Ukraine Needs a Reboot

The government in Kiev has reached a dead end. It’s time for a new start.

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Ukraine is approaching a critical moment. A great deal has been achieved in the two years since the Euromaidan uprising — now known as the Revolution of Dignity — overthrew the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. In its wake, voters chose a parliament and a president who were publicly committed to democracy, the rule of law, and the fight against corruption. Civil society, once subdued, has become a vocal and active player in everyday life. Our military managed to stave off defeat and hold its own against the Russian-sponsored separatist revolt in the East.

Yet the hope for change is fading fast. The current government led by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has confronted the challenge of entrenched corruption — and failed. Last week a leading reformer, Economy and Trade Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, tendered his resignation, citing efforts by a well-connected businessman and politician who was trying to wield control over the ministry. Abromavicius was only the latest in a string of leading reformers, some of them from outside Ukraine, who have been frustrated in their efforts to push through the urgently needed changes that will finally transform the country into a truly European state.

Public morale has hit a new low. In a recent poll, 82 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the current cabinet; 70 percent said the same of President Petro Poroshenko. The economy is in terrible shape. Entire industries are stagnating, and our currency, the hryvnia, has once again plunged in value in recent weeks. Petty corruption remains widespread, while public services are spotty at best. Citizens have watched politically influential businessmen expand their business empires by leveraging their access to the corridors of power.

One of those businessmen is Ihor Kononenko, who was a junior partner in Poroshenko’s business empire but also holds a seat in parliament and unofficially runs the president’s political party. Kononenko’s overlapping roles in politics and business have emerged in sharp relief during the latest scandal, when Abromavicius, the outgoing minister, revealed that the tycoon had maneuvered to place one of his own aides in a position in the ministry department that oversees some of Kononenko’s key businesses. (I subsequently helped to publish a series of messages exchanged between Abromavicius and the Kononenko aide that fleshed out the allegations.)

The law enforcement authorities — above all the General Prosecutor’s Office, a Soviet-era holdover that many here regard as one of the country’s most powerful bodies — have refused to pursue several high-profile criminal cases, further exasperating the public and deepening the crisis of confidence in state our state institutions. Last month, President Poroshenko publicly refused to fire General Prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who has become the focus of intense public anger for his lack of action on corruption. Poroshenko justified his decision by saying that a planned new anti-corruption bureau will have the job of handling controversial cases, thus relieving Shokin’s agency of that responsibility (and the power that goes with it). It should come as little surprise that most Ukrainians regarded this explanation with skepticism.

The resignation of Abromavicius has brought these issues into the open more clearly than ever before. It is now clear that the government cannot go on as before; allowing it to continue in its present form will merely deepen the sense of malaise and gridlock as Ukrainians clamor for change. At the same time, going back to the drawing board by calling a new election is also a bad idea. That would plunge the whole system into a fresh crisis and postpone a whole series of urgently needed decisions — at a moment when the International Monetary Fund appears increasingly reluctant to release a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine due to our deepening political turmoil.

What Ukraine needs instead is a reset — a wholesale change in the composition of the current government. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, who has demonstrated his lack of willingness to tackle corruption at the highest levels, should go. General Prosecutor Shokin should also resign. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who is responsible for the police and internal security, and who recently made headlines by getting into a fight with ex-Georgian-president-turned-Ukrainian-reformer Mikheil Saakashvili, should also be compelled to step down.

Avakov is a shrewd and immensely powerful politician who also boasts close ties to some of the country’s volunteer military battalions, so dislodging him might prove a challenge for the president. But it’s important to remember that Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for Poroshenko in the 2014 presidential elections precisely because they wanted to make a clean break with the sort of old-school politics that people like Avakov embody. No one voted for Avakov.

Support from the West could make a big difference. Right now our partners in Washington and Brussels are urging us to patch over our differences and get on with the work of reform. This advice is well intentioned but wrong. Sticking with the government in its current form, which has demonstrated its incapacity to stand up to those who exemplify the old ways, will merely prolong the crisis. What we need instead is to lance the boil, to take dramatic action to restore momentum towards change.

As a member of the Ukrainian parliament, I had the great privilege to be sitting in the audience when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gave a historic speech to lawmakers there during his visit to Kiev in December. He warned us that “the cancer of corruption” is irreconcilable with the spirit of true democracy, and urged us to intensify the fight against it — specifically mentioning the need to reform the General Prosecutor’s Office and establish powerful anti-corruption agencies. Now Ukrainians need him and President Obama to show that they were serious about that message.

I and other Ukrainians of the younger generation ran for election to parliament two years ago because we saw a crucial opportunity to push our country forward to the kind of change it so urgently needs. I know that many of my colleagues — and many of the people who voted for us — are losing faith. But I firmly believe that we can still change our country for the better. The time to act is now.

In the photo, a legislator carries prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk away from the podium during a parliamentary session on December 11, 2015 in Kiev.

Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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