Ukraine after Maidan: Reform during Conflict

By: Sebastian Åsberg

2015-11-17 |

The Ukrainian government has been dealing with implementing political reform all while fighting a bloody war in eastern Ukraine against Russia and its proxies.

While the Minsk II agreement (11 February, 2015) ended the heavy fighting, the ceasefire is fragile and the threat of renewed fighting is ever present. In addition, corruption in Ukraine is still widespread and the power of the oligarchs remains extensive.

Poroshenko's reform agenda
During the UI seminar Ukraine After Maidan: Reform During Conflict Igor Torbakov, senior fellow at the Uppsala Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, described several ongoing conflicts within Ukraine, mainly revolving around power, identity and statehood.

Torbakov noted that at the heart of the Maidan movement was the struggle for greater popular empowerment, clean government, the rule of law against a kleptocratic elite and rampant corruption. According to Torbakov, president Petro Poroshenko is pursuing a three-pronged strategy in his reform agenda; building political parties, controlling regional elites and limiting the influence of the oligarchs.

However, when it comes to the political reforms taking place in the Ukraine and the pursuit of "deoligarchization" and anti-corruption measures, the results have been mixed. The patrimonial system that characterizes politics in the country remains intact. President Poroshenko still needs to rely on the old patronage network in his pursuit to implement reforms. Torbakov also described the rebelliousness of Ukrainian political culture as a potentially problematic element. Two of the last three presidentships in Ukraine were changed as a result of street protests. " As soon as there is a political crisis, there are talks about another revolution similar to the Euromaidan or the Orange revolution. This can present an obstacle in building a democracy and implementing tough political reforms, which can be an arduous process," said Torbakov.

The results are not all negative however. Ukraine, unlike Russia, has a democratic system with a competitive electoral process. The Ukrainian political system is described as currently being a "neo-patrimonial democracy", having evolved from being a "neo-patramonial autocracy" during former president Viktor Yanukovich's time in office.

Russia's disinformation campaigns
Guest speaker Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist, co-founder and head of Hromadske International commented on the extensive Russian disinformation campaign against Ukraine, both during and after the conflict in Crimea and Donbass.

"There is a lot of disinformation regarding about what is happening in Ukraine, which is very well-coordinated" said Gumenyuk.

As an example she specifically pointed out a news story about a Russian five-year old boy having been crucified in the town of Slavyansk by the Ukrainian army which became a very popular story in Russian media, but had actually never happened.

What is modern about this type of information warfare is that there are no attempts to present a Cold War style narrative. It is rather about creating moral relativism and a discourse that everyone lies and have their own agenda, including Western media outlets. Gumenyuk acknowledged that one needs to present two sides of the story, but warned that the truth is not always balanced.

Revolutions take time
According to Gumenyuk, currently the most important reforms taking place in the Ukraine are; decentralization, justice system reform and economic growth. "Reforming the political and economic system in Ukraine should be seen as a marathon, rather than a sprint" she said.

Deoligarchization will pose a challenge, as the oligarchs are both powerful and eager to protect their influence. However, Ukraine may be an oligarchic system, but it is not an authoritarian one, said Gumenyuk.

As to the future of the contested Donbass territory, Gumenyuk considered it unlikely that Russia had any desire or ability to annex and integrate the area. Russia's aim is more likely to freeze the conflict, which is a foreign policy tool of the Kremlin. The Donbass is considerably larger and more populous than other regions, with five million inhabitants. Furthermore, it is an industrial region which can't survive without trade and if isolated will dilapidate.

Finally, in the discussion about Crimea since the annexation, the increasing human rights abuses and discriminations against non-Russians in the area, especially against the Tartar minority was also noted. Gumenyuk's policy recommendations for the West was to continue to stay united against Russian actions and give the sanctions more time to work.

"Revolutions take time; it's always three steps forward, two steps back," Gumenyuk concluded.

S Åsberg_ui_smallSebastian Åsberg is an intern at the Russia Program at UI.


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