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12 August, 2019  ▪  Andriy Holub

Digitize, digitize, let nothing new evade your eyes

How the President’s team replaces answers to uncomfortable questions

The main political message during the Viktor Yanukovych Administration was stability. At the time, political advisors recommended that the fugitive ex-president’s blue&white team add this word to any situation that seemed uncertain. How to vote in an election? For stability, of course, because this means a better living standard and a growing economy. Not enough reforms? That’s ok, at least the situation is “stable.” What do our political rivals want? Obviously to disrupt “stability” and bring economic shocks. In the final analysis, Yanukovych’s “stable” governing ended in an economic mess and war. 

The Poroshenko Administration went through a number of phases. Initially, Ukraine’s fifth president put the emphasis on reforms. But when he found himself faced with too much criticism Eurointegration became the top priority and he developed the habit of adding the adjective “European” to just about every circumstance and event. Even his party, Solidarnist, became “Yevropeyska” when he lost is bid to be re-elected president. In contrast to Yanukovych, whose “stability” remained little more than a word echoing from television screens, Poroshenko had specific reasons for his rhetoric. The signing of the Association Agreement with the EU and gaining a visa-free regime were good news that he made a point of linking to his efforts. Gradually, the government began to use the term “European” with everything, at all levels, from new commuter trains to the airport to new toilets in county centers.

For Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the sacred term could well become “digitalization” and various derivatives like “e-government,” e-democracy” and “the smartphone country.” There are a number of indications of this. For one thing, various members of the president’s team bring up digitalization precisely when they don’t have a clear answer to an inconvenient question. This was when Yanukovych would pull out the “stability” card and Poroshenko would switch to talking about accelerated access to the European Union. Such examples in the current administration include statements about online referenda in response to questions about how the war in the Donbas might be stopped or constant references to digital methods of combating corruption and selecting personnel.

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The reality that the new Ukrainian president has tried so long to avoid is catching up with him, as it did his predecessors. And suddenly the gleam of “digitalization” has lost its luster. Russian occupying forces continue to kill Ukrainian soldiers, and Zelenskiy, as usual, called Vladimir Putin to ask him to influence “the other side.” And Putin once again pretends that he has no connection to the war in Ukraine. The net result is that the Ukrainian president ends up in a very awkward position: What on earth an online referendum might add to the situation remains unclear.

As to the selection of personnel, the LIFT project that the Zelenskiy team launched is nearly three months old. The idea was to find quality candidates and ideas to develop the country. Instead, the entire staff of officials at the highest level has been appointed according to the tried-and-true principle of personal connections or recommendations. Only in mid-July did the new Administrator of Kherson Oblast, Yuriy Husyev, announce that he was looking to put together a team of his own using the presidential online platform. The oblast is now being treated as a pilot project. At the same time, it’s still not very clear who will actually select people and based on what principles. The site is operating only in its beta version without any official information about the project management and to whom the site actually belongs. A minor detail: the first vacancy that was posted on the site was for the manager of the LIFT project. The posting is no longer there, nor is there any information about who won the competition, how many applicants there were, and whether there even is a project manager at this point.

The idea of new approaches to combating corruption using digital approaches not only led to a scandal but also clearly demonstrated for the first time that there are various centers of influence in the new administration. The trigger was an announcement by future MP and one of the candidates being considered for head of the Sluha Narodufaction in the Rada, David Arakhamia, about monitoring anomalies in the way MPs vote using the Big Brother analytical tool. Soon afterwards, he backtracked, saying that the analogy with the dictator from George Orwell’s 1984 was just a joke.

By then, future colleagues in the faction, Mykhailo Dubinskiy and Maksym Buzhanskiy had called him on it. The former is a one-time presenter on 1+1 and is close to Ihor Kolomoyskiy, although he denies this. The latter was elected in an FPTP district in Kolomoyskiy’s own Dnipro. Incidentally, both have already announced that they are setting up a joint MP group within the president’s faction. The two came close to accusing Arakhamia of trying to take away free will from elected deputies.

The idea, in and of itself, is nothing especially revolutionary or unusual. What it does is analyze data using neural networks, a practice that is quite common in business. It really can expose an MP who votes exclusively in the interests of a particular sphere of business or oligarch. It has little to do with total control. However, questions also remain. First of all, as an application first launched in 1996, “Big Brother” doesn’t offer anything new. Who defends whose interests in the Rada is generally evident after a few months of a new convocation’s work without bothering with neural networks. Secondly, Sluha Naroduis still trying to cover over patchy places in nice wrapping. In this case, it’s the quickly formed and untested list of candidates from the party. The system is already starting to crash, as the conflict between Arakhamia and his faction colleagues showed.

When it comes to the overall concept of digitalization, one of the president’s first decrees was an Action Plan to improve the quality of mobile internet in rural areas. This is a key issue, as inadequate internet coverage is possibly the biggest obstacle to developing public e-services in Ukraine. The decree calls for releasing a series of frequencies in various ranges that are currently being used by private companies. A partial solution was supposed to be decided by August 1. Predictably, no agreement had been reached with the companies as of publication. However, the issue really is being tackled and business representatives announced that negotiations continue.

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With every passing day, the path to electronic governing is being associated with the official course of the new administration. But in addition to benefits, this is also harming the very idea of ubiquitous provision of e-services. The paradox is that the main driver and main threat to digitalizing Ukraine is now the political career of Zelenskiy and his team. This makes it that much more important to be able to separate healthy initiatives from those that serve only to provide publicity. Otherwise, there is a huge risk that digitalization will turn into a subject for jokes, as happened in the past with “stability” and “Eurointegration.”

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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