The Real Front Line in Ukraine

Teaser Image Caption
Majdan, May 2013

Ukraine’s railway uses a track gauge which is different from that of its western neighbours, so when our trains cross the border into the European Union, passengers have to wait for over an hour for the wheels to be changed. This example is a good metaphor for the state of Ukrainian reforms after the Revolution of Dignity: Ukrainian politics is still a system which runs on the old track gauge. Over the course of several months, we have been able to construct a number of new trains, but so far they cannot operate normally. We need to update the track gauge: we need to introduce new rules. This is no easy task for a country with 45 million inhabitants, plundered by the previous regime, and in a state of war with global superpower Russia. Nevertheless, to paraphrase the Scorpions, the wind of change is blowing.

A paradigm shift

The most important change underway in Ukraine is not in economy or politics, or even at the legislative level. The most important transformation is occurring in Ukrainian society itself. Ukrainians received a serious vaccination against post-Soviet syndrome with the Orange Revolution, and after Euromaidan the country finally defined not only its external course of development – i.e. European integration – but also its internal path. People chose the difficult road of self-determination, participation in the decision-making process, and responsibility for the future. In fact, the main objective of this journey is not EU membership, but rather the cultivation and advancement of civil society.

The dramatic events of Euromaidan and its aftermath forced Ukrainians into the streets, where they organised massive protests. Groups of volunteers formed across the country to perform various tasks that the state was unable to execute – from volunteer battalions to the building of housing for refugees. People have realised that they are willing to sacrifice their time, comfort, money and even their lives for the future of their country. The most important thing that has changed in Ukraine is the consciousness of its people. This is a promising foundation, upon which we can erect a new home. It is now time to hire talented and committed architects and builders.

Building a new relationship

The ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych was the most dramatic moment in the history of the relationship between power and society in Ukraine, and as a result the new government’s honeymoon period will not last for long. Ukrainians are demanding a new format for this relationship: in the language of business, the country should not be a joint stock company, but rather a genuine partnership.

This is why we need decentralisation, which all political forces view as a key reform. This is important. Decentralisation is not a compromise with Russian President Putin, and it is not merely a path to resolving the conflict in the east. Decentralisation is a question of participation. People will start to discuss and take responsibility for outcomes when the result bears their names.

Authoritarianism – as is well known – is a hydra which cannot be killed just by removing one head. The first stage of the revolution was to depose Yanukovych. The second should be to update the parliament to reflect the new situation, and the third stage will be to adopt and implement an ambitious reform agenda.

In late October, Ukraine will hold early parliamentary elections. Even before the voting begins, however, we can mention two important results: the first is that the vast majority of the political forces that will contest seats in the parliament have presented pro-European programmes, so hopefully Ukraine will lose its status as a so-called swing country thereafter. Second, as many as 30-40 young leaders from the ranks of civil society, business and journalism will run for seats on the lists of pro-democratic parties. Their task will be to introduce to the public a new quality of politics. Until the new rails have been laid, however, none of the young parties will be able to succeed on their own without big money and media resources: in the existing political environment it takes millions of dollars to win elections.

Most of the problems in Ukrainian politics originate in the strong alliance between political leaders and a few of Ukraine’s wealthiest families. The oligarchs are the glue which holds together the very walls that Ukrainians are trying to tear down. But if you were to ask what role they are playing now in Ukraine’s struggle against Putin, I would answer – unfortunately, a crucial one. A number of oligarchs are investing their own resources into this struggle, but obviously this is not purely out of a sense of patriotism; large financial concerns are fighting for their interests. At the moment, however, they are existential, and their goals coincide with those of the state and of Ukrainian society.

Yet this fact only augments the challenge in the future, when a very painful political divorce will have to take place that will transform the oligarchs into big business concerns with greatly diminished influence on the decision-making process who will now have to play by the rules. The war with Russia has shifted the country’s reform agenda, but political leaders must make it very clear to all the players that this is a brief transitional period, and that the only reward for waging this struggle will be a difficult reform process. The task of the new generation of politicians is therefore to introduce a new proportional electoral system with preferential lists, where voters will determine who will sit in the parliament regardless of how the lists are formulated by party leaders. Another crucial reform would implement principles of party financing from the state budget with transparency and strict accountability.

Civil society as a fifth power

Over the past eight months, tectonic shifts have occurred in the relationship between the government and non-governmental organisations, and in particular in the relationship between non-governmental organisations and society. At critical moments when public authorities were ineffective, activists have taken on (and continue to take on) their functions. A striking example is a public initiative called “Reanimation Package of Reforms” – a coalition of more than fifty organisations and several hundred opinion leaders who came together to draft and promote reforms.

Over the course of six months, experts and activists were able to lobby for and pass 12 major laws in the parliament. Among them is an old Ukrainian commitment to the Council of Europe to build a public broadcasting system. Another, passed under massive pressure from civil society, concerns access to public information and transparency in public procurement, without which international institutions simply would not have provided financial assistance to Ukraine. The parliament also passed a law on state anti-corruption policy, which implemented European Commission recommendations on improving the provisions on anti-corruption legislation made in negotiations on liberalising the EU visa regime for Ukraine. It is also worth mentioning the Law on Higher Education, which the student community had promoted for quite some time and ultimately secured a parliamentary majority for its passage. The law gives greater autonomy to higher education institutions and provides for the creation of a system of quality assurance in higher education. Activists also prepared and pushed through laws that enable full implementation of the EU Association Agreement, including legislation on metrology, food, standardisation, and on the identification and registration of animals. Last but not least, Ukraine’s parliament just recently passed a law on lustration, which was accompanied by one of the biggest public campaigns in recent years, with thousands of people demonstrating not against but for the cause. Activists and members of the new political parties which emerged after Euromaidan came from across the country to picket the parliament and to demand that the post-revolutionary promise be fulfilled.

Another significant result of non-governmental organisations’ influence on politics is the readiness of political parties to demonstrate financial transparency, despite the fact that Ukraine’s legislation regulating party finances is among the weakest in Europe. Indeed, the FAIR (Chesno) movement, which monitors politicians’ accountability, has received public commitments from many parties contesting the current election to publish the income statements of all candidates and to disclose interim financial reports for their campaigns, even though current law does not require them to do so.

These are all impressive and promising results, but today’s Ukraine is not yet the country that people were demonstrating for during those cold winter months, and that soldiers are fighting for right now in the conflict with Russia. All pro-democratic political forces should understand that adopting the most crucial and difficult reforms – and implementing them, which is even more important – is the task of politicians, who must work together and share in the responsibility, even if it costs them electoral support.

The real front line is not in the east, but in the minds of Ukrainians, and real fully-fledged reforms are the main weapon here.

Svitlana Zalishchuk

Svitlana Zalishchuk is a journalist, activist and initiator of number of influential civic campaigns in Ukraine, including the CHESNO (Fair) movement, the Reanimation Package of Reforms initiative and the journalist movement Stop Censorship! She works as a founding director of Centre UA, a Kiev-based nongovernmental organization.