Ukraine’s state reform is a vital national security interest

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

Maidan Square, Kyiv. [Georgi Gotev]

Ukraine today is very different from what it was two years ago, before the Revolution of Dignity, not only because of the illegal occupation of the Crimea, and parts of the Donbass, writes Kálmán Mizsei.

Kálmán Mizsei was Head of the EU Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform in Ukraine in 2014-15.

In nation and state-building, Ukraine has achieved much during this period, partly and paradoxically in reaction to external aggression.  

Much has been written about the strongly emerging new Ukrainian civic national identity. However, still ahead is the need to create the kind of modern state that has been the fundamental demand of the revolution, under the European banner. Even in this respect, much has been done. The country’s ability to defend itself from the real external threat has improved incredibly. At the beginning, it depended on the heroism of the volunteers. By now, gradually, the regular army has taken the lead. Surely it needs much more reform to sustain its capability to protect the country from external threats, but the situation is incomparable to what it was in March 2014. 

Other vital progress Ukraine has made is in the macroeconomic area. In spite of the war, as well as the explicit actions of the Russian Federation to ruin Ukraine’s economy – energy blockades, obstructing the debt restructuring – the government has managed to deliver on the IMF conditionalities. It has also made progress in consolidating the banking sector. THe government simplified the tax system and created close to market energy prices, thus narrowing the earlier, huge, rent-seeking opportunities by chosen oligarchs. Again, much is still to be done, but progress is undeniable.

In 2016, the country will be able to progress probably in much different international circumstances. And again, paradoxically, the two potential pieces of good news – expected resumed economic growth, and a lesser likelihood of Russian military aggression – may induce complacency in facing those challenges that are vital in sustaining Ukrainian statehood over the long term. By now, Ukraine has two enemies, a hegemonic Russia, and corruption that eats away the fabric of the state, from inside out.  The revolutionaries of the Maidan have been deeply disappointed by the two years that followed. 

It is therefore important to ask why reforms have not much happened yet in a country where the weak functioning of the state is such an obvious existential threat to the state and the nation itself. Foreigners are often surprised and frustrated by the seeming inability of Ukrainian leaders to reform the state. Ukraine is a country where the political class is dominated by incredibly rich oligarchs, who capture the state in a way that also characterized Russia until Putin’s first years.  A few oligarchs dominate, This interest is in part the cause of the revolt against Yanukovich, who wanted to emerge as another Putin.   

By the time of the late Kuchma presidency, this oligopolistic situation well emerged. It helped that, thanks to lawlessness, there was no division between politics and business. The more conflict of interest, the better, and only very large was beautiful. If you are not very powerful, the odds are someone else will take it all.  A similar structure in Russia was then reorganized in the Putin-era into something like a centrally organized criminal enterprise.  Since Russia emerged, thanks to the oil bonanza, much richer than Ukraine, Yanukovich found it all the more compelling to try and imitate this pattern. A second revolution against his arbitrary power grab swept away this experiment.

However, this pluralistic oligarchic structure, in spite of the existential threat it causes to statehood, is actually very difficult to dismantle, particularly the corrupt behavior that has permeated the whole of society, where every state service and function is for sale.

As we learned, it is crucial to reform – or neutralize – its core, the all powerful and largely criminal system of prosecutors. Their power was established in the emerging terror state of Stalin; while later its ruthlessness much decreased, its arbitrary nature has remained, retaining the upper hand in the courts as well as vis-à-vis the police.  It is not accidental that in the fabric of the post-Soviet states, including in Ukraine, the chief prosecutor is appointed by the president, who derives much of his power from this. 

In spite of the law on the public prosecutor, this deadly power has not yet been dismantled. The strategy of the reformers in the prosecutor’s office to induce change from the bottom by rehiring the staff and leaders in the newly organized local prosecutors’ offices has largely failed to make a decisive difference. And the much-demanded constitutional change that removes the central role of the prosecutor in the criminal procedure and paves the way to reform the court system is subject to delaying tactics. 

By now, many in government, civil society and among international friends of Ukraine, know what is needed to make an irreversible difference. But only with very determined leadership can this happen. Simultaneous action is needed on a range of policy issues to achieve real results. One of these components, police reform, is under way. But the judiciary, a big irritant for people who seek real justice, has not changed.

However, in the type of competition that the above described oligarchic politics induces, it is not easy to give up for a president political – and often economic – positions that control over the prosecution and the security services provides. Here comes the essence of the problem. In most of the post-Soviet space (with the notable big exception of the Baltics), conflicts of interest for politicians are either unregulated, or regulations are disregarded. This is also the case in Ukraine, and is the primary reason (why politicans) keep control over the judiciary, particularly the prosecution, an essential driver of politics, and a big impediment to reform.

When the international community and civil society focuse only on the repressive components of fighting corruption, it is a dubious strategy.  The truth is that the country’s leadership needs to act on many fronts, simultaneously, in order to achieve the change of mentality in both high and low levels of government. The EU, including its Advisory Mission that I was leading in 2014-15, have the intellectual capacity to help in this broad front of actions that should include public administration reform, implementation of conflict of interest regulation, sweeping deregulation, involving an intelligent decentralization, reducing the state apparatus, a strong salary reform in the public sector (both including the judiciary) and also pursuing persecution of corruption – but with maximum care to insure independence of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, and the anti-corruption prosecutor. 

While the political determination is still only emerging, an educated dialogue, that takes into account this complexity, of the donors and civil society, with the president and the government, may give the chance for breakthrough reforms. Those reforms remain essential to insuring the independent statehood of Ukraine.