Here’s How to Make Ukraine’s Reforms Irreversible

We live in a time of transformations: today, we decide which Ukraine our children will live in tomorrow. But a new Ukraine will be hard to achieve unless citizens with no connections to the old system take action and begin controlling the government and thinking long-term.

In 2013, Ukrainians protested to demonstrate that there was no way back to the Soviet Union; they stopped the Kremlin’s plan to drag Ukraine into the Customs Union. The Maidan proved that Ukraine is a European state with a thousand-year history, not a vassal of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian empire.

In 2014, Ukrainians fought for dignity. They ousted the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych and took the first steps to demolish the old power monopoly. But ultimately power was seized by those who had already squandered their chance to build a strong state immediately after the Orange Revolution. The Maidan activists lacked political experience, time, and the ambition to create a political force of their own; as a result, the post-Maidan parliament was formed by ad-hoc political projects that co-opted civil society activists as “new faces” that could connect the old-turned-new parties with the electorate. But new political brands did not bring new procedures, approaches, and rules to the political game. Business as usual prevailed.

In 2015, we laid the foundation for reforms to ensure that the country’s changes were irreversible and political revanchism impossible. We accomplished a lot: the international community declared Russia an aggressor state, the Rada adopted decommunization laws, and some bills targeting oligarchs (like the law on the gas market) were adopted. The database of real estate owners became open, the law on public broadcasting was adopted, and Russian propaganda was prohibited in Ukraine.

But without strong institutions and new professional cadres, the system is hard to change. We failed to implement judicial reforms, only imitated changes for the offices of the Prosecutor General and the Interior Ministry, and the reforms to Ukraine’s tax and customs administrations were largely cosmetic. Institutional reforms did begin at the parliament, but archaic Cabinet of Ministers regulations prolonged the red tape and impeded reforms. It remains to be seen whether the law on civil service will produce any tangible results.

Additionally, the ongoing struggle among Ukraine’s elites complicates the already difficult task of reform as Ukraine tries to gain full independence from Russia in the energy, military, information, and economic sectors.

The year 2016 will be like crossing the Rubicon. Will Ukraine get a visa-free regime with the EU? Will it be able to convince its partners to extend sanctions on Russia? Will there be progress in regaining Ukraine’s control over the Donbas and the Ukrainian-Russian border? Will stability be preserved?

To achieve those goals, Ukraine needs a team of mature politicians for whom the interests of the state stand above all. But the last two years have demonstrated that a national team is still a dream for the future. Professional and honest politicians who are keen on implementing reforms are not yet a majority even within their political parties. They cannot win over tight-knit corrupt businessmen and the oligarchs’ various nominees, all of whom continue their behind-the-scenes deals.

Recently I chatted with some fellow politicians during a break in a TV program at one of the national channels. They attempted to convince me that as the new parliamentary coalition is unstable and trust in the current parliament has been exhausted, the time is ripe for snap parliamentary elections. Only elections, they argued, will help new leaders ensure elite turnover.

Their personal interest is clear, but who can guarantee that a newly-elected parliament would be a better one? We can’t be certain of its higher professionalism, as there are no real political parties, the oligarchs continue to control the TV channels, populists are on the rise, and people’s apathy is growing due to disappointment and mistrust.

Ukraine’s new cabinet was formed on April 14, but this is not a government of reformers. Instead, it is one of loyalists, members of a narrow circle of trusted cadres who keep a monopoly on power.

As people’s dissatisfaction grows, the crisis is likely to deepen. It is high time to change these approaches and stop living by the old rules. Yes, politics requires compromises, but not a total eclipse of principles and values. Ukrainians want to see real changes, not pseudo-reforms that only increase frustration and heighten the protest mood among voters.

Putin thinks the Ukrainian political class still lacks defenders of the national interest and that he turned many into Russia allies. He anticipates that his agents will rock the boat and stir up anger through the skillful application of patriotic and populist rhetoric, and hopes that disunity and the inclination to find three hetmans among two Ukrainians will cause them to fail.

The current political crisis demonstrates that Ukrainians do not need Putin in order to quarrel with each other and waste this historical moment. Is it Putin’s fault that our political leaders perceive Ukraine to be their private company? Is it Putin’s fault that the Prosecutor General has not opened a single criminal case against his subordinates, the so-called “diamond prosecutors”? Did our heroes and patriots give their lives at the Maidan and in eastern Ukraine for this?

Ukrainians must get engaged; they must speak up and start controlling the government with an understanding that even under the best-case scenario, real changes and results will only be seen by their children. We should not succumb to sweet populist promises that pensions in Ukraine will grow to 500 euro the day after they come to power. It only takes five percent of a population to constitute a critical mass capable of changing a society. The challenge before us is to find and bring them together, and then to harness their energy and political will. That’s how an active minority wakes up a passive majority, and that’s what we’ve decided to do in Ukraine.

Together with a team of activists—many from the Euromaidan—as well as experts, entrepreneurs, and analysts, liberal reformers in parliament have begun developing a horizontal network of new leaders who will ensure civic support for reforms. In just two months, we have identified numerous regional activists who have joined the “Switch On” initiative and started searching for specific approaches to regional problems, such as the lack of competition in business, lack of transparency in the allocation of land by local councils, and lack of information about local budgets. Together with Rada deputies, these activists make unexpected visits to governors’ and mayors’ offices, to the cabinets of local deputies, and to the managers of communal enterprises to start face-to-face dialogues on how to turn the reform process around.

Only horizontal ties between us, rather than the old vertical patron-client connections with the oligarchs and other political “bosses,” can ensure the development of Ukraine’s civil society. We need a critical mass of active communities to guarantee the victory of a revolution of justice and effective implementation of the laws. We need to involve citizens to develop a mature political force, not just another one-day political brand to win the next elections. Let’s speak up!

Hanna Hopko is a member of Ukraine’s parliament and chair of its foreign affairs committee.

Image: Students attend a flash mob to support a European treaty deepening ties with Ukraine on the eve of a referendum held in the Netherlands, in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 5, 2016. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko