Ukraine: Can it live up to its promise?

Commentary | February 27, 2014

Writing for EWI's nextgen blog, Nadiya Kostyuk warns that Ukraine's violent protests may fuel yet another vicious cycle of corrupt politics. 

Blessed with vast natural resources, access to the Black and Azov Seas, and an educated youth population, Ukraine possesses—at least on paper—the necessary elements to establish itself as a prosperous, peaceful and dynamic nation in the heart of Eastern Europe. In reality, inept, dishonest and outright criminal leadership has continued to prevent the country from reaching its potential—a problem that began immediately after Ukrainians gained independence in 1991, and has since plagued the country. Corruption is the major reason why over a million Ukrainians (out of population of only 46 million) continue to gather in Kyiv’s Independence Square for the second time since 1991. 

Following the last few weeks’ chaos and violence, the seeming victory of the Ukrainian people has created an even more complex situation in the country. The populous unrest in the pro-Russian Crimean peninsular (opposed only by the “patriotic” Tatars) might be exacerbated by Vladimir Putin who silently (for now) observes the situation, while holding military exercises near the Ukrainian border and granting protection to ousted Ukrainian President Victor Yanukhovych. The divide in Crimea and the Western Ukraine is quite clear. The majority of the pro-Russian population in Crimea is ethnically Russian and was artificially transplanted to Crimea during Soviet times, while the western formerly Hapsburg-ruled provinces remain loyal to Ukraine. The ethnic identities in the rest of Ukraine, however, are “mixed and muddled.” 

Facing these challenges, Ukrainians must reform the government and elect a new president. 2004-heroine Yulia Tymoshenko, who was recently released from prison, is ready to run the country. But, because the public is now aware of her palatsy (palaces) and her daughter’s short vacation in Rome during the mass murders on the Maidan, she probably will not win. Western-nationalists, bilishist’ yakykh bidnosiatsia do “Nebesnoii Sotni” (most of whom belong to the “Heavenly Hundred”) pose more trouble by stating their “claim on power.” 

Vi zumily pozbutysia tsiieii rakovoii pukhlynu” (“You have removed this cancer from this country”) – words by Tymoshenko on the Maidan. Yes, hopefully Ukrainian politicians have learned their lesson about corruption (so to say CORRUPTION 101). However, how can they successfully work through this complex situation without increasing the number of casualties and factions within the country?

Looking back, the 2004 protests—when Ukrainian masses gathered to express their dissatisfaction with unfair elections—was a peaceful time compared to now. Ten years ago, one million protesters filled the Maidan, rhythmically chanting “Razom nas bagato! Nas ne podolaty!” (“Together, we are many! We cannot be defeated!”)

Optimism abounded and euphoria was palpable once the crowd welcomed a new president, Viktor Yushchenko. The Orange Revolution surely represented a victory for the people; a correction of course for the young democracy, and a triumph of peaceful protest over political corruption and ineptitude. But did the dissidents of the Orange Revolution truly achieve their long-term goals? Yushchenko promised economic prosperity and European Union membership to his people. Like many leaders before him, however, he followed in the regrettable tradition of Ukrainian politics. Yushchenko succumbed to graft and nepotism, while exclaiming an ever-popular refrain for the nation’s politicians: Tsi ruky nichogo ne kraly” (These hands have not stolen anything). 

In 2006, just two short years following the “revolution,” Yushchenko abandoned his promise of Ukraine entering Western Europe’s embrace. After appointing Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister, Yushchenko’s 180-turn was complete: clearly, the president’s goal was to further entrench ties to Russia, and not to turn outward. But, instead of a Soviet-style occupation, Ukraine would bind itself with proverbial chains—promises of cheap natural gas and bailout assistance that allowed Yushchenko to patch over gaping wounds in Ukraine’s economy. Predictably, much of the Ukrainian population, especially those residing in the Western half of the nation, were not convinced. They voted Yushchenko and his party Nasha Ukraiina (Our Ukraine) out of power and the “Razom nas bagato! Nas ne podolaty!” chants were quietly resumed by a new choir. 

Nearly a decade has passed since the Orange Revolution and people have returned to Maidan, for a similar reason: they are tired of being obmanytumu i obkradenumu (lied to and stolen from). The source of the current protests were broken promises by now-President Viktor Yanukovych, who reneged on a free-trade agreement with the European Union, opting instead “for a $15bn package of Russian credits and cheaper gas to support Ukraine’s ailing economy in November [of last year].” Though a split does exist between Eastern and Western-minded Ukrainians, this time there was consensus on fighting corruption. While these protests started in a peaceful manner, similar to 2004, they have resulted in violent action and murder,  with 82 people killed and 500 hospitalized, since February 2014. Apart from the official statistics, it is estimated that many more are being treated in cafes and churches such as Natsional’na Philarmonia (The National Philharmonic of Ukraine) and Mikhaylivskiy Sobor near Khreshchatyk Street (A Kiev Main Street). 

What has changed from 2004 to 2014 that has sparked such violence? Do the protestors believe that destroying state property in a country already strapped with debt will improve their living standards? Is Ukrainians killing each other the answer to a nation’s woes? The answer, alarmingly, may be yes. Because of the breakdown of social order, the Ukrainian presidency—irrespective of who gains power—will likely be overhauled to a weakened parliamentary republic, akin to most Western European governments. Following these constitutional changes, Ukrainians will hold new elections in May 2014, but most of the same parliament members now holding office will be reelected, similar to the aftermath of the Orange Revolution. 

Ukrainians are likely to see this rerun of terrible political leadership because they have yet to internalize and apply the rule of law, or other institutional concepts that allow Western democracies to flourish. The root of failing Ukrainian democracy is the ghost of dishonest bureaucracy—a remnant of this proud nation’s Soviet past, and one it shares with other nations east of the former Iron Curtain (including Russia). In Ukraine, where payment is expected to secure a job or university placement, the culture of Soviet-era wheel greasing is deeply imbedded into the social fabric. As such, those who are fighting today might find themselves continuing the cycle of bribery if they assume power. Ukrainian mentality tolerates corruption because corruption is all the society has known. As the lyrics to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” go, “meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”

A younger generation of Ukrainians may force meritocratic reforms to take hold in decades to come, but, until then, Ukraine and its former Eastern Bloc counterparts will go through successions of economic mismanagement and protest. Voting and constitutions cannot, in and of itself, change nearly a century’s worth of bad habits and practices. Let’s hope that Ukraine’s new bosses realize their time in parliament will be brutish and short if they opt to ignore the need for structural reform, much as their predecessors have since 1991. 

Neither the EU nor Russia can solve the country’s problems: only Ukrainians can save Ukraine. For the sake of ending current bloodshed, and preventing future conflicts, let’s hope that changes resulting from the Revolution of 2014 are real and that Ukrainians won’t get fooled again.

Nadiya Kostyuk is a program coordinator for EWI's Worldwide Cybersecurity Initiative. She grew up in Berezne, Ukraine. 

Photo Credit: snamess