For years, politicians in Ukraine have been caught in a “Mexican standoff” – a confrontation in which no strategy exists that allows any political party to achieve victory. As a result, the parties have been forced to maintain a strategic tension that remains unresolved until some outside event alters the political balance. Such events in Ukraine are usually dramatic.
The last such event came in what initially looked like a liberal pro-Western popular revolt against corruption and red tape. Immediately thereafter, Ukraine opted for political association and economic integration with the EU when it signed an Association Agreement. The event gave hope to millions of Ukrainians and encouraged applause from the West. However, when it changed the balance of power in Europe, there followed an illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and the outbreak of war in the Donbass.
As Ukrainian politicians sharpen their messages to voters for 2019, no one from the political class of 2014 remains popular. For many voters the lifestyles of that group appear unexplainably luxurious, their politics unreasonably divisive, and their conduct overly corrupt. Not surprisingly, today that class is lagging in the polls. Consider the Popular Front, the main winner of the 2015 elections. Today, it is barely popular with its support at less than 1%. Their leader, Arseny Yatsenyuk, was ousted from the prime minister position in 2016 and is mostly out of sight. President Petro Poroshenko and the political party he named after himself are not doing much better.
What is surprising, however, is that those who are leading in the polls are the same people who were in power in Ukraine before the revolution. These are either individuals associated with Viktor Yanukovich, the man whom the revolution ousted, forcing him to escape to Russia, or Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the co-founders of the modern Ukrainian state and its rent-based capitalism.
To be clear, today’s ruling class is just as old as post-soviet Ukraine. They have deep roots in the era when they were post-soviet state apparatchiks, oligarchs, or headed local farmer markets, as was the case with the current Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. All of them are caught in the same old Mexican standoff; it is just that their provincial confrontation has escalated into an international affair, with Ukraine at its centre.
Normally, any liberal revolution would make room for a new class of technocrats to govern and make decisions on the basis of expertise and knowledge. This has not happened in Ukraine since the revolution failed to produce a group of liberal reformers who take responsibility for the country. The new political players, who could and should have produced this technocratic class, remain divided, ineffective, and tentative when it comes to winning elections. And even though the country has committed to reforms under the Association Agreement and other international aid arrangements with Western institutions, the scale of Ukraine’s commitments do not match its capacity or the political will of the current political class, to implement them. As a result, the country remains largely unreformed, economically weak, and with bleak prospects. A dysfunctional judicial system also leads to few opportunities, which are unevenly spread. All these factors result in high immigration, especially among younger Ukrainians, and disillusionment among older voters about promised reforms.
This puts the West in a very difficult position. Since 2014, Western countries and international institutions have stepped up their assistance to Ukraine and, in effect, supported the rebuilding of the Ukrainian state. At a macro level, they have provided budgetary support focused on approaches that embrace entire sectors. At the same time, Western institutions and organizations have assisted in a number of individual projects across the country. Generally, Ukraine has benefited from the expertise of high-level officials but has never fully embraced their advice. At the same time, while Ukraine receives a significant amount of funds, the effective absorption rate remains very low as its prevailing bureaucracy and ineffective management, the country, and its regions struggle to staff and complete infrastructure and other projects.
This apparent lack of efficiency puts the Ukrainian government in constant need of more funds. At the same time, the West can only provide support once the Ukrainian government implements legal, economic, and political frameworks for reforms. Since there is no domestic drive for effective reforms, this has required the West to pressure the Ukrainian government by conditioning further support on stricter and more detailed reform plans. The West effectively has been playing the role of the reformers who never appeared in Ukraine. However, such support can never be truly effective due to an understandable lack of knowledge of the local context.
Ukraine needs its own homegrown reformers and the West should help to find and cultivate them. Thus far, the EU and other Western countries have supported, even though not always whole-heartedly, the current ruling class, which at best embraces the nouveau riche and often consists of pre-revolutionary thugs. The West should not place its bets on them. The chickens may soon come home to roost. New presidential and general elections are looming over this impoverished nation of over forty million. Ukrainians are likely to face a very difficult choice between the old and corrupt and the very old and corrupt.
This Ukrainian standoff is likely to continue until the next crisis, which may come as early as the next election.