Orysia Lutsevych
Manager, Ukraine Forum, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Ukraine’s ostensibly reform-oriented government has been taking steps to tackle failing governance and rebuild its shattered economy. However, a deficit of trust and inclusive dialogue, and the growing radicalization of Ukrainian society, could jeopardize progress.
Protesters clash with National Guard troops near the Verkhovna Rada building on 31 August 2015 in Kyiv. Photo via Getty Images.Protesters clash with National Guard troops near the Verkhovna Rada building on 31 August 2015 in Kyiv. Photo via Getty Images.

Most reasonably impartial observers agree that Ukraine now has the most reformist government since independence. The managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, even stated that ‘Ukraine has surprised the world and to achieve so much in such a short period of time is just nothing but astonishing’.

But it seems Ukrainians themselves are increasingly dissatisfied. Violence erupted in Kyiv during protests against the new constitution, in which three policemen died, because part of society was rejecting the change. The parliamentary pro-reform majority cracked, as three of its parties voted against constitutional changes, accusing President Petro Poroshenko of pushing them to satisfy the West. One of them, the so-called Radical Party, pulled out of the ruling coalition, casting further doubts about the ability to deliver and endure painful structural change.

Lack of trust

Reforming Ukraine is a daunting task.  As if war with Russia and sharp economic decline were not enough, the low trust in the political process engenders constant questions over legitimacy, a consequence of the Soviet legacy and 24 years of false reform promises in the post-Soviet era. The influx of a new generation of policy-makers and government officials has not renewed trust in political leaders.

According to a poll by the International Republic Institute (IRI) in July, the Ukranian parliament has only a 10 per cent approval rate compared to approximately 40 per cent in 2014. Support for the party of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, which won 22 per cent of the votes during elections a year ago, has melted into single digits.

The erosion of trust is exacerbated by oligarchs and a media controlled by interest groups. These entrenched elites have the most to lose if the reform agenda is successful. More than 50 per cent of the domestic media market is registered with off-shore companies according to Media Ownership project. Others are linked to oligarchs who use their TV channels as political instruments.

Despite signing an Association Agreement with the EU, decentralizing the tax regime and ensuring that a new constitution gives more power to local communities, the IRI poll reports that 72 per cent of Ukrainians still believe the country is moving in the wrong direction and only  three per cent are happy with the speed of reforms. Anti-reform revanchist forces could mobilize such high dissatisfaction to stir further destabilization.

Closed dialogue

Explaining complex and painful change is also difficult. Many issues that the Ukrainian government says it wants to tackle, such as gas market reform, devolution, public finance reform, and corruption require a smarter communications policy to get buy-in from citizens. The National Democratic Institute reports that 35 per cent of Ukrainians cannot name a single reform the government has promised.

There is a lack of inclusive dialogue in society. After the violent protests near the parliament, President Poroshenko spoke about the need to explain the constitutional changes to the wider public. But there are few platforms for exchanges of opinions that could influence policy in non-violent ways, via non-governmental organizations. Many of the NGOs that are invited to attend the National Reform Council do not represent inclusive organizations. Only around  two per cent of citizens participate in policy deliberations at the local levels. A large part of society remains outside of this closed-circle dialogue, and thus is forced onto the streets to express their views.

Dangers to civil society

Ukraine is a country at war, which creates fertile ground for radical movements. Approximately 25,000 Ukrainians have been registered with the National Guard or territorial defence units and many have now faced the endemic bureaucracy and corruption when applying for war veteran status or financial compensation.

More arms are in civilian circulation than ever before. Militarization creates new demands on society for a right of civilians to carry arms.  When Poroshenko launched a new electronic petition platform last week, an appeal to legalize arms collected over 34,000 signatures in six days. Other petitions have only double-digit support.

These warning signs to Ukraine’s leadership and civil society have gone largely – and dangerously – unheard. Only one region has appointed its head of police via an open, independent competition. It is important that Ukrainians not only see justice and prosecution of corruption, but feel they have an actual stake in shaping a transparent and open Ukraine.

Reform takes time, especially in Ukraine, and feeling the positive effects of reform takes even longer. The Ukrainian government needs to manage expectations domestically and internationally. It has to be more open with information and establish a public space for inclusive debate. Ukrainian NGOs, often funded by the West, also bear responsibility for ensuring that dialogues engage more citizens.

If recent trends continue, Ukraine will suffer further destabilization and the solid efforts of the Ukrainian reformers to date will be wasted.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback