UkraineAlert

As Ukraine prepares to mark five years since the start of the country’s Euromaidan protests, the repercussions continue to reverberate across the globe. What began as an ordinary protest movement soon morphed into a revolution that sparked a Russian invasion and ushered in a new Cold War.

Without the Euromaidan, Russia and the West would still be engaged in business as usual and everybody would be far too busy making money to dwell on the ugly realities of the Putin regime. Without the Kremlin’s hybrid war, it is entirely plausible there would be no Trump presidency and no Brexit.

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Ukrainian voters have long believed that in her drive for power, long-time politician Yulia Tymoshenko will do and say anything. This is not unusual for populists who routinely make promises that cannot be met and are flexible with the truth.

That characteristic has been on display since Tymoshenko announced her intention to run for the presidency. Tymoshenko’s claim to be a supporter of NATO and European Union membership is at odds with both the voting record of her Batkivshchina (Fatherland) parliamentary party and her own populist campaign rhetoric. In fact, Tymoshenko has little love for IMF-driven reforms and there is little chance she will enact them if elected. This would bode very badly for Ukraine’s European hopes.

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On October 28, Georgians went to the polls to elect their fifth president, possibly for the last time. Neither candidate, both former foreign ministers, won outright. An unprecedented run-off is slated for December 2.   

The United National Movement (UNM) presidential candidate Grigol Vashadze achieved an unexpectedly strong showing (37.7 percent) against the ruling Georgian Dream party backed candidate (38.6 percent) Salome Zurabishvili. The outcome belies the current level of one-party rule and presents a surprise proxy rematch between political personalities which have defined the national landscape since 2011. Six years after defeating Misha Saakashvili’s UNM in parliamentary elections, Georgian Dream grey cardinal and oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili may be losing his Midas touch. 

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Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Moscow and its proxies have put dozens of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar political prisoners behind bars. However, there are many other people in Russian prisons who have been incarcerated for their unwillingness to bow down to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

The fabrication of these cases has been refined in Russia's courts. There a court does not need real evidence, just an order from above. The evidence and all other case-related elements can be carelessly thrown together, as the details don’t matter. Moreover, Russians can hold people in pre-trial detention centers for years without trial.

The number of political prisoners in Russia has been growing in recent years, and this is unlikely to change. More interference and pressure from the international community is necessary, as this has proven to be the only factor which secures the rare and occasional release of political prisoners. 

Below are ten political prisoners—Ukrainian, Tatar, Russian, and Danish—whose cases should be followed.

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“There are 52 million of us,” went the catchphrase that was broadcast every evening on popular Ukrainian television channel 1+1 in the 90s. The numbers were based on a 1989 population census.

It is uncertain how many people live in Ukraine today. Following Russia’s 2014 invasion and a subsequent significant labor migration outflow, the number has contracted by at least 10 million over the past two decades.

Approximately five million Ukrainians, roughly 25 percent of the country’s economically active population, work abroad. Around two million live in Poland. I visited Warsaw this summer; out of six Uber rides that I took, four of the drivers were Ukrainian.

A key reason for this hefty flight is that Ukraine has the lowest average monthly salary in Europe, a meager $320. The workforce in Poland earns four times more.

In 2018, Ukrainians will send home $11 billion in remittances, a whopping 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

As Ukrainians continue to leave, the toll in the motherland is being felt.

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Ukraine’s presidential race is in full swing, even though the official campaign period has not yet begun. At this point, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko may make the second round; no candidate is expected to take 50 percent in the first round. If elections were held now, Tymoshenko would take 12.9 percent while Poroshenko polled second at 8.4 percent. Interestingly, Ukrainian comedian Volodymir Zelensky and rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk would receive 7.9 and 7.6 percent respectively, which points to society’s deep fatigue and distrust of the old faces.

For Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, it’s a do-or-die race. Both have been in politics nearly twenty years and the loser will find it difficult if not impossible to recover.

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Ukraine’s civil society is realizing an unfortunate fact: reforming the country is going to be more of a marathon than a sprint. Consequently, pro-reform advocates have had to adjust their expectations.

Describing her hopes for the speed of change in Ukraine, Anticorruption Action Center executive director Daria Kaleniuk said that she and her colleagues now see the project of fixing Ukraine as a generational one. And after nearly five years of intense hand-to-hand combat, civil society is exhausted.

Fortunately, some of the country’s top activists and leaders are taking much-needed breaks, logging off their devices and cracking books. Increasing numbers of US organizations are providing fellowships to help Ukraine’s leaders regroup and renew their energies.

One is the Center for European Policy Analysis, a small think tank in Washington, DC, that houses the James Denton Transatlantic Fellowship. In late September, CEPA brought three leaders to Washington for a three-week fellowship. The Ukraine fellows include an IT guy who unexpectedly became a national fundraiser for Ukraine’s army, a top lawyer and city councilman, and a brilliant strategist who is helping civil society mature.

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With every new election cycle, Ukrainians freeze in hope and despondency. Each time, we face an inner conflict between the desire for fair and systemic change and the fear and distrust acquired from experience. We’ve been trying to break out of this vicious cycle for twenty-seven years, and each time we try, the enthusiasm subsides within a year or two and we return to dreadful despair.

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Today, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2030, two-thirds likely will. Mayors are city managers, responsible not only for quality of life issues like access to water, roads, and infrastructure; they’re also facing global challenges like climate change, security, and migration.

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After twenty-seven years of independence, the Ukrainian economy continues to struggle. The country appears to be stuck in partial transition from the command to market economy. Many state-owned companies have been privatized, but many more remain in the custody of the state and are mismanaged. There is corporate governance and independent boards, but the assets are continuously stripped from companies by insiders. There are private but insecure property rights. There is liberalization in energy markets, but household gas prices are heavily subsidized. There is a shadow market for land, but the legislature has extended the land market moratorium sixteen times. There is private investment, but the movement of capital is restricted and minority shareholders are abused. The list goes on.

The standard logic of economic transition goes like this: reforms are unpopular. There are short-term losers. People will lose jobs in inefficient industries and will have to pay higher market prices on utilities and groceries. There are also long-term winners. The entire population and especially future generations will benefit from a better, more efficient, and prosperous economy. But the losers—pensioners, state employees, miners—are better organized than the winners. The losers will resist the reforms. The weak “populist” politicians will listen and reforms will stall.

This appears to be the tale of Ukraine’s reforms, too.

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