Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ukraine at 25 – a Positive Balance Sheet

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 24 – Anniversaries are always occasions to look back as well as to look forward, and today, 25 years after Ukraine declared its independence, Ukrainians and those concerned about Ukraine are doing just that recalling what has been achieved and what still remains to be done.

            In the nature of things, many people focus more on the latter than on the former because they are the steps that need to be taken to overcome current problems or because they do not wish Ukraine well.  But the fact is that Ukraine’s balance sheet, domestic and foreign, is far better today than it has ever been since 1991 or than many of its neighbors.

            The editors of Kyiv’s “Delovaya stolitsa” provide evidence of that by offering a balance sheet comparing where Ukraine has fallen short in the two years since the Maidan and where it has made significant progress (

            Among the domestic “failures” in political life during that period, the paper points to half-hearted imposition of lustration. Only 925 officials have been removed from their positions and most of them have soon been given new ones. That pattern, the paper continues, highlights the fact that “the bureaucratic state machine of the state has not changed significantly.”

            Other domestic failures have been the lack of reform in the court system and the failure to decentralize power away from Kyiv and shortcomings in what is both a domestic and a foreign policy issue, the information war with Russia. Not nearly has been done in that area, “Delovaya Stolitsa” says.

              But the paper continues, there have been some real victories: a real army capable of fighting has been formed, a program for the de-communization of Ukraine has been launched with effect, and the government has provided real support for Ukrainian languages by insisting on the use of Ukrainian in domestic television and radio.

Moreover, it says, Ukraine has taken real steps forward in fighting corruption, although the battle against that is far from over. And Kyiv has established a new post-Soviet police force in which the citizens of the country can have confidence, a bigger victory than many imagine but one obvious if one compares Ukraine with the situation in its eastern neighbor. 

In foreign affairs over the last two years, “Delovaya stolitsa” says, Ukraine has “essentially changed its status in the international arena.”  The US and the EU are paying far more attention to and providing more support for Ukraine than anyone could have imagined three years ago.

The US is providing more aid than ever before, the paper points out, and European integration is now being discussed not in terms of whether as it was in 2012 but rather when, although given problems in Europe and in Ukraine, those time frames may be longer than Ukrainians would like.

            Moreover, Ukraine has become far more active in international structures like the UN and the OSCE, but it has not yet achieved from all what it must: the recognition that part of Ukrainian territory has been occupied by an aggressor and that other countries must not act in ways that prolong that state.

But what is most worrisome in foreign affairs, the Kyiv paper says, is that that Ukraine continues to react to foreign challenges instead of anticipating and heading them off. Ukrainian leaders must look further into the future in order to see what they must do so that other countries like Russia won’t be able to exploit the situation.

As far as the economy is concerned, “Delovaya stolitsa” continues, there have been victories and defeats as well. Among the victories, it points to five developments: independence from Russia’s Gazprom, renegotiation of debts, greater transparency of state purchases, improved trade with Europe, and a better business climate.

But among the shortcomings are these: a failure to get the economy growing under the stress of war, problems with the national currency, the collapse of the banking system, a tax system that oppresses many, and the fact that the billions that were stolen by people in the past have “disappeared forever.”

As far as social policy is concerned, the paper says, it had difficulty coming up with successes because the shortcomings are so obvious given “the lack of a clear state policy in the social sphere,” problems with pensions and especially the unresolved problems of the internally displaced persons as a result of the Russian invasion.

“But over the last two years there were achievements.”  Unlike in Russia, pensions have been paid regularly and indexed again.  Subsidies for the poor have increased, and the system of social security has begun to be reformed.

            And with regard to culture, education and sport, the paper notes, there have been signal achievements amidst some failures. Education has been reformed, the national film industry has taken off, and Jamala won the Eurovision contest which will bring that competition to Ukraine next year. And murals are transforming Ukrainian cities from their gray Soviet pasts.

            Unfortunately, the Ukrainian government has not been able to make the Ukrainian-Russian war of 2014-2016 into a completely recognizable “brand.” Moreover, its athletes did not do well at Euro-2016 or the Rio Olympiad.

            If one looks only at the shortcomings and failures, the paper suggests, one might become quite pessimistic about Ukraine’s future; but if one considers its successes and how improbable they seemed only two years ago, one would draw an entirely different conclusion.

            On this Ukrainian independence day, the present author would like to suggest that Ukrainians might want to reflect even more broadly about what they have achieved by asking themselves the simple question: would they prefer to have the problems they had 25 years ago when Moscow controlled them and the world did not understand them?

            When that is as in 1991, many foreign leaders couldn’t even find Ukraine on the map or insisted that the word “the” should be put in front of its name or that “the pursuit of independence is a form of suicidal nationalism”?

            Or would they prefer to be hearing what they are from Western leaders today, who are exploring how best to help Ukraine maintain its independence in the face of Russian aggression, who never put “the” in front of Ukraine, and who are sending their congratulations to Kyiv concerning Ukraine’s rejoining the international community?

            Such questions answer themselves.  And thus, they are the questions that Ukrainians should be asking, not to avoid working on the problems they still face but to have the confidence that they can together with their friends and allies in the West achieve what all too many in both places only a few years ago thought impossible.

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