West needs to get real on Ukraine

By Roman Sohn and Ariana Gic, for EUobserver.

Ever since the EuroMaidan revolution in 2014, Ukraine’s governments have been under close scrutiny to meet the expectations of the supporters of a pro-European, liberal, and democratic model.

The expectations that Ukraine becomes a utopia set a very high bar to meet. The bar is so high, in fact, that it could not possibly be met even by wealthy western nations that have enjoyed peace and stability.

Expecting the impossible meant that criticism of Ukraine’s ‘failure’ to swiftly undertake sweeping social change was inevitable. In recent months, a mounting wave of criticism of the Ukrainian government has flooded the media in Ukraine and abroad.

Unfortunately, these criticisms are often unreasonable, ignoring the reality of what can be achieved under even ideal circumstances, the vast difficulties of conducting reforms, the time required for meaningful institutional change to occur, and the challenge of reform during war time.

Remarkably, Ukraine is expected to pursue its utopian programme at the same time as it is trying to defend itself against Russia’s unprovoked, multi-vectored war.

It is a war which includes a massive information assault to discredit the Ukrainian state, unrestrained hate propaganda to dehumanise Ukrainians, unprecedented economic pressure, political subversion, intimidation of Ukrainian citizens by kidnappings, unlawful prosecution, terrorist attacks, and military invasion on its territory.

It is a war waged by a nuclear state whose population, economy, resources, and military force are several times larger than Ukraine’s, and a war waged by a country which is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with the power to manipulate the global agenda.

Defending against an enemy like Russia is a gargantuan and all-consuming task on its own.

First, win the war

It is hard to imagine that any country in Ukraine’s position would focus on anything other than the crucial goal of winning the war. Given the gross political, economic, and social instability Russia’s war creates, it would be prudent to focus on fighting the enemy before pursuing the significant task of comprehensive reforms.

This sentiment is shared by many in Ukraine. Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yushchenko famously said that there are just three reforms that the post-EuroMaidan government has to prioritise: first – win the war, second – win the war, and third – win the war.

It is arguably rational and imperative to mobilise all resources – political, economic, social – to win the war before turning attention to reforms. Reforms – even essential and beneficial ones – divert and scatter a country’s resources, and have an unintended ripple effect of causing their own chaos and unrest.

The turmoil resulting from the combination of war and fundamental reform imposes tremendous pressure on the country. It is not surprising that the two matters which top Ukrainian social polls as the main causes of everyday stress are Russia’s ongoing war, and socio-economic instability.

No matter how laudable the goals, a multitude of big reforms introduced in rapid succession within tight time restraints does not contribute to stability.

In addition to concerns of maintaining societal stability during the period of reform, it is also essential to build long-lasting institutional change. For this to successfully occur, reforms must be carefully considered, crafted, and implemented.

None of this can be achieved at the wave of a magic wand, and there is no ideal blueprint for Ukraine to emulate in order to become an overnight success story. It would be tragic to force fast change at a high cost to society only to see it unravel quickly, and discredit the country’s pro-Western political course.

Massive rapid changes also risk government instability. Exposing the government to political attacks regarding its social policies seems like a very risky proposition at a time of war – there are simply no reforms that make everyone happy, and populists and opportunists know that better than anyone.

The ensuing social and political chaos undermines national unity – a vital factor in bringing about military victory.

Unfortunately, Ukraine is under such immense pressure from well-meaning Western nations to put reform ahead of its right to defend against invasion, that reform efforts have come to dominate the government’s agenda.

This has also been harshly demanded by Ukraine’s active civil society, which is hungry for changes after a heavy push-back on reforms by the pro-Russian government of former run-away president Viktor Yanukovych.

Win the war by reform

Reforms in exchange for a supportive Western alliance against Russia’s invasion appears to have become the informal understanding forged between the West and Ukraine’s political class.

The “win the war by reform” approach is a comfortable position for the West. It takes pressure off Western governments to deal directly with the aggressive dictatorial regime in the Kremlin, and instead shifts the focus to demanding reforms from Ukraine – something which does not carry political or security risks to the West.

It is often repeated that pursuing the course of “winning the war by reforming the country” will strengthen Ukrainian state institutions, including the army.

It is argued that a well-functioning liberal democracy with limited corruption will be more resilient to Russian aggression, and that a more successful Ukraine will win the hearts and minds of the people in Ukraine’s occupied territories, leading to protests that would undermine Russia’s control and force Moscow to give up the occupied land.

Yet the “win the war by reform” mantra collapses under the weight of the uncomfortable truth of reality: solid “non-corrupt” institutions of liberal Western democracies do not appear to be more capable of fending off Russian attacks any better than their “unreformed” Ukrainian counterparts.

Western countries are also struggling with Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. Russia is suspected of committing several serious cyber attacks, and meddling in the elections of a number of countries (most notably the United States).

In pursuing its foreign agenda, Russia interferes in the domestic political processes of Western nations, corrupts Western political elites, institutions, businesses, media, and international organisations – including the UN.

Though obvious, the hardships Ukraine’s government encounters in pursuing reforms because of the war are largely ignored.

Some critics go as far as trivialising the monumental challenge Ukraine’s government is facing, saying that the ongoing war with Russia is nothing but an excuse to slow down or avoid reforms.

Some even shamefully claim that the war is in the interest of Ukraine’s elites. It seems not to matter to those commentators that their indefensible position perfectly aligns with the narrative of Kremlin propaganda, which seeks to weaken international support for Ukraine.

The challenges of reform

The hardships of war aside, what is also ignored by many is that Ukraine is not building its institutions from scratch, and that there are very few low-hanging fruit reforms left to pluck.

Ukraine faces the complexity of overhauling systems which have been in place for a long time, as well as the challenge of balancing the interests of various social groups and stakeholders in creating a clear democratic mandate for change.

One cannot expect a quick fix, or overnight reforms that provide immediate results. Big reforms need time to take root. Even in established and stable Western democracies, grand-scale reforms can take many years to design and implement.

Many Ukrainians and westerners also appear to be (inexplicably) oblivious to the fact that just because an NGO has lobbied for a reform does not mean it should be put on the priority list of a national agenda.

Lobbyists of laws and reforms should focus their efforts on social advocacy to popularise their ideas with Ukrainian citizens, not just on winning over Western institutions to strong-arm the national government into pursuing their causes by default.

It should be an uncontroversial fact that a demand from an unaccountable group should not be forced upon any government. Ukraine’s government should have a healthy attitude to this pressure, and be very cautious about pursuing especially large sectoral reforms without clear validation from the people.

For their part, Western institutions need to remember that the models they insist Ukraine adopt – in exchange for aid and loans – are not necessarily ideal, nor the final word on how Ukraine can pursue change.

New Zealand’s former finance minister, Ruth Richardson, known for her reformist free-market policies, illustrated this point handsomely on her visit to Kiev in 2016, cautioning that Ukraine should not model policies after the EU, as they do not all seem to bring positive economic results.

Ukraine’s elites and civil society would be wise to understand this.

Otherwise, by relying too heavily on foreign direction and assistance to run the country, Ukraine could risk finding itself in the unintended position of becoming a client state. Persisting in this is a self-defeating strategy. To get ahead, Ukraine should not repeat or emulate, but innovate and lead.

All that glitters is not gold

Indeed, not everything that looks good on paper will eventually produce the expected results.

A hotly contested matter of creating a separate system of anti-corruption courts in Ukraine could serve as an example. Despite the good intentions and commendable goal behind creating such a system, research into the subject proves evidence is too scarce to make an assessment about anti-corruption courts’ effectiveness.

Opposing such a system or offering a different approach is not an act of supporting corruption either, as is alleged by some anti-corruption groups lobbying for the law. It is a matter of vision on how to deal with corruption.

What has been entirely lost sight of is that there is no one set of clear best practices. Every solution, every reform, has its advantages and disadvantages, and it should be up to the Ukrainian people to adopt the balance they find acceptable.

No democratically unaccountable group – be it an oligarchic clan or reformist NGO – should have a monopoly over “true” reforms in Ukraine, nor should it set the country’s reform agenda.

A clear lens

There needs to be a sober look at the current situation in the country. On the one hand, the post-EuroMaidan governments have implemented reforms unprecedented in scope and number.

On the other hand, as many social polls indicate, the majority of Ukrainians do not feel their country is moving in the right direction.

While Ukraine’s active civil society insists on more radical reforms, the majority of the population has difficulty dealing with the pace of reforms as it is – ordinary citizens are more concerned with social instability and uncertainty resulting from reforms.

This creates a conundrum: the government pursues reforms that civil society and Western donors push for, but those very reforms erode support for a reformist government.

It is hard to expect people to approve much-needed reforms that shift the financial burden from the government to the people. But these are the kind of changes often preferred by international financial institutions, providing loans and grants to Ukraine’s government.

A good example is the implementation of market prices for energy, which Ukraine’s economy was in a dire need of. However, since Ukrainians felt this reform in their wallets quite acutely, energy reform has become one of the biggest points of criticism by ordinary Ukrainians of the post-EuroMaidan governments.

Reforms that shake the foundations of established systems or hit people’s wallets hard do not make one friends.

People’s perception of reforms translates into political risk. Political opponents, in particular raging Ukrainian populists like former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, exploit the resulting dissatisfaction to attack the government.

This is why Western institutions should be cautious about promoting favourites in Ukrainian political games, where even ‘independent’ civil society groups are often highly politically engaged and partial.

Such games are bound to backfire. As most social polls indicate, it will not be the pro-Western liberals or driven civil society activists, but corrupt populists, who will reap the electoral benefits from attacks on the government.

Objectivity of criticism

To be clear, the Ukrainian government is not above reproach. It does not deserve a free pass. It is undeniable that Ukraine’s government at all levels makes missteps, and predictably, the whole system resists changes that undermine corrupt schemes serving to unjustly enrich politicians at the expense of Ukraine’s citizens.

Ukrainians deserve a well functioning state that respects the rule of law. But this will not happen overnight, and for every step forward, there will be steps back. Unfortunately, the path to reform is not a direct line, but an unpredictable zigzag.

Observers should be realistic and reasonable about the challenges of reforming core mechanisms of Ukraine’s social and political machinery.

Reforms are not just a matter of political will, but also a matter of democratic mandate from society and the availability of financial and human resources. Considering the economic recession caused by Russia’s war, even financing reforms present a substantial challenge for Ukraine’s government.

Emotional and knee-jerk anti-government criticism does no good, and serves to undermine the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state. The process of nation re-building, and fundamental reform is challenging. Criticism should be responsible, not reckless.

The impact of reforms on society cannot go ignored. Not only should expectations about the progress of adoption of reforms correspond with reality, but Ukraine should be allowed to pursue reforms at a reasonable manner and pace.

Society needs time to understand, process, accept, and grow accustomed to major reforms. That is why it is important for criticism to be accurate, fact-based, and grounded in reality.

The hypocrisy of critics who are now riding the wave of hysteria they created is without ethical boundaries.

It is wise to remember that not all who march under the banners of “de-oligarchisation” or “anti-corruption” actually intend to achieve such goals. The recent history of Ukraine teaches this lesson unambiguously.

Carrying the flag is not equal to bearing its values. Sometimes, it is just a cover, as it is for those paid or funded by oligarchs who pretend to fight oligarchy and corruption.

Criticism coming from politically biased groups should not be accepted without reservations.

The West should not allow itself to be dragged into agendas advancing the interests of politically self-interested parties at the expense of stability in the country.

The massively destabilising impact Russia’s war has on the country cannot be ignored. The West can help Ukraine by fully acknowledging the truth about Russia’s war and putting democratic values above shortsighted business interests in dealing with Putin’s Russia.

Generations of Ukrainians suffered too much to win their independence, and forsaking their fight for freedom and sovereignty is unforgivable.

The fact is, reforms in Ukraine are underway. Despite many doomsday predictions about Ukraine’s downward trajectory, external indicators of success are apparent.

On 18 September, for the first time in five years, the Ukrainian government sold its bonds on the international market, where it raised $3 billion. The bond issue was oversubscribed by more than a factor of three.

The 15-year dollar placement indicates international investors have confidence in Ukraine. Commentators and western allies should take note.

Critics should also be reminded that reforms do not just happen, nor are they implemented by outspoken civil society lobbyists. Reforms are conducted by the government that takes action and carries the burden of political responsibility.

However, according to some vocal critics, Ukraine’s government only blocks and subverts reforms. Ukrainians and Western friends of Ukraine should be wary of such criticism, as it ignores the reality of government implementation of reforms. Criticism should be honest.

Get real about Ukraine

It is time for the West to get real about Ukraine.

The progress of reforms needs to be acknowledged, and praised where deserved, especially as Ukraine pursues some impressive innovations regarding government transparency in public procurement, asset declarations, and access to public information, to name but a few.

If positive changes are not acknowledged, the loud criticism by populists will drown out and devalue all reformist efforts.

Ukraine is expected to pursue reforms ahead of defending its sovereignty. Under these circumstances, the least the West can do is manage its expectations of those reforms, helping Ukraine ensure it can walk its path towards a thriving democracy free from Russia’s oppression.

By Roman Sohn and Ariana Gic, for EUobserver.