After Ukraine’s Leap to Freedom: Hope Tethered

Today’s post-Soviet Europe is a region characterized by unpredictable, fragile, and disruptive development. Expectations of democracy and well-being in independent Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, and Belarus have not been realized in the twenty-six years since the dissolution of the USSR. On the contrary, these states have been subjected to extended periods of poverty, authoritarian experiments, and armed conflicts. In this welter of dashed hopes and reactionary political experimentation, Ukrainian society stands out for its repeated and very public pursuit of political freedoms, with two revolutions and three deep reform periods. But Ukraine today is paying a huge price—in war, economic crisis, and deepening internal cleavages—for its headlong rush to secure such freedoms.

With this article, the Kennan Institute is launching a special platform to follow Ukraine’s political, economic, and social development after the Euromaidan. Prominent area experts will be adding their perspectives to illuminate aspects of the ongoing U.S.-Ukraine dialogue, reflect on Ukraine’s course since the events on the Maidan, and comment on current events as they unfold.

The Euromaidan was the last major attempt by Ukrainians to reestablish the country’s status as a democratic republic and its national sovereignty. The Euromaidan began with the peaceful street protests of citizens concerned about former president Viktor Yanukovych’s reneging on his promise to seek Eurointegration for Ukraine in November 2013. In the following months, the protests evolved from peaceful gatherings and marches into street battles that led to deaths among both pro- and anti-Maidan groups, the fall of the Yanukovych regime, governmental dysfunction that lasted for weeks, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, waves of separatist revolts, and war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Donbas.

Even though regime change came on February 21–26, 2014, with Yanukovych fleeing to Russia and parliament appointing an interim president until new elections could be held in May, the entrenched political system seems to have survived. Where, then, did the leap to freedom represented by the Maidan lead Ukraine: to more political liberties or new attempts at authoritarian control? To greater government efficiency or more corruption? To stronger national sovereignty or spreading insecurity?

During the months of the Euromaidan, the protesters were united in the common goal of fighting an unjust and corrupt regime. This goal brought together three controversial political agendas under the pro-Maidan umbrella. The liberals, prioritizing the rule of law, promoted an association with the EU as the best future for Ukraine. The ethnonationalists saw the Euromaidan as the next phase in a national revolution directed toward establishing a state with one ethnic group, one language, and one church. The oligarchic clans that had been marginalized or suppressed by Yanukovych and his associates wanted to return to pluralist politics and a semi-shadow economy. And certain elements of all three agendas were partially implemented in the coming years.

The dominance of the nationalist perspective, moreover, is likely to add significant complexity to Ukraine’s ongoing European integration.

Liberal Agenda

Much of the liberal agenda articulated during the Euromaidan has been achieved, but the results have sometimes diverged from expectations. The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, the centerpiece of the agenda, was signed in 2014 and entered into full force on September 1, 2017. Two important anticorruption agencies were introduced. More authority has devolved to local communities, along with bigger budgets to administer local issues. Lustration and public sector reform were undertaken in an attempt to increase the quality of public administration. Reformers have tried to open up access to justice for rank-and-file Ukrainians. Police reforms began responding to the need for better everyday security in an impoverished and warring country. Finally, some deregulation steps eased doing business in Ukraine.

However, full implementation of the Association Agreement was delayed, at first at Russia’s insistence, then because of negative results of the Netherlands referendum in April 2016; it was fully introduced only on September 1, 2017.

Anticorruption institutions do try to make the power elites follow laws and rules, but such institutions continue to exist only because they are defended by Western governments, often through open diplomatic maneuvers or covert direct pressure applied to Ukraine’s rulers. Also, anticorruption policies and mechanisms are often used by ruling groups against opposition rivals through the selective application of justice. Today corruption in Ukraine remains at unacceptably high levels.

Decentralization reform has taken a few steps forward. Local communities are learning how to adapt to unmet reform promises.

Lustration raised many hopes, but its implementation has led to disastrous results: lower-level experienced bureaucrats were fired, while their corrupt bosses remained in power. Thus lustration just added incentives for public servants to be loyal to the president.

Judiciary reform is in an initial stage, and it is too early to report any positive results. So far, however, it appears that the president and his entourage have increased their control over ostensibly independent and self-governing bodies of judges and prosecutors.

Police reform had a short-lived success. This reform changed street policing for the better but undermined the rest of everyday security structures. Today the Ministry of Interior seems helpless to prevent or reduce crime in a country with an abundance of war-sourced weapons and growing unemployment.

Economic reforms make the Ukrainian government look good in the ratings. However, Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe today, and its humble growth trajectory does not promise a better future in the near term.

Despite some important advances, then, the liberal agenda has struggled to make real progress, a point contributors to the blog will examine and debate in future articles.

Nationalist Agenda

The nationalists’ agenda has similarly been partially implemented and has had a notable impact on Ukrainian politics and society. Because of the war, the role of the radical right in Ukraine’s security sector in particular has grown. Many young patriotic people, as well as some of the ruling elites, have accepted the nationalist ideology and symbols as the ones most appropriate for a country at war. Far-right groups have multiplied and connected with the oligarchic clans as never before. And the entire political sector of Ukraine has moved strongly to the right: most of today’s ruling and opposition groups publicly engage in racist and nationalist rhetoric without hesitation.

In times of war, the ethnonationalist agenda enjoys a growing influence on political life, but economic and social spheres are also strongly affected. Ruling groups are debating the imposition of conservative measures in the areas of freedom of information and conscience, ethnolingual groups’ rights, and women’s rights. Ukraine’s May 2017 decision to require three quarters of television programs to broadcast in Ukrainian and its blocking of the Russian equivalent of Facebook, moves Kyiv declared necessary to reduce the amount of Kremlin propaganda entering the country, have been met with controversy and demonstrations, while a more serious law passed on September 5 to require Ukrainian as the main language of education effectively limits schooling for Russophone and ethnic minority citizens.

These ethnonationalist policies have elicited both condemnation, chiefly from abroad, and support domestically. They also increase the risk of deepening internal divisions in Ukraine. The dominance of the nationalist perspective, moreover, is likely to add significant complexity to Ukraine’s ongoing European integration. Our contributors will be adding historical nuance to the arguments for or against language policies and other elements of the enthonationalist agenda and carefully scrutinizing events as they play out in this arena.

Even as Ukraine sidesteps the rule of law and scorns truly democratic institutions, however, the West is expected to continue its support, regarding Ukraine’s Eurointegration as a valuable line of defense in deflecting Russia’s expansionist policies.

Oligarchic Agenda

In the early days after the Euromaidan, the oligarchic groups seemed to have lost the most. In the first two years after the change of regime, most influential oligarchs lost about half their wealth. However, the clashes between the liberal and nationalist agendas seem to have provided them with a chance to return to power in 2016.

A major political boost to regaining power came from the clans’ support for Kyiv’s control in the regions when the separatist wave was on the rise. For example, the “patriotic oligarch” Ihor Kolomoysky and his networks were critical in fighting separatists’ revolts in Dnepropetrovsk and Odessa in 2014–2015. There has also been a deepening cooperation between the clans and the nationalist movement. Some oligarchs have used this cooperation to reestablish their business and political strength.

So far, President Petro Poroshenko and his networks seem to be the winners in post-Maidan politics. In 2016 the president managed to consolidate power by putting his allies in the positions of prime minister, speaker of parliament, and prosecutor general, on the Constitutional Court, and on the Supreme Council of Justice (the judiciary’s nominating and self-governance body). Today, centers of power in the executive and legislative branches of government and the judiciary, as well as in the financial, security, and mass media sectors, are to a large extent controlled by a pro-presidential group.

This consolidation has also led to growing pressure on civil society and non-nationalist intellectuals. As a result, Ukraine is witnessing the birth of a new generation of dissidents persecuted by authorities. Openness and inclusivity, including access to a fair judiciary by ordinary Ukrainian citizens, remain elusive goals, supported by little more than talk in the centers of power and routinely undermined through the politicization of important institutions such as the judiciary.

The old Ukrainian political system seems well on its way to recovery after the Euromaidan shock. It is an open question whether Ukraine can remain among the freest countries in Eastern Europe while simultaneously waging war in Donbas, tolerating oligarchs, and controlling civil society. Even as Ukraine sidesteps the rule of law and scorns truly democratic institutions, however, the West is expected to continue its support, regarding Ukraine’s Eurointegration as a valuable line of defense in deflecting Russia’s expansionist policies.

We invite interested area experts to join us in addressing the problems faced by Ukraine today and help make Ukraine better understood by the country’s American and, more broadly, Western partners.