Eastern Europe

  • Will Ukraine Become a Giant Moldova?

    Enter Ukraine’s sparkling new passport service center on the third floor of a shabby 1990s Kyiv shopping center and you feel you have entered Ukraine’s world of the future: bright lights, a digital ticket system, and 60 stylishly uniformed young men and women. They are all devoted to giving you, the Ukrainian citizen, a new biometric passport allowing for work, travel, and study in the EU.

    But when my wife and I—two foreigners—approached the welcome desk in February, brows furrowed. The supervisor was called. Rule books were thumbed through.

    Your foreign marriage certificate is no longer valid in Ukraine. No matter that it was valid for your residency permits of 2016, 2017, and 2018.

    Although it was registered by Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by the US Embassy in Bangkok, translated into Ukrainian, notarized several times, the marriage certificate now must be validated by Ukraine’s Embassy in Bangkok.

    In turn, the Ukrainian Embassy in Bangkok ruled that Thai Foreign Ministry certification stamps more than 90 days old are no longer valid.

    While Vladimir Putin offers Russian passports to all Ukrainians, starting with those living in fringe areas controlled by Russian troops, Ukraine sleepwalks ahead, marching toward a demographic abyss, tied in knots by bureaucratic red tape that stifles business, bars immigration, and encourages emigration.


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  • Zelenskiy’s First Big Test

    A key issue has emerged in the post-election drama in Ukraine. In a disturbing interview given by Andrij Bohdan, lawyer, confidant, and political advisor to President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he reveals that he continues to act as a lawyer for oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy with regard to the nationalization of PrivatBank. This assertion, if accepted by the president-elect, would constitute a major threat to the reform agenda of the Zelenskiy presidency.


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  • Reality Check

    Ukraine’s presidential election was a veritable political earthquake. The fault line between the old and the new, the real and the illusory, and pseudo-nationalism and grassroots patriotism, has been dramatically exposed.

    The old political establishment was shaken to its very foundations, and the strong tremors and shockwaves continue to be felt. The shifting political tectonic plates will settle only after the reconfiguration of political forces is completed, before and during the October parliamentary elections.  

    While much still remains uncertain about the new president, political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy, certain things have already become clear.

    Zelenskiy is not the clown and political incompetent as his rivals claimed.


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  • Why We Can't Get Enough of Ukraine

    The impact one can have on building institutions like the modern state, the rule of law, and democracy is limited. The area where it’s easiest is the third category, building democracy. The first two, building the modern state and building a real rule of law, are much harder, and those are the areas that have been the real obstacles to the modernization of the political systems of many countries, including Ukraine. The reason that those are particularly difficult is that they’re essentially about power. If you hold an election, the old guard can think we will win the election. We know how to run candidates, we can contest things, we can protect our interests. If you want to build a modern state, it’s a different task. If you want to have a rule of law that applies to powerful people in a society, that is much harder because one is basically forcing them to give up power.

    A lot of the well-meaning efforts of outside donors and governments to influence that process has been quite disappointing, especially in the area of corruption, which is the area I have looked at most closely. Corruption exists because it’s not in the self-interest of existing elites to have things change. Elites like the status quo. Therefore, changing that system is a matter of power. It’s a matter of gaining power on the part of people that are not corrupt and want a modern system. One can help that along by creating the proper kinds of incentives; one can do things like create special prosecutors, anti-corruption courts, and the like, which Ukraine has been involved in. One can try to pay people better in the bureaucracy so that they’re not as tempted to take bribes. So there some short-term things in terms of people’s incentives. 

    But fundamentally good government is not simply this incentive structure. It’s also a matter of human capital. And this is why modernizing the state in so many countries has taken a long time, because it is basically an educational project. It’s a matter of the skills and knowledge and the level of education that’s carried around in the heads of the people that run the government or that come in to the government and that is a long-term project. 


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  • Children as a Tool: How Russia Militarizes Kids in the Donbas and Crimea

    With an eye to the future, officials in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine are waging a campaign of “patriotic education” aimed at reaching the hearts and minds of those most susceptible to ideological persuasion: children.

    Russia has always used the militarization of public life to indoctrinate local populations and continues that practice today. Currently, thousands of children in the Donbas and Crimea are subject to military training or other military-related activities. While there are no official records on the topic, human rights activists and the media have provided wide-ranging evidence of children’s participation in military-related events and training, and even their recruitment in non-state armed formations.


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  • The Growing Russian Challenge and What Should Be Done About It

    All around the world, Russia is increasingly asserting itself, propping up dictators, and, in some instances, posing a direct challenge to US interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin held his first-ever meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok on April 25. Kim’s visit to Russia, an old ally, came as diplomacy with US President Donald J. Trump has faltered.

    Trump and Putin spoke on the phone for over an hour on May 3. Venezuela and North Korea were among the topics the two leaders discussed.


    We take a look at some areas of confrontation, what is driving Russian interests, and how the United States is responding to this challenge.


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  • Time for Ukraine to Compete with Russia

    Showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy will soon be sworn in as president of Ukraine. Last month he crushed incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a remarkable landslide. Zelenskiy’s victory was noteworthy in Ukraine, but it’s also making headlines across the former Soviet Union. While Zelenskiy is inexperienced and his policies aren’t well defined, he knows how to engage the public through clear and innovative communications.


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  • Ukraine's New Language Law Rights Historic Wrongs

    For centuries the Ukrainian language was relegated to the status of a “peasant language” by the foreign rulers of the lands that make up the country today and by foreign scholars in Europe and abroad who perpetuated this Russian imperial falsehood. More recently, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited a Soviet political elite who spoke Russian, and to this day all of Ukraine’s oligarchs are Russian-speaking. This has buttressed the post-colonial dominance of the Russian language and culture in the public sphere and the subsequent ostracism of the Ukrainian language. The Ukrainian-speaking majority has been historically marginalized as peripheral, with inferior access to high culture, quality education, prestigious jobs, political office, and the creation of wealth primarily due to the bias of the established colonial practices that saw Ukrainian as "low" and "rural."


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  • Vladimir Putin Does Shakespeare

    Vladimir Putin’s newest display of talent is his excelling in theatrics. He recently elected to play Macbeth or Richard III. Having nothing left to offer Russia as the indices of immiseration pile up, Putin’s recourse to imperial theatrics has dramatically accelerated. But ultimately this performance, like those of his predecessors on stage and in reality, ends with the political or physical death of the tyrant and a new king or in Russia’s case, tsar. 
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  • What Is Wrong with the Ukrainian Economy?

    Construction is booming in Kyiv, Ukraine, but not the rest of the economy. A major reason is that Ukrainians with some extra savings do not put their money into banks but buy additional apartments instead. Others keep their savings in cash. On average, Ukrainian MPs keep $700,000 at home. Those who have a lot of wealth transfer it to offshore havens, where the money is safe.

    Ukraine is now the poorest country in Europe. According to the International Monetary Fund, Ukraine overtook Moldova as the poorest country in Europe as measured in GDP per capita in 2018 at $2,963, 8 percent less than in Moldova. These numbers can be boosted in many ways. Probably half of the Ukrainian economy goes unreported in official statistics, and prices in Ukraine are so low that one gets much more for a dollar there then elsewhere. Still, the growth rate has been around 3 percent a year for the last three years, and the IMF predicts a similar rate even for the long term. A poor country with macroeconomic stability and open access to the large European market should be growing steadily by 7 percent annually.

    What is wrong? Usually the discussion focuses on what the state does, but there’s a better way to understand how the economy really functions: follow the money.


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