Poroshenko's First Year Has Set Ukraine On The Road to Reform

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks to servicemen in the town of Schastye in Luhansk region, in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, May 29, 2015. Despite the Russian invasion, the president is tackling the deep seated corruption and inertia that has held Ukraine back, the author writes. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Mykhailo Markiv/Reuters

On June 6, 2014, Petro Poroshenko became the President of Ukraine. He did so in the midst of war, economic crisis and an unprecedented need for national reform and reconstruction. He did so knowing that the Maidan was probably Ukraine's last chance to complete its Euroatlantic integration.

In the year since, Ukraine has lost control of 12 percent of its territory. At least 6,000 people have been killed in the fighting with Russian-backed rebels, with over 1 million people displaced. The Ukrainian economy has shrunk by over 20 percent, and it continues to decline. Statistics quantify only poorly the impact of the war and Russian aggression on the lives of the Ukrainian people.

Reading international headlines, it's hard to see how Poroshenko manages to keep government morale up. But largely overlooked from outside Ukraine is that, even while the country has mounted an unprecedented effort to defend itself, it has made real national progress that is worth defending.

Poroshenko has succeeded in nation-building, at a rapid pace, where previous presidents have failed. In a recent speech before the Rada, he explained that getting rid of Soviet monuments wouldn't be enough to get rid of a communist mindset.

He also outlined the program he summarizes as the "4-Ds"—de-regulation, de-oligarchization, de-bureaucratization and de-centralization. Poroshenko knows well that this agenda creates a lot of losers. But he also knows that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has two equally important front-lines: the war in the Donbass and the reforms everywhere else.

The dual goals of victory remain the same: the containment of Russian neo-imperialism and the defeat of neo-sovietism as an anti-model of society and governance.

For 24 years, Ukraine has been plundered and hijacked by a nihilistic elite—dubbed as oligarchs. They were serving their own interests, and, occasionally, when it mattered, Moscow's as well. The civil service was cumbersome, its rules Kafkaesquedesigned explicitly to create a labyrinth inside which corruption flourished.

The Maidan totally changed the equation. For the first time since 1991, a comprehensive reform agenda has been shaped that makes legitimate rule of law achievable. Oligarchs will be confronted; corruption will be tackled; regulation will be simplified; the civil service will be drastically down-sized; and local government will be empowered.

On this front, there have been many successes—many aided and led by the international experts Poroshenko has recruited to bring an outsider's perspective to Ukraine's internal challenges.

In the midst of war, Ukraine has rebuilt its armed forces and halted a military offensive by the largest army in Europe. Defense reforms are underway—with the help of the RAND Corporation.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (L) and governor of Odessa region Mikheil Saakashvili (C) are greeted by a local resident near the regional state administration in Odessa, Ukraine, May 30, 2015. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Mykola Lazarenko/Reuters

The ruined financial system has been stabilized and a comprehensive reform of the tax code has been launched due to the arduous efforts of the new finance minister—an American. The Ministry of Economy is streamlining and preparing for large scale privatizations that will bring much-needed revenue to the Ukrainian budget. Monopolies in the energy sector are being broken – or example, this past winter was the first time in recent history Ukraine managed to free itself from a complete Gazprom monopoly.

A new anti-corruption bureau has been launched, and the Prosecutor General's office is being overhauled—led by a Georgian, with support from the US Department of Justice. Starting in mid-June, Ukraine will have a completely new police force—a reform initiative also spearheaded by a Georgian.

The Ministry of Health, again led by a Georgian, is proactively outsourcing functions better performed by other actors—for example, vaccinations have been outsourced to UNICEF—and cleaning up bad practices that have allowed corruption and redundancy to erode the quality of care the government can deliver to the people.

Individually, none of these items seems a cause for patriotism. But these are just a handful of the ways that Poroshenko's government has transformed how it interacts with and is accountable to the people. These are significant successes during an ongoing national security crisis.

The Ukrainian people are beginning to see the progress of a government dedicated to reform and results. They see this progress being made in partnership with other European aspirants from the neighborhood, and with the active support of the US and the EU.

Despite many domestic hardships, there are record-high figures of support for NATO and EU integration because for the first the in a long time, people see these goals as achievable through the commitment of their government, with Western support. The survival of Ukrainian democracy—of the Ukrainian nation—will shape the fate of Eastern Europe.

The Ukrainian people have rallied around the potential of the post-Maidan nation—coming together to contribute to the supply, support and combat-readiness of the military and volunteer forces; being demanding, but patient, as President Poroshenko pushes forward his reforms.

The West should celebrate the progress that has been made—and accept that Ukrainian fears of a summer offensive from the east are equally about losing territory and losing this progress.

Mikheil Saakashvili is the recently appointed Governor of Odesa in Ukraine. He was President of Georgia between 2004 and 2013.