More than javelins, Ukraine needs change

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Maidan square was a symbol of hope during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. [Alexxx Malev/Flickr]

I remember Ukraine as a friendlier place. But my country’s recent uptick of expelling foreigners it considers inconvenient belies a less hospitable, darker trend. The government that grew out of Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Peoples’ Dignity” now has some Ukrainians reminiscing about the more tolerant, less corrupt government it overthrew, writes Serhiy Lyovochkin.

Serhiy Lyovochkin is a member of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, a leader of the Opposition Bloc, and previously served as a top aide to two Ukrainian presidents.

Earlier this month, state security services expelled Antonio Pampliega and Angel Sastre, two Spanish journalists covering the conflict in the East in a move condemned by Human Rights Watch and others. Previously, the government set up a list of foreign journalists whose reporting is suspected of running afoul of “national interests”. The Committee to Protect Journalists regularly issues warnings about Ukraine’s treatment both of foreign and its own journalists.

More bizarre, though, is the case of the former Governor of Odesa, who was last month stripped of his Ukrainian passport and early Monday returned to Ukraine on a train from Poland – against the will of the Ukrainian government.

Mikheil Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia, volunteered himself as an enthusiastic advocate of Ukraine’s post-2014 government and tried to apply his much-vaunted corruption-fighting techniques in Odesa, but last year resigned in frustration. Jacques Mallet du Pan, the 18th Century French journalist who once observed that revolutions, “like Saturn, consume their own children”, would nod sadly today in recognition of what’s happening in Ukraine.

Corruption, which sparked the “Maidan” uprising, has not abated – despite so many hopeful reports. A parliamentarian from President Petro Poroshenko’s own party accused the government of rigging liquid gas prices in order to profit while Ukrainians endure austerity and a price hikes. This may be why the current government’s job approval has fallen as low as 4.4% with over 90% of Ukrainians judging his government’s anti-corruption campaign to be a failure, according to Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, Ukraine, which was once the most democratic of the former Soviet countries, is fast becoming as autocratic as our neighbours. Editors like strana.ua’s Ihor Guzhva are facing trumped up charges while opposition parliamentary deputies and many politicians, such as Alexander Yefremov and Alexander Lavrinovich, are routinely singled out for selective prosecution.  Lavrinovich, a former minister of justice, is being charged for having retained a major US law firm six years ago to assist his ministry in a prosecution.  Current Ukrainian authorities seem intent on cashing in on the fever of America’s “Russia-gate,” and extracting every political advantage from it they can.

In stark contrast, no charges whatsoever have been brought in the last three and half years for trigger-pullers in the deaths of the “Holy Hundred” protestors killed during Maidan whom the government once martyred but now seems to have forgotten.

Yet the only thing we in Ukraine are not running out of is hope. We hope for an end to the conflict in the East, for the real unification of our country, and for an economy that is as strong as our entrepreneurial spirit. If there is a “Ukrainian Dream,” then it consists of living as freely as our Cossack forebears, at peace with our neighbours, and integrated with the West and the East, essentially forming a bridge between two worlds. No one will deliver this dream, our experience makes clear. We have to realise it for ourselves.

And that requires three things right now:

First, we have to eliminate any confusion between the survival of our nation and the survival of a political clan. Cracking down on journalists in the name of national security is always the wrong strategy. Our first priority today must be ending the conflict and restoring a decent life to our one and a half million displaced, fellow citizens and the millions more who have been alienated by a fratricide that can be brought heel with enough political will.

Second, we must reboot our system to realities of today. A top-heavy government with too much authority centred in Kyiv invites corruption and disappoints the constituents whose basic needs it consistently fails to meet. Devolve more power and resources to the regions, and empower law enforcement and the judiciary to be more than a political weapon. It’s time for constitutional changes to make our government more accountable.

And third, it is time to refresh some degree of trust between citizens and their government. The only real change most Ukrainians have seen since Maidan is the radical spike in their utility bills while household budgets remain as strapped as ever. Parliamentary elections are due in 2019, and Poroshenko has essentially one and half years left on his mandate. The looming crisis in North Korea highlights the costs of indulging bad behaviour while hoping for peace. If the West does not pressure its friends and does not demand real action in the name of peace and democracy, there is very little chance of the global world becoming a better place.

Ukraine can conduct a policy of peace and real reform, and must be held to a higher standard.