Needing bold leaders
The European Union and the West, including the United States and Canada, have lost the initiative in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s leaders, buoyed by six quarters of low economic growth and tax collections exceeding estimates by $1.5 billion so far this year, are ignoring their friends and their commitments to lenders and donors such as the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
They will live to regret such a decision, either at the next election in 2019 or at the next revolution, which the elite are hastening with each missed opportunity.
When desperate for money, Ukraine’s leaders are all too eager to accomplish some reform — at least starting with painful utility hikes, which did not disturb the oligarchy’s grip on power and privilege.
They further were dragged into creating more transparency and new anti-corruption institutions, knowing full well that the changes were mainly cosmetic. Politicians still control what matters: the courts, prosecutors and police agencies, especially the Security Service of Ukraine and Interior Ministry. So the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, lacking complete independence, understaffed and with dysfunctional courts, is incapable of delivering justice — by design.
Relative economic prosperity returned about the same time that pressure peaked for President Petro Poroshenko to deliver on the anti-corruption agenda, including a new Supreme Court and creation of an independent anti-corruption court.
Instead, he will keep control over a largely unconstructed Supreme Court, joining another list of reform failures that includes feigned attempts to overhaul Soviet-style prosecutors and police (except patrol officers). Poroshenko will obstruct the creation of an anti-corruption court because no president or top oligarch can tolerate the risk of an independent judicial system. Relenting to pressure, Poroshenko’s claimed on Oct. 4 that he all of a sudden supports an anti-corruption court. His claim is not credible, especially his caveat that everyone should agree on what kind of court and that parliament should study the question -- yet another of his stalling tactic.
Additionally, parliament passed a law under the guise of judicial “reform” that requires criminal charges to be filed within six months of opening cases involving serious crimes and three months for less serious crimes. It’s a ridiculous provision that will only bring more injustice.
Parliament also passed a law designed to cut the pension deficit, but it still needs to be analyzed for its effect on pensioners and the budget.
So far, parliament has not created an agricultural land market, made progress in selling off state-owned enterprises or rid the health sector of wasteful and corrupt practices, although a key vote was scheduled for Oct. 5. All changes are long overdue but not assured this session.
The West can regain the initiative by showing bold leadership. Collectively, Ukraine’s friends have more leverage than they think — if they simply would use it in support of Ukrainians. One big start would be to offer Ukraine a definitive perspective for EU membership. The EU could then set the tough conditions and timeline to ensure that Ukraine’s leaders don’t make just more empty promises. The carrot could be a version of a bold investment plan, championed by a member of parliament Hanna Hopko and others, to pump at least $5 billion a year in loans and grants to Ukrainian businesses and infrastructure. Right now, no government in its right mind is going to invest such significant amounts in Ukraine until its leaders demonstrate progress in rule of law -- and that means results and an end to impunity. Even under the best of circumstances, many governments are too financially stressed and Ukraine, sadly, remains a low priority.
A concrete EU membership offer will galvanize Ukrainian society towards a goal that most citizens aspire to achieve. Pressure from outside, the West, and inside, from society, has worked wonders. Absent a membership perspective, the EU has little leverage over Ukraine’s recalcitrant leaders — 600 million euros here and there in technical assistance means nothing to Ukraine’s oligarchs.
The 28-member bloc has already granted visa-free travel and opened up trade, so those levers of influence are gone. Still, those changes are smart and have already positively transformed Ukraine, so a clear EU membership path is needed to motivate Ukrainians and their friends to find new ways to prevail against Russia’s war. The more success that Ukraine achieves, the more demoralized the Kremlin will become. Courage and vision are required now to break the stalemate.