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25 February 2016

Ukraine’s New, Old Elite

Instead of truly implementing a program of reforms, Ukraine’s new, old elite wax lyrical about the “European vector in the country’s development”

The dramatic events of the past few weeks in Ukraine raise questions as to what is going on in the country and how Europeans should react to the process of Ukrainian reforms specifically, and Kyiv’s European prospects in general. I will not dwell on the news from the Verkhovna Rada and Bankova Street which reached everyone – I prefers to address issues more pertinent to the present, and to the future.

In my opinion, over the last year and a half, the confrontation between key “beneficiaries” of the Revolution of Dignity has been at the core of the developments in Ukraine. This is the cohort of politicians formed in the days of Kuchma-Yushchenko-Yanukovych (i.e. under the oligarchic system of power) on the one hand, and the new generation of leaders and professionals on the other. In spite of everything, the latter have been, and still are, in the minority. According to Members of European Parliament responsible for the establishment of inter-parliamentary ties between the European Union and Ukraine, today’s Rada accommodates a little over a third of these individuals, and apparently, their number is even fewer in the government. Having gained power over the country as “the government at war”, justifying with impunity its dismissal of all problems as confrontation with the eastern aggressor,  the new, old elite have taken to waxing lyrical about the “European vector in the country’s development” instead of truly implementing the program of reforms.

Currently, Ukraine’s tax burden stands at 52.2% - higher than that of Austria, but with an incommensurable quality of public services. Monopolization in the energy and transportation sectors continues to grow. Bureaucracy holds its ground (entrepreneurs waste two months trying to agree on which advertising hoarding their business should hang from their own building in that most “progressive” city,  Odessa).  The institution of “superintendents” is being reinstated in ministries – there will be two this time: one for the president and one for the prime minister. It is also of great significance that the authorities adopted a law declaring occupied Crimea a free economic zone, enabling oligarchs to trade advantageously with the peninsula, while at the very same time, Ukraine’s president and government were calling on the United States and Europe to ramp up sanctions against Russia.

By early 2016, it became clear that the situation has reached a deadlock. Once again, Ukraine witnessed a confrontation – and, as before, for purely personal (or should I say, commercial) reasons - between the president and prime minister. In 2005, the conflict between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko paved the way for Viktor Yanukovych’s return to power. Later, in 2007, it was the showdown between Yushchenko and Yanukovych which stalled economic reforms and growth and discredited the “Orangemen”. And now, the very same path is being followed. It is no secret that powerful lobbyists are behind both of the leading Ukrainian politicians and that each has his own interests, which oftentimes displace those of the country. And while the confrontation could have come to an end last week, the worst possible scenario became reality instead.

The government, having previously succeeded in getting rid of some of the reformers, managed to stay afloat. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk will now be even less interested in the future successes of the country, and concerned more with the current state of affairs of his clan. The president is embittered by the failure and therefore one should expect him to take more reckless and less well-thought-out steps. Finally, the “free radical” Tymoshenko, having extricated herself from the “reformatted coalition,” has a bone to pick with both first persons, and she will certainly not curtail her populist rhetoric when it comes to either house. In my opinion, a sense of perspective has long since been lacking – if only that had been true for merely a few months.

It cannot but stupefy Ukraine’s allies in the West. I could be wrong, but, in recent years, Europe has made more passes at Ukraine than it has towards any other country before. The heads of the two largest countries of the continent are engaged in “the Minsk process;” European parliament will hold a joint session with the leadership of the Rada and dozens of deputies next week; the European Union initialed the Association Agreement with a country ravaged by war, put a free trade agreement in place, and continues to implement assistance programs one after another. The IMF adjusted its own arrears policy precisely in order to allow for issuance of a loan to a country which has defaulted on a number of other commitments. Not to mention the fact that the sanctions imposed by the European Union and United States against Russia do strike at the heart of “Putinomics,” yet fail to help the countries which imposed them. However, these sanctions continue to be extended in the hope that Ukraine will come to its senses.

It seems that this is not to be. I had doubts as to whether Kyiv was ready for radical changes when it became clear that the new authorities did not intend to prosecute the corruptionists of the Yanukovych era, or try to track down the assets they had siphoned off to Europe or other countries. I was taken aback anew by the situation with Crimea when the civil activists had to blockade the peninsula in order to force Ukrainian leaders to stop trading with the occupied territory; the faltering tax legislation was merely an additional factor. Finally, I was, frankly speaking, rendered aghast by the failure to adopt a package of laws set by Europeans as conditions for the introduction of visa-free travel for Ukrainians which endured for almost an entire year. Multiple attempts to settle old scores, and the commencement of the battle for the redistribution of control over state-related businesses are also noteworthy.

Besides, the worse things get, the more often the factor of Russian aggression is cited, and the more vociferous the appeals to Europeans to support Ukraine, which is allegedly at the forefront of the fight against imperial revanchism, become. Unfortunately, it seems to me that rational Europeans will become less and less susceptible to such rhetoric as the days go by – even more so as I believe it is clear to them that one has to confront Moscow with deeds and not just talk. The more European post-Soviet, Orthodox and Slavic Ukraine becomes, the less effective Kremlin propaganda will be. However, if one can see with the naked eye how Ukraine’s “pro-European” forces turn out to be no less, and perhaps more, corrupt than the “Euro-pessimists” (neighboring Moldova, in whose footsteps Ukraine seems to be following, serving as a case in point), then what can be expected?

Less than six weeks from now, on April 6, the European country which, apart from Ukraine, seems to have suffered most from the Russian aggression against Ukraine – the Netherlands – which lost 193 of its citizens in the wreckage of a civilian aircraft shot down by pro-Russian separatists with a Buk missile transported into Ukraine by Russian soldiers with “high-level” authorization – will hold a referendum on the ratification of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine. And the very fact that, at the moment, the “no” vote is leading the polls by almost 10%, is indicative of Europe’s integral assessment of Ukrainian reforms – despite all of the lamentations of those who believe that Europe should help Ukraine no matter what. Ukrainian politicians – at least those who care about their country’s prospects – should, by April 6 at the very latest, identify a better cause, a cause more important than settling old scores. To date, however, they have not…

I am convinced that, for post-Soviet countries to become truly European, several generations must come and go. Those who have not only seen the oligarchical, government-related circles, but have actually been a part of them, will not become politicians of the European mold. And this is why I believe there is at least one more Maidan in store for Ukraine – less bloody and more productive, God willing. Most regretfully, this constitutes the third instance (following the early 1990’s after independence, and 2004/05 after the Orange Revolution) when Ukraine, whose people (unlike its government) are ardently striving to be European, is failing to convince Russians that they should follow in its footsteps as, evidently, this path only leads to problems and failures…

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