Ukrainians may be eager to shed their Soviet past, but an old joke from Communist times is making the rounds in Kiev these days. “How’s it going?” a man asks a friend. “Why are you asking?” he replies. “We live in the same country.”
Most Ukrainians wanted their country to be different by now. Even those who didn’t support the Maidan protest two winters ago were fed up with living in Europe’s most corrupt country. When then-President Viktor Yanukovych fled office after the demonstrations turned bloody in February 2014, the civic activists behind the protest movement hoped to turn their country from a dysfunctional kleptocracy into a rule-of-law democracy worthy of European Union membership.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stealth annexation of Crimea and his sponsorship of an insurrection in eastern Ukraine imperiled the country’s reform drive from the start. Despite the Kremlin’s intervention, Ukrainians elected a new president, Petro Poroshenko, followed by a new parliament with a strong mandate for change. Now frustration is growing about the pace of reform — not only domestically but among the country’s biggest backers abroad. If it isn’t torn apart by war, Ukraine risks slipping back into a gray zone between Russia and Europe. The pro-reform Orange Revolution nine years ago ended in squabbling among its leaders, opening the way to Yanukovych’s election as president in 2010.
At home, there is the possibility of more protests, a paralyzed government, and the rise of politicians seeking accommodation with Putin. “Slow and unsuccessful reforms are a bigger existential threat than the Russian aggression,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a security expert at Kiev’s Razumkov Center. Even if Ukrainians don’t return to the street, they’ll get a chance to voice their discontent at the ballot box. Local elections are due in the fall — and the governing coalition between Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is so shaky that nobody can rule out an early parliamentary vote.
In its international relations, Ukraine is living on borrowed time — and money. A dispute over restructuring $23 billion in debt broke into the open last week with the Finance Ministry accusing foreign creditors of not negotiating in good faith ahead of a June deadline. An EU summit this week is likely to end in more disappointment, as Western European countries are reluctant to grant Ukrainians visa-free travel.
Kiev has become an accidental, burdensome ally to the West. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization only paid lip service to future Ukrainian membership, while the EU, which never had any intention of taking in Ukraine, pushed an association agreement out of bureaucratic habit more than strategic vision.
When Yanukovych backed out of the EU deal at the last minute after coming under pressure from Putin, the first protesters showed up on Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, in November 2013. Ordinary Ukrainians were holding up the “European values” that feckless EU leaders trumpeted at every opportunity. For Western Europeans who take their freedom, prosperity, and security for granted, the bloodshed on the Maidan was a rude awakening. Today, people in Kiev remind visitors that Ukrainians were the first Europeans to die under the EU flag.
Larger in area than France and almost as populous as Spain, Ukraine is hard to ignore. But saddled with its own tests of internal unity, the EU would be more than happy to forget about its troubled eastern neighbor. The challenges facing the Kiev government are enough to give anybody a headache, and Poroshenko has repeatedly warned that a string of bad news could lead to “Ukraine fatigue” in the West. Plenty of Europeans miss the status quo ante — before the imposition of sanctions on the Kremlin — when Russia was open for business and Ukraine’s raison d’être was delivering Siberian natural gas via its pipelines.
Ukrainians now worry that following the German-brokered Minsk peace agreement, the conflict in the east of the country will enter a new phase — not hot enough to be called a war but explosive enough to divert resources and scare off foreign investment. The threat of fascism was always a hobgoblin created by Kremlin propagandists; the real danger facing Ukraine is getting stuck in the dysfunction of the past. The brazen murders of pro-Russian journalist Oles Buzyna and former Yanukovych ally Oleh Kalashnikov in April are indicative of a government that is unable or unwilling to protect its critics.
A lack of professionalism among civil servants is one of Ukraine’s most pressing problems. Minuscule salaries have kept the country’s best-trained professionals out of government — and where Poroshenko can’t find domestic expertise, he’s recruiting foreigners. Georgians, who implemented their own radical reforms 10 years ago, are disproportionately represented in the Ukrainian government: as health minister, deputy justice minister, deputy general prosecutor, and deputy interior minister. The Finance Ministry is headed by Natalie Jaresko, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants to the United States. “I’d argue that the past 15 months have seen more reforms than the previous 23 years,” she says.
The government’s to-do list is truly dizzying: energy, anti-corruption, constitutional, administrative, financial sector, regulatory, judicial, law enforcement, pension, tax, and civil service reforms, to name a few. Reforms dealing with public finances have taken priority because of the demands of international lenders, while improvements in rule-of-law are moving “very slowly,” says a European diplomat in Kiev.
The much-publicized energy reform is designed to slash dependence on Russia, reduce subsidies, and cut out middlemen. As a result, natural-gas prices for consumers are going up 450 percent. “It’ll get interesting when people receive their utility bills,” says journalist Valeriy Kalnysh.
Kalnysh allows that Ukrainians may be expecting too much, too fast to appreciate the changes being made. But less than half of the reforms planned for the first quarter have been addressed, according to Kalnysh. “The window for reforms is closing,” he says. “The unfulfilled tasks will snowball.”
The least charitably inclined claim that Poroshenko prosecuted the war in eastern Ukraine as a way of delaying reform. What’s undeniable is that the shaky ceasefire leaves the Kiev government at the mercy of Putin and his proxies. Should anything start going right for Poroshenko, the fighting could flare back up at any moment.
Ukrainian security officials say that the enemy forces gathering in the separatist regions are at their highest capability yet. The most alarming observation is that the once ragtag band of rebels — backed up by regular Russian troops in critical battles — is increasingly looking like a real army thanks to weapons and training provided by Russia.
“We only had two options: bad or worse,” Yatsenyuk likes to say about the Minsk peace deal. “We chose bad.” After the annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian government saw the agreement as a form of triage to stem the loss of any more ground. For the West, the Minsk protocol created the illusion that the conflict had been relegated to conference rooms and working groups.
Everybody in Kiev understands that there’s no way of reconquering lost territory by force. Ukrainian politicians publicly pledge to win back breakaway regions through reform and economic success. What they hope for is that sanctions will cause enough problems inside Russia that the Kremlin will run out of resources to sabotage Ukraine. Wishful thinking won’t replace the painful reforms ahead.
The Opposition Bloc, led by former Yanukovych adherents, is keeping a low profile for now. They have no signs or banners outside the party’s sleek new offices in a glass tower overlooking Kiev.
In a park outside the capital, Yanukovych’s opulent residence has been turned into an informal museum of corruption. Activists complain that the property still belongs to the ex-president, in self-exile in Russia, through a straw man. Yanukovych’s old housekeeper continues to put out freshly cut flowers in the palatial living room, as if she expected him home for dinner in the evening.