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Too much is at stake to give up on Ukraine

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In Ukraine it is time to call a spade a spade. The reform process set in motion after the 2014 Maidan revolution is stagnating. The political leaders nominally committed to reforms are instead preparing for presidential and legislative elections scheduled for 2019. The anti-reformist “deep state” is regaining influence. Ukrainian society has lost faith that the present crop of politicians will deliver the modern, European-style state it was promised. The public mood is souring.

For Ukraine’s friends in the US and Europe, these developments are ominous. A stable Ukraine is important for the security of central and eastern Europe. It is bad enough that Ukraine has suffered partial dismemberment in the form of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and military intervention in the Donbass. But a Ukraine that veers off the path of domestic reform will be a Ukraine more vulnerable to Russian influence, less likely to flourish as an independent state.

As ever, the fundamental problems are corruption and politically-inspired manipulations of the rule of law. On a visit to Lviv, capital of western Ukraine, I was told by civil society activists and embittered Ukrainians that the post-Maidan authorities turned out to be no better than their predecessors. This is some accusation, given the stupendous levels of corruption associated with Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed president toppled in 2014, and his cronies.

Western governments are aware of the dangers. In what was possibly his most eloquent foreign policy statement since President Donald Trump appointed him US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson said this month: “It serves no purpose for Ukraine to fight for its body in Donbass if it loses its soul to corruption.” In some ways it is surprising that the west has not succumbed to “Ukraine fatigue”. That the west has not done so testifies to the calculation that too much is at stake to give up.

Mr Tillerson spoke out after Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, an independent agency that started work in 2015, came under attack from the nation’s top prosecutor. This episode provided depressing evidence that the organs of state that ought to be upholding the rule of law are as often as not conspiring against it. Similar abuses plague Ukraine’s tax service, police and courts. Across the country, opaque networks link politicians, business oligarchs and organised crime.

It is misleading to suggest that nothing has been achieved since 2014. For two decades after Ukraine won independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, the chief sources of corruption were the gas industry and the trade in Russian gas. Matters are much improved nowadays, thanks to price reforms introduced by prime minister Volodymyr Groysman and a freeze on Russian gas imports. Yet in September Paul Warwick, the independent British supervisory board chairman of Naftogaz, the state oil and gas company, resigned, complaining of “increasing political meddling” at the firm.

Ukraine has made some progress in cleaning up public procurement and the nation’s banks. The tax system has been simplified. However, the public was stunned to learn in 2016 that Roman Nasirov, the then head of the tax service, and his wife owned more than $2m in cash as well as jewellery, watches, fur coats and an assault rifle. Some 30 Ukrainian judges owned luxury cars. It is small consolation that these details emerged because senior government officials were ordered to list income and assets.

In fairness, other countries with a communist past and hasty, less-than-transparent privatisations in the 1990s have grappled with similar problems. But certain features of the Ukrainian landscape are distinctive. For example, the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky gained influence by organising volunteer units to defend the Donbass against Russian-armed separatists. Oligarchs wield political influence partly because local politicians depend on them to finance campaigns.

There are encouraging signs. US support remains solid. An EU-Ukrainian association agreement holds out the prospect of steady economic advance. Western leaders seem disinclined to cut deals with Russia over Ukraine’s head. However, the more economic progress Ukraine makes, the greater the temptation for its leaders to drag their feet on anti-corruption reforms. This is what has happened under Petro Poroshenko, the president elected in 2014. Whoever wins in 2019 must be brave enough to travel a different road. National independence and the wellbeing of Ukrainian society require nothing less.


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