Sometimes it is hard to understand Ukraine. Ukraine is very inconsistent. It looks politically disorderly but is so stuck with the idea of democracy that it wasted the entire year of 2014 to ensure transparent presidential and parliamentary elections took place. Ukraine had virtually no army when it was attacked by its neighbouring aggressor but it managed to stop the strong invading forces. It wants stability but demands the government’s resignation. It made significant progress in shock reforms but accuses politicians of being too slow instead of too fast. Ukraine encourages tax avoidance and raises enormous donations to support the army and needy people. It longs for European integration so much that people were ready to die with European flags, but it is unable to adopt necessary laws.
News from Ukraine is often downbeat. Ukraine remains on the European Union’s radar, but it is not seen as a promising young talent. Instead, it is seen as a sullen teenager with bad habits, who is nothing but trouble.
The answer is that Ukraine is simply too young. Much of the rest of Europe itself was like that just 200 years ago, when it aspired to freedom and dignity, tried to modernise its countries and replace obsolete political elites. Ukraine is currently going through the same process.
With massive help from Western Europe, Central Europe managed to escape communism and complete its modernisation in two decades. Ukraine is a more complicated case: it has experienced a tiny tradition of having its own state, the heavy impact of Stalinism and the Soviet legacy, the terrible consequences that occurred due to the extermination of millions of people in an artificial famine (the Holodomor), political repressions and wars. However, we have some valuable assets: a powerful civil society, fear of the “Russian world” and modern technology in every pocket. Our task is the same as that of other post-Communist countries had in 1990s, but our case is quite different.
Speaking on behalf of Ukrainian civil society, what can I say to Europeans?
1. Please keep Ukraine on your radars, despite the fact that the signals are often negative, despite Russian attempts to jam our signals. Do not leave us alone. Without your support, without your pressure on our politicians, we will quickly fall into a swamp.
2. Please provide money to our government only in exchange for real reforms. Do not believe empty promises.
3. Please recognise and support our agents of change in the government and the parliament, and also in our cities and regions. Our civil support for them is not enough to overcome the post-Soviet system’s resistance.
4. The most important point is: please allow us to be radical, to take drastic measures. Please allow us to dismiss the government and re-elect the parliament when we need to change old corrupted political elites. Please allow us to implement a radical tax reform to launch economic growth. Please allow us to carry out a radical judicial reform to restore justice. This list of tasks which calls for action is long.
Please take into account that the European tradition of slow gradual development of social and political institutions is not suitable for Ukraine at the moment. Our post-Soviet system is totally corrupt, rotten and broken. You cannot imagine how deeply it is damaged. We do not have two hundred years to repair it.
The condition for success
Two years of reforms in Ukraine have proved that we are successful only when we create new institutions from scratch instead of repairing old ones. Here are some examples. One of the most corrupt and therefore hated institutions was the “militia” (an old Soviet name for the police). The new patrol police was created as a brand new institution and won the people’s admiration by hiring a totally different quality of staff and engaging in high-level training, openness and work methods; the organisation’s name, statutes and uniforms were also new. Indeed, the new police was at first created in Kyiv, then it was implemented in other big cities, then in smaller ones.
Another example is public procurement, which traditionally was one of the most corrupted procedures. The new transparent online system was launched in a very radical way, although gradually in terms of volume and coverage. This has resulted in a considerable drop in prices, since the corruption component disappeared and the competition level increased due to an open market access. Dozens of thousands of sheets of paper became obsolete in one day.
On the other hand, when Ukraine is cautious in its reforms and tries to repair the Soviet legacy, its efforts always end in failure. We tried to maintain and gradually change our justice system, with its totally corrupted closed caste of judges and all-powerful procurators’ offices invented by Stalin. European institutions asked us to be cautious and slow; we followed this advice and the reform failed.
Europe often asks Ukraine to maintain stability. But stability is welcome when the rules of the game are already transparent and fair. In those circumstances, a country needs stability in order to ensure consistency and predictability. Stability is harmful and destructive, however, when the rules of the game are corrupt and unfair, as our institutions and political elites currently are. By asking us to be cautious, supporting old elites against new, and blocking drastic changes, Europe creates a huge threat to Ukraine’s very existence.
Today, Ukraine is as key of an element of European security as it was 800 years ago, when Mongol hordes attacked Europe and were stopped by our country, which subsequently bled and struggled for many centuries afterward. Chaos is coming from the East again. Leaving Ukraine alone today means huge problems tomorrow, when a triumphant Kremlin (and, in fact, a triumphant KGB) will immediately start stirring the European pot by supporting right-wing and left-wing radicals, terrorists and defeatists, purchasing media and corrupting “intellectual communities”, blocking the work of international organisations, using air and naval provocations and finally via using “green men” without identification somewhere near Estonia’s Narva or Latvia’s Daugavpils. And the black hole in the East will generate refugee flows which are not comparable with current ones.
When “old Europe” sees the wildly strange teenage girl named Ukraine not as a troublemaker, but as a strong young person that reminds it of its own younger self, dreaming, making mistakes because of her immaturity, but overcoming her challenges and ready to be a reliable partner in defence and development, then the word “Ukraine” will become fashionable and important in Europe once more.
Valerii Pekar is co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform and teaches at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School. He is also a member of the National Reform Council.