Corruption is Stalling Ukraine's Optimistic Revolution

Ukraine PM Yatseniuk is pulled from the podium in parliament by MP
Rada deputy Oleg Barna removes Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk from the tribune, after presenting him a bouquet of roses, during the parliament session in Kiev, Ukraine, December 11, 2015. Fights in the country's parliament have become so common, they only make the foreign news. Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Last December, anonymous billboards appeared in Kiev with the message "Run, Rabbit, Run", to tell the youthful but bald Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who some say resembles a rabbit, that his time was up. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was also in town the same month, delivering the contradictory message that Ukraine must not miss its last chance to reform, but in the name of stability shouldn't get rid of the unpopular government that is holding back reform.

So what is going on in Kiev, two years after the would-be revolution that began in so much optimism and ended with the Russian annexation of Crimea and proxy war in the Donbas? It's not just the war: In an opinion poll last summer, only 30.3 percent blamed the situation in the east for the lack of reform. It's not just that Ukraine's politicians are fighting amongst themselves. That happens all the time. Fist fights in parliament are so common they only make the foreign news—although the meeting of the National Reform Council in December that ended with insults and water being thrown was a new low.

It's certainly not just that a reformist president is battling a cautious prime minister, despite the novel spectacle of two presidents ganging up on Yatseniuk. President Petro Poroshenko is destroying his reputation as a reformer by protecting the Chief Prosecutor Viktor Shokin and his attempts to sabotage the new Anti-Corruption Bureau. Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, has founded a Movement for the Purification of Ukraine to openly accuse leading cabinet members of corruption, but is himself allegedly backed by a billionaire oligarch.

The real problem is that there has yet to be a strong enough challenge to the old system, which stumbled but never quite fell two years ago, and is now reconstituting itself. Ukraine chose an evolutionary path to reform, but in the words of one MP, Serhiy Leshchenko: "The evolutionary approach isn't working."

The same old vicious circles spin round. Politics is all about money, and politics in Ukraine is expensive. Campaigning is largely based on TV—not just ads, but covert payments for favorable coverage and fixing Ukraine's famous talk shows. The main TV channels are all owned by oligarchs, so only the well-funded can afford to compete, and oligarchs can sell their own parties and politicians on their channels. In the last local elections, several newer parties tried campaigning only on social media, but their impact was minimal outside the big cities.

Mainstream parties are therefore full of placemen. Some are entirely fake, so-called political technology parties set up to siphon off rival parties' votes or as Trojan horses for corrupt interests. Cynical commentators note that Yatseniuk's and Poroshenko's problem is not just that they are unpopular, but they have yet to set up "life-raft" parties as the next home of convenience for their supporters. The worst types of fake parties are fake populists, who mimic popular anger at the system in order to defuse it and mouth anti-oligarch slogans paid for by their oligarch sponsors.

Politics is full of strange terminology—Ukrainians talk about "watchers" or "money bags", who protect the financial interests of the corrupt. Once appointed to key positions in the still Byzantine bureaucracy or Ukraine's murky state enterprise sector, they pay back their sponsors with state funds.

And the circle goes round again. When the current government was formed, it was therefore thought to be a good idea to parachute in foreigners like the Lithuanian Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius. On February 3, he resigned, saying, "Neither I nor my team have any desire to be a cover for open corruption, or to be a marionette of those who want to establish control over state money."

Many good things have been done, but they don't break these circles. The budget has been reformed; a deal with creditors has saved Ukraine billions; the gas sector, Ukraine's biggest single source of corruption in the past, is being cleaned up.

But more needs to be done at the heart of the problem. Ukraine needs state financing of political parties. The fledgling public broadcaster, the National Public Television and Radio Company of Ukraine (NSTU), needs people and resources. The state enterprise sector needs transparency and privatization. Tentative steps towards e-government need to be vastly expanded, so the state bureaucracy becomes a service, not a means of raising revenue.

People want change, but they can't vote for it. There are a few reformers in parliament and government, but not yet enough to make a difference. Almost two-thirds, 72 percent, blame the "corruption of power" for the lack of reform—48.4 percent think the government has done "nothing" and another 24.6 percent think it has only "done 10 percent" of what needed to be done. The war in the east has been quiet since September; but instead of re-concentrating on the domestic front, Kiev has picked fights with Russia over Crimea. There is nothing wrong with reminding the world about the annexation, but it looks like the same kind of diversionary politics as in Russia.

What next? As is often said, Ukraine has a strong civic sector, but activists and journalists cannot reform the system on their own if politicians are constantly trying to stop them. Elements of civil society—militias, populists and even protestors—can be used as cover for the politicians to carry on as usual. New elections won't necessarily work either, if the same old vicious circles are still in place. The one thing that does work is what locals calls the "sandwich"—Ukrainian politicians grudgingly reform when they are subject to twin pressures from society at home and donors abroad.

So part of the job of the civil sector in Ukraine is to convince the West that change is possible and financial support is not just disappearing down a black hole. The job of the West is to keep paying attention, when they are so many other diversions, from Syria to the refugee crisis.

Andrew Wilson is professor of Ukrainian Studies at University College London and the author of Ukraine Crisis and The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation.