What Ukraine Urgently Needs Isn’t What You Think

In a recent article the talented journalist Vitaliy Sych, editor of Ukraine’s reformist weekly Novoe Vremya, posits the emergence of a war between old Ukraine and new Ukraine.

He is right. Recent months have seen the escalation of a fight that pits anticorruption institutions and activists against segments of the state and ruling elite.

But this is understandable and predictable. The new institutions and activists came into being to launch a war against the establishment, some of which is corrupt and most of which has skeletons from the post-communist past. Many of the newer forces represent nongovernmental organizations that exist to expose corruption and probe into the economic affairs of officeholders. And it was to be expected that the objects of their attacks would fight back. After all, it was the anticorruption entities that launched the first strike at the old order.

But here Sych’s elegant model breaks down. Some of new Ukraine’s Western-supported actors are themselves flawed. Several, who began as anticorruption activists and muckraking investigative journalists, are now politicians, who target their political enemies and ignore malefactors with whom they make common cause. Some have made alliances with radical ultranationalists and dodgy parliamentarians. Others, such as the former head of the parliamentary anticorruption committee, Yegor Soboliev, have tarnished their reputations as effective bearers of change by allying with a lightly armed vigilante movement that enforces street justice. Still others have allied with Mikheil Saakashvili, who left Georgia with a mixed record. Many in the West recall his efforts to catapult Georgia from a small, deeply corrupt, and insignificant post-Soviet state to a top reformer, but they often forget his reputation for promoting business cronies and using force to crush opposition media and protestors.

Moreover, Ukraine’s new anticorruption agencies may not be entirely squeaky clean. Their personnel are led by people who were cogs in the old order. According to Ukraine’s prosecutor general, the National Anticorruption Bureau has used illegal wiretaps, illegal surveillance devices, and entrapment. One of its top agents has accumulated a vast real estate portfolio and owns a Maserati and a Lexus. And the agency’s boss has been sharing confidential information, including recordings from ongoing criminal investigations, with friendly journalists.

But Sych’s basic point is right. There is a lot of frustration within new Ukraine, the younger generation of reformers, and society in general with the near-complete impunity that surrounds perpetrators of massive corruption.

But the tension between old and new Ukraine is an oversimplification. And a look at Ukraine’s recent history explains why.

Real progress and major breakthroughs have occurred only when new Ukraine (or a large segment of it) found a modus vivendi with old Ukraine.

In 1991, when Ukraine accelerated the collapse of the USSR, it did so because of a pact between part of the old ruling communist and official cultural elite and a growing protest movement led by anti-communist, patriotic former political prisoners.

In 2005, mass street protests were backed by segments of the established order who made common cause with insurgent civic activists. Segments of the old order made an unwritten pact with the leaders of the Orange Revolution to allow a revote after a falsified presidential election.

And in 2013-14, the Euromaidan would not have succeeded if not for cooperation between old and new Ukraine. Television channels belonging to oligarchs broadcast the state violence against protestors and pressed legislators to remove Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych. Many business leaders, including billionaire and now President Petro Poroshenko, backed the nonviolent mass movement.

What then is the way out of this unproductive war of attrition?

Bishop Borys Gudziak, the US-born, Harvard-educated steward of Ukrainian Catholic University and a key voice of the new Ukraine, has recently sounded the right alarm bells: “What I fear most now is a war of everyone against everyone, against the spread of hatred. I would like to call on the state, on society, on journalists, on reformers, and on those who worry about the disappearance of our traditions: learn to hear one another. Many today believe you have to act radically, to cut and slash. I doubt this will bring the desired result.”

Gudziak is right. Radical action, vigilantism, and the politics of anger will lead to instability, not reform. In the past, bearers of a new vision of Ukraine found ways to advance their agenda by reaching a consensus with segments of old Ukraine. This approach is all the more essential today. Ukraine is a country under partial Russian occupation, Russian subversion, and a relentless low-intensity military attack.

In this context, new Ukraine must recognize that there at least two old Ukraines. One represents a patriotic elite committed to the country’s Western orientation. Another old Ukraine represents the Russian-oriented geopolitics of the Yanukovych regime, some of whose operatives are based in Russia and cooperate with Russian intelligence in an effort to subvert Ukraine.

Patriotic old Ukraine and new Ukraine have a common enemy in Vladimir Putin. As importantly, reformers, technocrats, and civil society representatives are electorally weak. They are vastly outnumbered in popularity by populists, parties in power, nationalist movements, pro-Russian parties, and oligarch-dominated political projects.

These two factors should be enough for them to begin a public discourse on a national compromise that punishes those guilty of the repression and murder of Maidan activists and effectively narrows the scope for corruption and rent-seeking through the privatization of remaining state enterprises, the reconfiguration of the boards of regulatory and rate-setting state bodies including the National Energy Regulatory Commission, the building of an anticorruption court and broader court reform, and the effective monitoring of the legal operation of state security, police, the procuracy, and anticorruption agencies to ensure they operate within the bounds of the law, and an end to extremist rhetoric and vigilante justice.

Such a process might include a national roundtable convened by neutral moral leaders from inside the country and Western intermediaries.

A step back from the precipice is needed now. Ukraine can ill afford deepening fragmentation.

Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-director of its Ukraine in Europe program.

Related Experts: Adrian Karatnycky

Image: Supporters of former Georgian President and Ukrainian opposition figure Mikheil Saakashvili break into the building of the International Art Centre in Kyiv, Ukraine, December 17, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko