Twenty four months after the fall of Viktor Yanukovich the country must take on two major challenges:
- find a stable institutional solution to the conflict in the Donbass
- crush corruption by reforming the old post-Soviet system
And President Petro Poroshenko seems to be running out of time to address them.
A Never Ending Conflict?
The cease-fire in the East is not fully effective yet.
Sporadic military skirmishes between pro-Russian militias and the Ukrainian army continue.
After almost two years there is not an adequate solution to the conflict.
It is difficult to determine if the war has been an inconvenient incident on the way to reforms or just a comfortable pretext for oligarchs and corrupted officials to keep the old bad practices alive.
Time will no doubt tell but local people already have their own uncompromising opinion about it.
Rating Group Ukraine’s survey says that 70% of Ukrainians think things are going in the wrong direction, up from 48% last April.
Reforms as a pain-killer
The European Union is looking for a way out by asking the Ukrainian presidential administration to implement fully the Minsk agreement by granting the districts of Donetsk and Luhansk a generic “self-governance”.
This could provide opportunity for an improvement of relations with Moscow and allow the EU to ease its mutually painful economic sanctions.
“It’s time to calm the situation down in the Donbass, abide by the Minsk agreement and concentrate on reforms at home, here in Kiev” a European diplomat told Euronews.
“Abide by the Minsk agreement” is diplomatic speak for accepting a high level of autonomy for the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
A Shaken Constitutional Trail
However, President Poroshenko needs time to win over reluctant MPs from his pro-Western coalition to sign the deal he agreed.
“At the moment there is in Ukrainian society and among Ukrainian politicians a strong consensus that without solid progress from the Russian side, and from the side of the separatists, we cannot move forward with our obligations in the framework of the Minsk agreement,” Svitlana Zalishuk, an MP from the Poroshenko block told Euronews.
She also said that: “concessions undermine stability within the power-base and(Ukrainian) society.
So what we demand is to implement some requirements, first: ceasefire, withdrawal of weapons and release of the prisoners”.
Other members of the same ruling coalition do want the self-governance measures adopted.
In the words of the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the parliament, Anna Hopko:
“The war in the East of Ukraine must push us to mobilise all the resources, to reform the country and also to fulfil all the obligations that Ukraine must fulfil. The temporary occupied territories have now a different status then the rest, more than the 90% of the national territory. This is why we put this article in with the constitutional changes”.
Hopko herself was suspended from her Ukrainian patriotic and democratic Samopomych Party for backing the measures.
The Opposition Block, including former members of the dismantled Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, consider themselves as representatives of the pro-Russian regions.
“We must organize a real election (in the uncontrolled territories) and elect real representatives in order to create a local government.
But decentralization should be for the whole country, not just for the Donbass.
We must find the solution otherwise it will be war,” Nestor Shufrych, an MP from the Opposition Block, told Euronews.
Shufrych also holds out hope of a reconciliation, even with Russia:
“This is a conflict between two nations and the leaders of these nations must show that Ukrainian people and Russian people are very close, and if leaders cannot do it, people will, but without these leaders”.
Without Putin too?
He laughs: “I’ve said these leaders. More than 80% of Russians say that Putin is OK, while just 10% of the Ukrainians say that Poroshenko is OK”.
The issue of the elections in the uncontrolled territories is being systematically discussed by the subgroups in the Minsk technical negotiations.
But there is no breakthrough on the horizon.
According to the Ukrainian side it is unrealistic to set up polling stations in a region where Kiev doesn’t control the external border and where gun-men are still hanging around.
But, what kind of status do Ukrainians want for the Donbass?
According to the Rating Group Ukraine’s survey 86% nationwide and 75% in the Donbass oppose breaking up the country.
Make or Break
The socio-economic concerns and the massive anti-corruption sentiments within Ukrainian society suggest that war can no longer be a pretext for inaction, so a deep and comprehensive set of reforms must be implemented before the application of any decentralization.
Only a transparent and reliable administration can grant an effective implementation of self-governance and local autonomy.
Otherwise local institutions will become uncontrolled and disreputable hubs for illegal activity, corruption and smuggling.
The majority of Ukrainians seem concerned that the current political leadership isn’t up to such an ambitious task, while foreign investors are anxious for the president, the government and the parliament to take action.
“2016 could be an historical year for Ukraine. You know, this is make or break. If Ukraine is serious about fighting corruption we will see the results at the end of this year,” says Andy Hunder, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce (ACC) in Ukraine.
According to an ACC survey, 98% of companies’ “corrupt practices are still widespread in Ukraine”, while 73% complain that: “corrupt practices have not decreased from March 2014” when Viktor Yanukovich fled.
Ukraine needs an efficient and transparent justice system in order to crack down on corruption and punish the culprits.
But so far, courts, prosecutors and police have been considered the most corrupted institutions of the country.
These institutions stand accused of undermining the rule of law and the free market through a selective use of justice based on the payment of kick-backs and the protection of the personal interests of a few oligarchs and politicians.
Nobody in the country trusts the judiciary.
“Nothing has been done to reform the justice system,” complains the representative of Transparency International in Ukraine, Andrii Marusov:
“They are not even able to indict and to fire those judges who were responsible for the violent repression during Maidan. Only a dozen out of hundreds of magistrates were removed. Police forces and judiciary are a kind of caste in this country. They are intertwined by corruption”.
The Power Infighting on Corruption
The minister of the interior, Arsen Avakov, seems to agree with Transparency International’s opinion:
“I think the reform of justice and of the prosecutor office is not working, it has literally failed. Even the president agrees that the situation must be changed. We have six months left, just six months to show what we can do and create a new investigation bureau”.
Avakov has started a reform of the police, but it is just the beginning.
He created the new traffic police patrols who last year replaced the majority of the old and unpopular DAI agents.
Now the interior minister is seeking more money from the state budget in order to complete the reform of the police but, he says, “things will change when the people we have recently hired reach the top of the security services.
You know, it’s an everyday struggle against the prosecutor office and the courts. 99% of the old prosecutors are still working.
It is hard to motivate the detectives, since the prosecutor’s office blocks all the inquiries”.
Human rights activists, NGOs and international organizations have been criticising the fact that in Ukraine the head of the prosecutor office is too close to the president.
In order to bypass the old judiciary block, international organisations, such as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund forced the Ukrainian government to create a special Anti-corruption Investigation Bureau and the Anti-corruption Prosecutor Office.
Both administrations should be independent of the political powers, even if, according to Avakov, they are still too weak and “nobody in power likes them”.
Artem Sytnik is the head of the anti-corruption bureau, managing 700 people including 255 detectives:
“Most of our attention is focused on state owned companies because a big part of their funds are systematically transferred into private hands. So we are investigating the connections between this network, the members of the parliament and the government”.
Nothing has changed, complains the chief of the detectives:
“The level of corruption has not declined. Those schemes that were in place at the time of Yanukovich are still working”.
According to the American Chamber of Commerce 70% of the economy is black.
That means that just 30 companies out of 100 pay taxes.
The parliament has adopted a new legal tool in order to stop corruption among civil servants and politicians.
The new law establishes the transparency of bank account of public officials.
In order to get this law approved the EU offered Ukraine the carrot of a free visa regime as an incentive.
Up to one million people could be required to use the new form to declare their income statements.
Parliament is currently fighting over whether to make the declaration obligatory Svitlana Zalishuk is a staunch sponsor of this law:
“The electronic declaration is one of the biggest progresses in terms of anti-corruption fight in 2016 at all. We have a new institution, which is called the national agency on the prevention of corruption. This institution has two functions. One is to monitor the declarations, and the second is to check the political finances of the parties. That’s the idea that all the civil servants must be completely accountable in front of society”.
Journey to the End of the Night
Vitaly Shabunin, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre notes:
“any of these good laws would have never been adopted if the Ukrainian parliament and government were not so dependent on the international community, on IMF money, EU’s visa free regime etc. Now it’s time for Ukraine to enforce those laws”.
The demands of Maidan are still to be met, but some steps have been taken in that direction, mainly due to the pressure from international organizations and some Western governments.
Whether those reforms can be seen through remains to be seen.
But Ukrainians know that if they fail to get their own house in order, a weak society run by a discredited oligarchy will become nothing more than a pawn in a confrontation between the major powers that encircle it.