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Implementing the Reform Legislation Is a Critical Step for Ukraine

Victor Andrusiv

In August 2023, the U.S. State Department published an integrated strategy for Ukraine. This highly structured, systematic document defines the key goals and objectives of the U.S. government and its diplomats. 

Apart from objectives aimed at securing Ukraine's victory in the war, the document summarizes the goals and requirements that have been in place for different Ukrainian administrations for a decade. These goals include fighting corruption, deoligarchization, continuing with judicial reforms, the introduction of corporate governance, and so on. The overarching question lingering behind the document’s cited goals is why, despite Ukraine's considerable efforts, achieving these goals has remained elusive.

The State of the Reforms

In 2024 Ukraine will mark the ten-year anniversary of the launch of its most ambitious anti-corruption reform program. On October 14, 2014, legislation was passed to start the process of establishing various anti-corruption agencies, including the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NAPC), and the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAP). Later, the High Anti-Corruption Court was added. Further reforms included new methods to promote transparency in the selection of judges, prosecutorial reforms, reform of the police service on a new footing, and reform of the public electronic procurement system, ProZorro.

At first glance, it might seem that Ukraine decided to become a champion in the fight against corruption, but despite the large number of criminal cases brought against officials for alleged corruption, no top officials or oligarchs have received real sentences. 

At the same time, Ukraine’s huge anti-corruption efforts have moved the country’s ranking on the Corruption Perceptions Index only a trifle, from 144th in 2013 to 122nd in 2021. In addition, the anti-corruption bodies are viewed with a high degree of distrust by Ukrainians. In a survey conducted in July and August 2021 by the Razumkov Center, an independent pollster, distrust was expressed by 69–70 percent of respondents.

The Economy Is Affected

Such desultory results are not limited to the fight against corruption. A significant achievement of Ukraine was the Association Agreement with the EU. The agreement was intended to stimulate economic growth and bring Ukrainian standards in line with European ones. 

In 2021, Ukrainian authorities reported that the agreement was 60 percent implemented. More precisely, this meant that necessary changes in line with the agreement had been adopted at the legislative level. 

At the same time, Ukraine was ranked 127th on the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, which considers such measures as the rule of law, governmental integrity, judicial integrity, the tax burden, business freedom, and property rights. That appears to be a dubious achievement with such a significant percentage of the Association Agreement having been implemented. 

Every year, Ukraine prepares numerous presentations about progress on reforms, intended to attract investment. However, none of this reform talk ever results in real change. So let’s call a spade a spade: Ukraine is a paper Leviathan, a country where there is a gap between the adoption of laws and their implementation. This stark fact means that the focus of Ukraine's reform strategy should shift from passing laws to building the capacity to implement the necessary changes.

A Different Strategy

We propose a new strategy of "integration before membership." Essentially, this means Ukraine should start integrating with the West on a practical level today. It is not a novel strategy; this is exactly what happened with the integration of the post-Soviet countries into the EU and NATO. 

Before becoming part of the West, a country must understand what the West is. In addition to the requirement to adopt the relevant standards and amendments to legislation, most future EU members were given the opportunity to integrate into the EU in a practical way. Their citizens could travel, study, and trade with European countries without hindrance. 

The authorities of the future members received tremendous intellectual support in reforms, and their officials were trained by and constantly interacted with partners. The EU Structural Funds helped to transform future member countries by working directly in these countries, not just sending aid. The opening of the College of Europe campus in Poland in 1992 is a noteworthy example, helping to forge future European leaders.

A similar approach should be applied in Ukraine. Here are some suggestions as to what practical integration might look like in Ukraine’s case.

First and most important is reform of the civil service. Ukraine needs new government officials trained in Western ways. A system for training and retraining of civil servants should be developed, from which new government agencies could be created later. Ukraine already has a successful example in the Ministry of Digital Transformation. Created de novo, this ministry has excelled in implementing changes.

Second is the integration of education. Ukrainians should be able to study at Western universities, including in Ukraine. The upcoming reconstruction will require specialists in new professions, and the opening of campuses of Western universities in Ukraine is particularly important.

Third, Ukrainian businesses need access to capital markets, in particular access to European loans and grants. This issue is especially acute for Ukrainian businesses during the war, when domestic resources are concentrated elsewhere.

Fourth is the development of cooperation between the civil societies of different countries. Ukrainian civic and volunteer organizations should be able to work cooperatively with similar Western organizations and actively participate in various transborder associations. This would help Ukrainian civil groups adopt best practices and develop in the same direction as their European counterparts.

Fifth, renewable funds should be available for on-the-ground, local efforts. Western aid should be channeled not only through the Ukrainian budget, which is still important, but also directly, to support grassroots efforts at the local and regional levels. Decentralization has been one of Ukraine's few reform successes, so some part of the needed structure and mindset is already in place. Other countries have had success using recovery aid sent directly to communities when the senders worked closely with and in the communities to help them transform in accordance with Western standards.

The war will end someday. And Ukraine will need a serious recovery and reconstruction effort. The urgent task today is to build the capacity to do so. The paper Leviathan must die and be replaced by an effective structure for implementing the commitments made. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute

About the Author

Victor Andrusiv

Victor Andrusiv

Officer, Ukrainian Armed Forces; Former Director, Kyiv School of Public Administration
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more