by Maia Otarashvili*
The situation in Ukraine has become increasingly complicated in recent months. It’s been four years since the Kyiv Maidan protests erupted, yet the post-Maidan government isn’t living up to the public’s expectations. This year will also mark the four year anniversary of a number of historic events that were put into motion by the Maidan protests. In February 2014, after ordering the mass shooting and beating of protesters and failing to disperse them, the country’s corrupt, anti-Western President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, and the protesters seized control of government buildings. In March 2014, Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula after self-appointed Crimean officials held a referendum, the results of which alleged that 97% of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. In April 2014, pro-Russian separatists occupied government buildings in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, calling for referenda on independence in these regions as well. By June, Ukraine was embroiled in a civil war in its east. In May, Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire oligarch often known as the “Chocolate King” (for his famous chocolate business Roshen), was elected president on a reformist, pro-European Union platform.
The successes of the Maidan uprisings came at a high cost, but the promise of a brighter, European future seemed to be worth every sacrifice. Now, four years later, Ukraine is far from consolidating its democracy and joining the EU or NATO. Moreover, the country’s territorial integrity is still in jeopardy, and the much-needed democratic reforms have stalled. Even the reformist, pro-EU government of President Poroshenko is starting to look a lot like its predecessor. Allegations of Poroshenko’s corruption and disregard for the rule of law have brought out thousands of Ukrainian protesters into the streets yet again.
GRIM PUBLIC OPINION POLLS EXPLAIN IT ALL
On November 21, 2017, President Poroshenko placed flowers and lit candles at a monument on Independence Square where the Euromaidan protests unfolded in 2013. The ceremony was organized in order to commemorate the victims—over a hundred dead and dozens wounded during the protests. A lot has changed in Ukraine in the ensuing four years, but one thing remains: Ukrainians are still unhappy with their leaders. Starkly grim public opinion polls combined with frequent protests continue to remind the world of that unease.
A December 2017 International Republican Institute public opinion poll showed that most Ukrainians don’t think they are better off since Euromaidan – only 16% of them believe that the country is going in the right direction. The number peaked in April 2014 with 34% of Ukrainians agreeing that the country was going in the right direction. This was right after Euromaidan had succeeded in bringing about political change. Now, 67% of Ukrainians believe that the country is going in the wrong direction. That number has remained high, in low 70s since July 2015.
Moreover, a whopping 66% of Ukrainians believe that the economic situation in the country has worsened over the past 12 months, and the same number of Ukrainians say their households’ economic situation has also worsened over the past 12 months. When asked if they expect the economic situation in the country to improve or worsen over the next 12 months, 31% of Ukrainians said they expect it to worsen, 27% expect no change, and only 15% expect an improvement.
The opinion polls are even grimmer when it comes to the public’s trust in their political leaders. 79% of Ukrainians say they do not approve of President Poroshenko’s activities, and 76% say they do not approve of the activities of the Ukrainian cabinet of ministers. 88% said they did not approve of the activities of the parliament, but that number has generally remained high in the post-Maidan years. Even in 2014-2015, it hovered at high 70s and low 80s. Moreover, there is not one politician who seems to enjoy great public support. The politician with the largest number of “favorable” votes is Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a former Ukrainian MP, leader of the “Okean Elzy” band , but even his approval rating was at 37% according to the poll (still 38% unfavorable). Anatoliy Hrytsenko, the head of the political party “civic position,” is the second “favorable” politician at 24%, and the controversial opposition leader and former Prime Minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko, is only at 20% favorability rate.
Ukrainians protested quite frequently in 2017, particularly in the fall, as demands for President Poroshenko’s resignation became more regular. The demonstrations were led by Misha Saakashvili, the eccentric former Georgian president. At the end of his controversial presidency in Georgia, Saakashvili briefly moved to the United States, but soon joined Poroshenko’s government first as an adviser, and later as the governor of Odessa. Saakashvili even gave up his Georgian citizenship for a Ukrainian one in order to take the governor’s post in Odessa. But he quickly became disillusioned by Poroshenko’s alleged unwillingness to seriously support Saakashvili’s crusade against corruption in Ukraine, and left his position. Saakashvili ended up forming his own opposition party and has been causing even more controversy ever since. In recent months, he was stripped off his Ukrainian citizenship over accusations of lying on his citizenship application, and later was suspected of plotting a coup using funding from illegal sources emanating from Ukrainian oligarchs in Russia. The Saakashvili-led demonstrations seem like a big deal, particularly as his antics continue to make the news headlines in the West—the latest one being his attempt to jump from the roof of his apartment building as Ukrainian special forces tried to detain him. But on the list of most favorable Ukrainian politicians, according to the IRI poll, he comes well after President Poroshenko, at number 11, with only 13% approval rating.
STALLED REFORMS PUT UKRAIN’S FUTURE IN QUESTION
There are three central issues that Ukrainians cared most deeply about when they risked their lives at Euromaidan: EU integration, combating corruption, and enjoying stable and reliable rule of law. In addition to that, economic prosperity and territorial integrity are also important national priorities. Not surprisingly, when the latest IRI poll asked which issues were most important in Ukraine, 46% said it was corruption, 43% said it was the military conflict in Donbas, and 36% named growth of prices/inflation. Sadly, the post-Maidan government has failed to deliver on most of these popular demands.
On paper, Ukraine has finally overcome the economic recession of 2014-2015, and is now enjoying modest GDP growth, but the people have yet to benefit from it. The economic growth has been coupled with rising prices and inflation, thus a majority of Ukrainians are unable to benefit from the uptick in the GDP indicators.
Furthermore, Ukraine has not yet established a credible rule of law. Only 6% of Ukrainians approve of the judicial system, as the reforms in this regard, much like everywhere else, have stalled. Probably one of the starkest failures of the Poroshenko government has been its deliberate and rapid undermining of the independence of the National Anticorruption Bureau (NABU). The government’s inability and even unwillingness to take serious anticorruption measures has been so apparent to the Ukrainians that it has inspired the series of growing protests. President Poroshenko came under major scrutiny in 2017 as his proposal for the anticorruption court fell way short of meeting the Venice Commission’s recommendations. By all measures, should his proposed legislation pass, the anticorruption court will be an ineffective sham, rather than a much needed independent institution that Ukrainians have been demanding for the purpose of tackling rampant kleptocratic system.
To top off the series of alarming mistakes, in December 2017, the parliament dismissed the chairman of its anticorruption committee, Yegor Solobiev. Mr. Solobiev, one of the key Euromaidan participants and an avid anti-corruption activists in Ukraine, says the government has been attacking the anti-corruption institutions because “the kleptocracy realizes that the combination of an anti-corruption police force and court will put most of them in jail or send them scurrying to Russia where corrupt Ukrainians hide.”
Arguably the most important gain for Ukraine since Euromaidan has come in the form of greater EU integration. Ukraine now enjoys a visa-free travel regime with the EU, as well as a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. Its EU Association Agreement went into full force in September 2017.
The Poroshenko government’s derailment away from a democratic path towards the path of authoritarianism comes just as Western commitments to Ukraine have increased and solidified. After years of hesitation, the US has committed to arming Ukraine. The Trump administration’s solid pro-Ukraine stance has come as a surprise to many, and has recently gained a lot of momentum. As the Atlantic Council’s Peter Dickinson recently explained, the US has done everything to stress the Kremlin’s direct responsibility in the war in Donbas: “the Trump White House has spent much of 2017 building a team that underlines its non-negotiable support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” Dickinson concluded that “the current political possibilities in America clearly favor robust support for Ukraine as part of Washington’s broader opposition to Russian hybrid aggression. In that respect, Kyiv has considerably more reason for optimism going into 2018 than Moscow.”
WESTERN SUPPORT CANNOT SOLVE EVERYTHING
But despite the favorable Western stance, Ukraine must get its internal affairs in order. At the moment, all signs point to further unrest and instability for 2018.
In the upcoming 2019 parliamentary elections, voters will have a hard time choosing their leaders, as currently the most “popular” party, Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party, only enjoys a 9% approval rate. Ukrainians seem to be ready to oust their current political leaders. 47% of the responders even said that they would like to see early parliamentary elections happen in Ukraine, but at the same time, 22% said they wouldn’t even vote. Considering the tremendous disillusionment of the Ukrainian people with their political leaders, it is not surprising that 30% of the responders said they remain undecided and wouldn’t know for whom they would vote.
In 2018, Ukraine’s internal stability is going to be crucial in many ways. Should the Poroshenko government continue to backslide on its promises to democratize the country, it will not only jeopardize its own future, but also the generous Western support it has enjoyed thus far. As Stephen Blank, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, recently wrote, “while weapons transfers have been authorized (licenses to export), the democratic failures may furnish a pretext for not giving Ukraine the anti-tank, anti-artillery, and anti-mortar systems it needs to defend itself. Additionally, Russia’s greatest weapon against Ukraine is the corruption of its elite. Thus, Poroshenko’s refusal to move faster on an independent anticorruption court or other reforms merely ensures that sooner or later Russia will find it easier to subvert Ukraine from within.” Already the EU has withheld a payment of 600 million euros in aid money to Ukraine because of unfulfilled aid conditions.
Since the start of the Euromaidan protests all eyes have been on Ukraine, as most experts have understood that the success of post-Maidan Ukraine would have broader regional implications. If Ukraine succeeds, people living under authoritarian regimes in other post-Soviet states will be convinced that not all peaceful uprisings lead to chaos and instability. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also aware of this significance, and has benefitted from Ukraine’s instability in many ways. Putin has continuously weaved the failures of post-Maidan Ukraine into his anti-democratic rhetoric at home. At his recent press conference, Putin made a convincing case: “do you want one Maidan after another? … I’m sure that the majority of Russian citizens don’t want this, and won’t allow this.” He spoke of Euromaidan as an expression of political radicalism and claimed that Maidan-type events lead to a state that turns into “some muddy puddle from which Oligarchs catch goldfish for themselves, just like it was happening in Russia in the 1990s and as it is now happening in Ukraine. … We don’t want a second edition of Ukraine in Russia, do we? No, we don’t want it and we won’t allow it.” Unfortunately, the Ukrainian government has not made a convincing counter-argument against this worn-out narrative.
Will President Poroshenko choose to prioritize the popular demands of Ukrainians and the reasonably fair aid conditions coming from the West over the safety of the kleptocracy that surrounds him? He may still have a chance to save his presidency if he chooses to alter his current path. Otherwise, he may have a hard time surviving until the 2019 presidential elections, considering the growing volume of protesters who now demand Poroshenko’s impeachment. All signs now point to the fact that the survival of Poroshenko as well as his government in 2018 will directly depend on their actions and the world will be watching.
*Maia Otarashvili is Research Fellow and Program Manager of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. She holds an MA in Globalization, Development, and Transitions from the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her current research is focused on the post-communist countries of the Eurasia region, including the Black Sea and Caucasus states.