What Kiev needs now is a dose of tough love.
- By Josh CohenJosh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He contributes to a number of foreign policy-focused media outlets and tweets at @jkc_in_dc.
It’s been a bad two months for Ukraine. The country’s new prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, has barely started his term in office, and he’s already being panned as an insider who will “perpetuate the corrupt business-as-usual status quo.” In February, leading reformers in the economic ministry and the Prosecutor General’s Office resigned in frustration, accusing officials tied to President Poroshenko of blocking their efforts to rid Ukraine of the scourge of corruption. Although Poroshenko finally sacked his widely hated prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, this was primarily thanks to growing pressure from Western officials. Even still, Shokin managed to do plenty of damage on his way out the door, firing his only remaining reformist deputy and forbidding prosecutors from referring cases to new anti-corruption institutions.
What’s more, Ukraine’s old guard — left over from before the Euromaidan revolution swept away President Yanukovych in 2014 — appears increasingly willing to subvert the country’s democratic development to silence critics. Using a much-criticized law enacted in February, President Poroshenko’s own party expelled two critical lawmakers from the parliament. The cabinet of ministers banned civil servants from criticizing the country’s leaders. Perhaps worst of all (and despite Shokin’s departure), the prosecutor’s office took a page from the Kremlin’s playbook when it used trumped-up charges of misappropriating American aid money to raid the offices of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, Ukraine’s leading non-governmental anti-corruption group.
The increasingly corrupt and authoritarian behavior of Kiev’s politicians is not only a betrayal of what the Euromaidan revolutionaries stood for. It’s also a slap in the face to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden — perhaps Ukraine’s highest-profile friend in the West. During his recent trip to Kiev, Biden told legislators that corruption was consuming the country “like a cancer,” and warned Poroshenko that his government had “one more chance” to confront the issue, or risk losing international financial aid.
Since the Euromaidan, the West has treated Ukraine’s new government as a friend and partner in the quest to reform the country and set it on a European path. Ukraine deserves this support, but it’s clear that a tougher approach is needed. It’s time to ease up on the carrots and break out the sticks.
The first step is to accept — as Ukraine commentators have begun to do — that President Poroshenko is more part of the problem than part of the solution. He has spent the past year fighting demands for Shokin’s firing. He allowed anti-reform crusader (and old army buddy) Ihor Kononenko to remain in office. And he actively supported the two corrupt prosecutors who were arrested in July. All this makes it clear that the president is an obstacle to genuine reform.
He is, of course, Ukraine’s democratically elected head of state — so the West (and Ukrainians) are stuck with him, at least for now. The task is to find ways to push him and his government harder. This is exactly what Ukraine’s reformers want us to do. During a recent conference in Kiev, the outspoken director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, Daria Kaleniuk, said, “I always tell our partners: don’t be diplomatic. Be very direct in your demands with the president when you meet him.” Likewise, a leading civic group, the Reanimation Project of Reforms (RPR) said that it supports IMF director Christine Lagarde’s view that further financial support can be provided only if decisive measures are taken to fight corruption.
This is a fundamental point. There’s no question that Biden and other Western leaders have been sterner with Poroshenko in private than they have in public. But whatever they’ve said, mere words haven’t been enough. It’s time to make further assistance conditional — no reforms, no more aid. Given Ukraine’s continued dependence, this is, perhaps, the most powerful weapon in the Western arsenal.
Thus far, officials have seemed hesitant to take this step. On February 10, Lagarde warned that Ukraine could lose aid if it didn’t take stronger steps to fight graft — but on the next day, she backtracked after what she termed a “constructive” conversation with Poroshenko. Biden also told Poroshenko to speed up reforms, but guaranteed another $335 million in aid during the same meeting. These kinds of mixed messages simply won’t cut it anymore. Western donors have already spent tens of billions of dollars propping up Ukraine. It’s time to use that leverage to force Kiev’s recalcitrant officials to implement the anti-corruption reforms its own citizens are demanding.
One of their top demands is fixing Ukraine’s horrifically corrupt judicial system. Only five percent of Ukraine’s citizens trust their judges — and no wonder, since so many take bribes. The Interior Minister even argued that the entire court system be shut down for three months while a new one is built from scratch. While this isn’t realistic, RPR has laid out an agenda for judicial reform that involves restructuring the courts and establishing new procedures for selecting judges and evaluating their performance. The RPR also proposes an agenda to reform the country’s prosecution service. The implementation of these or similar reforms must be an absolute condition for any further financial assistance for Kiev.
Withholding aid is a good first step. But another key, though often overlooked, way the West can ramp up the pressure on Poroshenko is to empower his critics. After all, there are countless Ukrainians who remain committed to moving the country forward. If Ukraine’s ruling class won’t listen to its friends in the West, perhaps — remembering what happened to its predecessor — it will listen to its own citizens.
As former Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko noted, Ukraine’s vibrant civil society is the country’s greatest asset in the war on corruption. The country’s myriad non-profit organizations, volunteer initiatives, and civic movements brought the people onto the streets to take down the old regime. They resisted Russian aggression when the army was unable to do so. Now, they are Ukraine’s best hope of ensuring that the new government honors the sacrifices of the revolution by making good on promises of reform. Enabling them to put yet greater and more effective pressure on politicians is one of the best things the West can now do for Ukraine.
First and foremost, that means offering additional financial support to civic organizations. In a recent speech in Washington, Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko noted that “Ukraine’s oligarchs have been engaged in a media war against reformers.” Providing activists with additional resources would help them counter such misinformation. More visibility on media outlets funded by the U.S. government, like Voice of America or Radio Free Europe, would also help. Finally, helping civil society organizations establish permanent offices in Washington and Brussels would help key reformers establish closer relationships with both Western officials and leading donors, such as the IMF.
But backing civil society isn’t just about money. Western governments must also provide visible, consistent, high-level political support for Ukrainian reformers. This means that when Western officials meet with the Ukrainian government, the reformers should “be in the room.” Honoring this request is a no-brainer. It would also help to establish an advisory board, consisting of representatives of leading civic groups and government reformers, that would interact directly with Biden’s office. Poroshenko will find it much harder to ignore his citizens’ demands when they are amplified by consistent and visible support from Washington.
Withholding aid while empowering civil society sends a message to Poroshenko, Ukraine, and the world: we are committed to the country’s people, not to the political fortunes of its leaders. And today, Ukrainians need to hear that message more than ever.
In the photo, university students rally for education reforms in front of Taras Shevchenko National University in Kiev on April 7.
Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images