukraine. “In the east they are fighting against our reforms. They are trying to get us bogged down in war to [make us] forget the Maidan. Reform is our best answer to the fighting, especially in the long term,” said Oleksandr Sushko, board chair of the International Renaissance Foundation and co-chair of the Strategic Advisory Group set up by the Open Society Foundations to support reform. Ukraine must win on the battlefield but the Maidan revolution will succeed only with a deeper transformation of the country’s government and economy.

Sabine Freizer is a non-resident senior fellow at the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council.


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Image: Ukrainian pro-democracy demonstrators rally on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti in December 2013, demanding closer ties to Europe and anti-corruption reforms. The red flags amid the crowd belong to a pro-reform party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, that is led by Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko and has allied itself with President Poroshenko’s government. PHOTO: Creative Commons/Flickr