UkraineAlert

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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On October 19, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that it had finally reached a staff-level agreement with Ukraine on renewed lending. Ukraine hasn’t received any IMF funds since April 2017. Experts had warned that without an IMF tranche, Ukraine’s economy might face a serious financial crisis this fall.

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Ukraine has just won a tremendous victory by obtaining the right of autocephaly, or the right to constitute the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as fully independent and free of any subservience to Moscow. This victory represents a shattering blow to Vladimir Putin’s pretenses of a Russian world (Russkii Mir) and the entire arcana imperii (Imperial relics) of the Russian narrative that Ukraine is really a part of Russia that does not merit political or cultural independence. The attainment of autocephaly is actually Ukraine’s second emancipation from Moscow; it is a religious and cultural emancipation that accompanies the country’s political emancipation in 1991. And it shatters the intellectual basis for Putin’s attacks on Ukraine.

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Territories between great powers—borderlands—have always been areas of strife. So it is with the countries caught between Russia and the West, those that were once part of the Soviet Union or firmly within its sphere of influence. Much of Europe has consolidated and, with the United States, established a lasting liberal democratic order, but Russia has been increasingly pushing back. Though most of the “borderlands” countries are now West-facing, Moscow wants to control at least the national security policies of its near neighbors.

The West should reject Moscow’s claim.

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Ukraine’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections are the most important since the country became independent nearly three decades ago. If next year’s elections follow those held in 2014 when five pro-reform political forces won a constitutional majority, Ukraine’s European integration and withdrawal from the Russian world will be assured by the next election cycle in 2024.

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October 14 saw the latest in a string of annual mass marches by the far right in Ukraine. As many as 10,000 people participated, mainly young men, chanting fiercely. A nighttime torchlight parade with signs proclaiming “We’ll return Ukraine to Ukrainians,” contained echoes of Nazi-style symbolism.

Lax law enforcement and indifference by the security services to the operations of the far right is being noticed by extremists from abroad who are flocking to Ukraine. German media reported the presence of the German extreme right (JN-NPD, Dritte Weg) at the rally. According to Ukrainian political analyst Anton Shekhovtsov, far-right Norwegians, Swedes, and Italians were supposed to be there too. And on October 15, they all gathered in Kyiv for the Paneuropa conference organized by the Ukrainian neo-Nazi National Corps party. "Kyiv," says Shekhovtsov, "has now become one of the major centers of European far-right activities."

Such activism, naturally, unnerves liberals as well as Jews, and national minorities. And they often result in alarmist headlines in Western and Israeli newspapers.

Coming in a year in which the white supremacist C14 group engaged in savage beatings at a Roma encampment near Kyiv, one could draw the conclusion that the far right is on the rise in Ukraine.

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