Eastern Europe

  • Ukraine Needs All the Friends It Can Get. So Why Did It Boot the American Ambassador Early?

    Last week the Trump administration recalled US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch two months earlier than expected. Various forces within Ukraine's presidential administration, including the attorney general, had been calling for her head after she gave a speech that pointed out Ukraine’s lackluster commitment to reform on Poroshenko’s watch. The lack of an ambassador puts the United States in a weak position with a new Ukrainian president about to take over and parliamentary elections in October.
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  • Ukraine’s Most Urgent Need

    Ukrainians have considerable experience of the hope that comes with new beginnings and the disillusionment that often follows. The country has lived through repeated false dawns over the past three decades, only for the same old bad habits to come creeping out of the shadows and reassert their debilitating grip on the nation. The arrival of independence in 1991 was the first watershed moment, but this seeming historic break with the past was actually a deeply flawed compromise that failed to dislodge the vast state apparatus inherited from the Soviet era. Unsurprisingly, the rebranding of career communists as Ukrainian democrats did little to improve living standards or move the country in the right direction.


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  • Even if Ukraine’s Reformers Unify, So What?

    Five years after the Euromaidan street protests, Ukrainians are still waiting for transformative leaders and justice. On May 20, political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy will be sworn in as president. But that won’t necessarily result in a significant change for the country: Ukraine’s next president is inexperienced and his links to oligarchs are troubling. Its parliament, theleast trusted body in the country, makes the most important decisions and appoints the government. And there are signs afoot that the forces there will be anything but new.

    Ukraine holds its parliamentary elections on October 27. Now that the May holidays have passed, politics is in full swing and every politician is preening and gearing up for the next fight. As of now, however, legislators and candidates pushing for justice can’t work together. And the most popular politicians largely represent the same old corrupt elite.  

    At Stanford last week, we got a preview of what’s to come. Six politicians from Ukraine’s leading reform-focused political parties and civic movements (plus one from the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko, whose reform credentials are dubious at best) paraded on stage to explain their platforms, relitigate past decisions, and urge the West to give them more time to finally unify.


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  • 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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