Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Iryna Solonenko, Researcher, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder 

The key question is whether Ukrainians themselves can overcome the chief impediment to reform – the capture of the state by a narrow class of wealthy business people and their associates.

Young Ukrainians throw snowballs at each other near the Motherland Monument at the Great Patriotic War Memorial Complex in Kyiv, Ukraine on 17 January 2016. Photo: Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.Young Ukrainians throw snowballs at each other near the Motherland Monument at the Great Patriotic War Memorial Complex in Kyiv, Ukraine on 17 January 2016. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • Ukrainians showed impressive resilience in 2014 in the face of revolution and Russian aggression that led to war. With strong Western support, the new government was able to stabilize Ukraine’s perilous financial situation and start a reform effort designed to shift the country onto a European path of development. Inevitably, it did not take long for the revolutionary zeal of the ‘Maidan’ to collide with Ukraine’s deeply embedded problems of governance. These slowed the momentum of reforms in 2015, leading to the breakdown of the ruling coalition in early 2016.
  • It is easy to characterize Ukraine’s latest attempt to reform as a repeat of the unrealized potential of the 2004 Orange Revolution. This view is premature and disregards the fact that Ukraine has changed significantly since then. The country today has a much stronger sense of independent identity, symbolized by its rapidly developing civil society. The external environment is also markedly different. Moscow’s break with Europe and its efforts to compel Ukraine to be part of a Russian sphere of influence have finally forced Ukrainian elites to make a choice between modernization on a Russian or a European model. Fearful of the danger of Ukraine’s destabilization, Western countries are also showing an unprecedented level of support for its reform efforts.
  • These external factors will not alone determine whether Ukraine’s reforms will reach a critical mass. The key question is whether Ukrainians themselves can find the will and the means to overcome the chief impediment to reform – the capture of the state by a narrow class of wealthy business people and their associates.
  • Ukraine’s weak institutions and its experience of 25 years of misrule since independence place an extraordinary burden on reformist forces. The pressures driving reform at present marginally outweigh those impeding them. However, the struggle of the ‘new’ against the ‘old’ is playing itself out slowly and painfully, making it impossible to judge definitively at this point whether Ukraine’s reforms are destined to succeed or fail.