What should Ukraine’s policy priorities be for the next few years?
The war is slowly moving to the background for the majority of Ukrainians: in a Democratic Initiatives Foundation poll, 79% recently said that the biggest problem hampering economic growth this year was corruption, while 55% thought the war in the Donbas was. But the recent escalation around the Azov Sea suggests that the overall situation has not changed much since 2014. The main national priority remains withstanding Russian aggression: defending the country borders, reinforcing its defensive capabilities, liberating Crimea and the Donbas from occupation, and getting the release of Ukrainian hostages.
Nevertheless, internal weaknesses continue to pose an equally serious challenge for Ukraine’s survival as a state. Although the Constitution declares Ukraine a “unitary and relatively centralized state,” in practice its integrity as a sate depends very much on a shaky consensus between Kyiv and regional elites. This was made clear, not for the first time, with the “open season” against civic activists that wept the country’s southern oblasts this past year. The sad thing is that this was not a series of precedents but simply the latest symptom of a chronic illness in Ukraine. Lacing both force and political will, every new central government establishes a tacit agreement with local princelings, “buying” their superficial loyalty in exchange o not interfering, in part or altogether, in local politics.
How this is linked to national security was beautifully illustrated in the history of the Donetsk “clan.” By offering them grandiose economic concessions and encouraging a sense of total political impunity, including for their separatist blackmail, Kyiv ended up with a ravished region. Of course, that doesn’t at all mean that a Donetsk-like separatist scenario threatens every region in Ukraine, but the political wisdom of local leaders should not be taken for granted. Given that some of the country’s western neighbors are not only developing “special” relations with different oblasts but are also probing Kyiv’s response to external interference. The situation with Hungary was a classic example.
Still, threats to national unity are not coming only from outside. For instance, the illegal extraction of amber in Volyn, which the president promised publicly to stop by “eliminating their protection” back in the summer of 2015, but nothing has happened. What’s more, even without army supply stores or “wandering tourists” from Russia, the miners have openly resisted law enforcement efforts for years, clashing with the police, trashing their cars and blocking roadways. The economic and environmental damage that these and other illegal industries are costing the country are nothing compared to the degree to which they are undermining its statehood, simply because this kind of situation shows just how little of a monopoly on power the government really has and changing this situation is not just a question of politics but also of national security in the deepest sense.
Maintaining the current foreign policy course is also a key security issue. Today, more than 50% of Ukrainians support it, while those who favor some kind of union under Russia have steadily shrunk to 11% now. However, the proportion of Ukrainians who would prefer to see the country geopolitically “neutral” is quite substantial, at over 32%. The proportion of those who don’t see any benefits from Eurointegration grew from 22% in 2015 to 26% by the end of 2016, based on DIF polls. It’s clear that work on public perceptions needs to continue.
To protect the country from a possible comeback of destructive forces, enshrining the country’s course towards Europe and NATO at the constitutional level makes a lot of sense. At the same time, the country’s leadership and citizens need to prepare themselves for the possibility that, as relations with the EU tighten, relations with individual EU member countries could also become more difficult. The example of Hungary is just one such case. In other words, Ukraine’s leadership needs to learn not only how to resist Russia, but also how to establish boundaries in interactions with the West. Ukraine’s unalterable cultural “genes” may establish its civilizational place in Europe, but relations with the EU need to be pragmatic. For one thing, the EU does not equal all of Europe, but is just the latest format for cohabitation among European nations – moreover one that is neither all-encompassing nor without its flaws. Finding a balance between the desire for unification – and de factodependence – and a healthy form of national self-interest will be anything but easy.
As to the socio-political arena, ridding the country of oligarchic misrule remains on the agenda – getting Big Business, with its penchant for using leverage with the Government in order to engage in systematic corrupt and gain access to sectors that offer lucrative rents, out of government. Moreover, the issue is not just overcoming corruption but national security as well. It’s enough to remember just how significant a role the country’s oligarchs played in the crises of 2014. Until Moscow launched its violent plan to rob Ukraine and destroy its economy, most of them did absolutely nothing to stop Russia’s “soft occupation” and were quite happy to live in the aura of Russki Mir.
That year also revealed the problems that had been accumulating in the lower reaches of Ukrainian society. It’s no secret that Russia found the main support for its hybrid aggression among the Ukrainian masses that clumped together during the “Russian spring” and were happy to become cannon fodder for a “separatist insurrection.” In contrast to reassuring stereotypes, lumpenization is a problem, not only in the depressed parts of the Donbas but across the entire country. The disaffected, marginalized, poor and largely unemployed, even though able-bodied layer of Ukrainians is a social bomb that potentially threatens Ukraine’s survival no less than GRADs in Donetsk.
There’s a good reason why the middle class is considered the foundation of stability and democracy in a society. But the lumpen, with its low standard of living, education and overall culture, is the target audience of destructive forces both within and outside the country, ranging from the criminal subculture and sects, and ending with terrorist organization and radical populist movements. To delumpenize Ukraine requires comprehensive reforms that are rooted in overcoming poverty by increasing employment rates and education levels – not by mechanically inflating public spending on welfare.
Still, providing the conditions for the middle class to grow stronger and larger is not enough. The broadest spectrum of Ukrainians needs to also be engaged in governing the country. This will foster both a stronger civil society as a counterweight to oligarchs, and the consolidation of a civil community as a counterweight to an atomized and asocial lumpen. Fortunately, civil society organizations enjoy substantial public trust, but only about 7% of Ukrainians are engaged in community action, according to a DIF poll. This is why decentralization needs to be completed as soon as possible so that millions of ordinary Ukrainians will experience grassroots democracy and learn how to organize and govern themselves.
In the cultural sphere, in the broadest sense of the word, Ukraine’s main objective should be to provide the conditions necessary to promote ukrainianization. Government funding of film-making, the establishment of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation and the Ukrainian Institute are steps in the right direction that have already brought positive results. In addition to such specific steps in specific areas, there need to be systemic changes in the country’s leading institutions that will ensure that the national culture will be spread and develop, especially in education. Some shifts have already taken place: a new law on education was passed, education reform has been launched, the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko law on regional languages has been rescinded, and so on. A timely bill “On ensuring the functioning of Ukrainian as the state language” has already passed first reading in the Verkhovna Rada.
However, the history of independent Ukraine has shown that passing a law and ensuring that it is actually upheld are two very different things, especially with the issue of language. To ensure that the formal status of Ukrainian is supported by substance requires consolidated effort on the part of the political class, public institutions and civil society. The same is true of educational reforms. Although the New Ukrainian School has been launched for public schools, reforming technical-vocational education and launching the National Agency for Quality Post-Secondary Education are still waiting. It’s quite likely that these, too, won’t happen without public pressure.
Of course, the list of tasks in both culture and other spheres is far longer. The national agenda needs to be shaped through broad-based public debate, become mandatory in political platforms and government programs, and be implemented through the consolidated effort of the entire society. In practice, however, things don’t go quite like this and sometimes not at all like this. The political class does one thing, the intellectuals and opinion-leaders something else, and broader society wants something altogether different. Still, given the limited resources, time and space for maneuvering, coordinated efforts to embody the nation’s priorities are not an idealistic whim but the guarantee that Ukraine can survive as a nation and a state.
Serhiy Zakharov is an artist from Donetsk known for his plywood caricatures of “Novorossia” leaders installed on the city streets in 2014. The installations resulted in his captivity in Donetsk that year. In his interview with The Ukrainian Week, Serhiy speaks about his complex relations with his city and the attitudes of the creative crowd to politicians
The Ukrainian Week talked with Acting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy on the act of aggression in the Kerch Strait and the military assistance to Ukraine.