23 May 2014

The Real Fight in Ukraine

by Niklas Kossow

Since Victor Yanukovich fled Ukraine in February, the situation in the country has become more and more tense. After a highly disputed referendum, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and pro-Russian separatists have taken over the control of several cities in the east of the country. Ahead of the presidential elections on 25 May heavy fighting in the south and the east has lead observers to portray Ukraine as being on the brink of civil war. While the fighting between separatists and the interim government is on going, Ukrainian civil society is continuing an fight of its own: the fight for political reforms and against corruption.

Svitlana Zalishchuk is coordinating a group of the most important reform-orientated civil society groups in Ukraine. For her reforms are part of the “dialogue that has to be proposed to the Southern and Eastern regions”. While the protests on Kiev’s Maidan square were triggered by the refusal of the Ukrainian government to sign the negotiated association agreement with the EU, they soon were aimed against a corrupt political system which is not accountable to its own people. The Maidan movement was a broad coalition of activists, representatives of civil society organisations and ordinary citizens. Many of the actors were already involved in the Orange Revolution. Ten years on they have learned from previous mistakes and want to achieve genuine change of the political system.

Following the regime change in February 2014, Ukraine finds itself at a critical juncture. A broad coalition of civil society actors has come together to push forward a “Reanimation Reform Package”. Anti-corruption reforms are a particular focus of the initiative. Since the coalition formed in February, their work has been both ambitious and impressive. They currently unite more than 170 individuals and organisations active in Ukraine. With expert groups, media campaigning and lobbying they put forward, for instance, reforms a law on access to information, a crucial tool in fighting corruption. They assembled a cross-party group of 24 members of parliament who meet regularly to discuss the possibility for reforms and pledged to lobby their parliamentary groups. With their reform initiative civil society leaders want to use this window of opportunity to push through the systemic changes needed to overcome corruption that defined Ukrainian politics since its independence.

Money laundering and corruption loopholes were a trademark of the former regime. “The system changes only if these key corruption loopholes are closed” says Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Kiev-based “Anti-Corruption Action Center” (AntAC). While the organisation lobbies for reforms within Ukraine, they are also active in getting the support of governments abroad to recover assets that were shifted abroad by corrupt officials and by the members of the Yanukovich regime. Ukrainian civil society organisations and investigative journalists try to track this money. They call for international governments to freeze accounts of and help them in the legal procedures to repatriate assets. AntAC estimates that around US$100 billion were shifted abroad by the Yanukovich regime. It pushes for the recovered money to be invested in charitable funds used for long term investments and reconstruction to reach visible outcomes in the fight against corruption.

International governments and organisations can make a difference by supporting Ukrainian civil society. Their pressure helps to implement reforms. Even more important though is the support of the Ukrainian people. Svitlana Zalishchuk highlights the difficulty to mobilise Ukrainian citizens and the need for civil society to “learn how to connect to the people”. Popular support is a problem and needed, just as much as political support. While Yanukovich has gone, the majority of the political elite has stayed and many of them have a track record of corruption. Consensus and political support consensus for anti-corruption reforms is hence hard to reach. While laws are passed, compliance is not always assured.

The presidential elections on 25 May are a crucial step in the reform process. For Daria Kaleniuk hopes that a legitimate president would be able to call for parliamentary elections which could take place this autumn. Activists are already forming new parties, which aim to promote accountability and which may end up in parliament. The “Reanimation Reform Package” coalition hopes that a newly legitimised parliament will help to implement the reform process and make politics in Ukraine more accountable. Ukrainian civil society activists are determined to continue their fight for one of the principle aims of the Maidan movement: a transparent and accountable government.

Ultimately, successfully implementing reforms may also be the key to solving the conflict in the south and east of Ukraine. Daria Kaleniuk hopes that if Ukraine becomes a country in which “human rights are protected, where you can have actual jobs with a decent salary that allows you to live in dignity and not to take or give bribes, this will be a powerful argument to those in the South and East of Ukraine to stay in the country.” While the fights in Eastern Ukraine are continuing, it is important that the presidential elections are able to take place. “Only when there is a new, legitimate government it will be possible to have systemic reforms.”

While peace in Ukraine and the unity of the country seem fragile, the fight for reforms and against corruption might be more crucial than most people realise.

Niklas Kossow will graduate from the Hertie School of Governance Master of Public Policy programme at the end of May 2014.