Written by: Corinne Reilly
Although Ukraine has made important reforms since its 2014 revolution, change is coming at a pace far slower than civil society organizations and Western governments had hoped, including in key areas such as the economy, political and judicial corruption and government decentralization, according to a group of experts who met Sept. 28 in Kiev.
They cautioned against too much pessimism, as post-revolution reforms almost never come easily and rarely live up to expectations. But they also said now is the time for Ukraine to begin cementing real changes that will make a tangible difference for ordinary citizens.
The experts gathered as part of the Ukraine Reform Monitor, a new initiative launched by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to provide objective, rigorous assessments of Ukraine’s reform effort. Pact’s UNITER program, which has supported pro-reform civil society organizations in Ukraine since 2008, was among the meeting’s organizers. A range of Kiev-based stakeholders took part, mainly representatives from Ukrainian civil society and international development organizations. They offered overviews of what has been achieved and what remains undone in critical sectors – the first reforms review meeting in what will become a series.
Speakers noted many successes since former president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country amid massive citizen protests last year, including an overhaul of traffic police, cleanup of the financial sector, economic deregulation, public procurement reforms and the establishment of national anti-corruption bodies.
But they said improvements so far have not produced a “wow effect,” creating the incorrect perception that the revolution has failed. A lack of parliamentary leadership, resistance among Ukraine’s civil servants, post-Soviet nostalgia, the war in the east and the country’s economic crisis have slowed reform efforts considerably, they said, but not stopped them.
Political and judicial reforms to combat corruption are needed immediately, speakers agreed. Ukraine’s power structure remains too vertical, with weak legislative oversight and parliamentary opposition providing no effective check. Continued political control of the judiciary means citizens’ rights still are not safeguarded. Besides constitutional changes, new blood among judges is a must, speakers said.
Despite improvements in areas such as deregulation and energy sector and banking reforms, Ukraine’s economic situation remains dire. Making reforms amid crisis is risky, speakers said, but doing nothing or making only subtle changes would likely be even worse. They named tax reform as a top priority yet to be done.
Speakers said the picture is mixed for Ukraine’s security sector. The army, national guard and police are gradually becoming better equipped and more capable, but corruption, mismanagement and mistrust among the public remain problems.
Politics have harmed decentralization plans, speakers said. A key to moving forward will be communicating the benefits to the public, who remain skeptical in part because they view decentralization as giving in to separatists.
More communication is needed between Ukrainian officials and citizens about other reform efforts as well, speakers agreed, and it must go both ways; officials must share information and also listen to surveys of the public.
Recent polls show most Ukrainians don’t believe reforms will be successful, and trust in state institutions is at an all-time low. Only 5 percent of Ukrainians say they trust the court system, for example – a problem that speakers said must be remedied.
They urged Western governments to form positions and make decisions based on complete, nuanced information about the state of Ukrainian reforms, rather than on the oversimplified notion that they are failing.
They said civil society organizations have played such a vital part that no reforms would have been achieved if not for their work, which translated the Euromaidan protests into a clear agenda for change. Supported by Pact, a coalition of Ukrainian NGOs came together after the revolution to create the Reanimation Package of Reforms, a detailed plan outlining two dozen top priorities and concrete steps to achieve them.
Speakers said continued collaboration among civil society organizations and activists will be critical to future progress.
This discussion was held under Chatham House Rules, so no participants are being identified by name or affiliation.
To learn more about the Ukraine Reform Monitor and read its latest report, go to carnegieendowment.org/specialprojects/Ukraine.
With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Pact launched the UNITER program in 2008 to strengthen pro-reform civil society organizations in Ukraine. Through UNITER, Pact provides vital capacity building, mentorship and funding to Ukrainian NGOs fighting government corruption and promoting democracy, transparency, European integration and citizen involvement.