Ukraine’s road to reform

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

Pro-Kyiv combatant. Kherson region, Ukraine. [Bem photography 0983194978/Flickr]

The EU must support Ukraine’s efforts at political and economic reform and help the country on its way to prosperity, argue David Lidington and Konrad Pawlik. 

David Lidington is the UK’s Europe minister and Konrad Pawlik is Poland’s deputy foreign minister.

Here is a little-known fact. In 1990, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Poland’s GDP was just 20% larger than Ukraine’s. Both countries were relatively similar in size and population.

Two and a half decades later, the gulf has widened. Poland’s economy has grown steadily at around 5% annually for much of the period, while Ukraine has stagnated. Why is this?

An obvious difference has been Poland’s accession to the European Union. But this, of itself, is insufficient to explain the different trajectories of these two countries post communism. There are two additional crucial factors, both of which provide important lessons for the EU today.

The first is the ability of a country to follow its own, sovereign path, without undue interference from powerful neighbours. Poland had this window of opportunity in the 1990s. Ukraine, on the other hand, is not being given the chance.

The conflict in east Ukraine has been raging for over a year and a half now. It is fuelled by Russian weapons and soldiers. Russia has also illegally annexed Crimea, a piece of Ukrainian territory, while continuing to destabilise the rest of the country. It has created a humanitarian crisis with over 1.5 million internally displaced people. And the Kremlin’s destructive propaganda is trying every day to undermine the legitimate, democratically elected Government in Kyiv.

The lesson for the EU here is that we must remain firm in our conviction to dissuade the Kremlin from this path. It is right that EU foreign ministers renewed sanctions on Russia last month, with one united voice. It is also right that they remain in place until the Minsk agreements are implemented – in full.

We must continue with our diplomacy, both via the EU and bilaterally, to persuade Russia’s decision-makers that destabilising Ukraine is in no-one’s interests, let alone their own.

But the second crucial differentiator between Poland and Ukraine has been Poland’s democratic and market reforms. Poland now has a thriving civil society and media, a market economy and competitive businesses.

These are not easy tasks. But successive Polish governments, business and civil society leaders have devoted themselves to these efforts over the past two and a half decades. And in Poland and the UK alike we see the benefit of being globally competitive, open trading nations. In Poland, tens of thousands of new businesses have been created and foreign investment has thrived with thousands of foreign firms providing jobs and exports for the country. Furthermore bureaucracy and regulation have been cut. The UK and Poland continue to work on this task together in the EU and beyond.

Ukraine is now turning to the same path, inspired by the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who took to the streets of Kyiv last year to demand a better future.

These efforts are bearing early fruits. Ukraine’s parliament has started reform across areas such as policing, tax, agriculture, and healthcare. Kyiv is also tackling some more difficult areas, such as judicial reform and anti-corruption. As a very practical example, last month the Ukrainian government created a new web-portal to provide services direct to citizens, squeezing out corruption and unnecessary bureaucracy.

We should applaud this progress.  Others do. Recently a senior figure from the IMF – an organisation not usually given to hyperbole – said that the new Ukrainian Government is the ‘most reform-oriented government’ that he had encountered in 20-plus years of dealing with Ukraine.

But there is still much more to do: reducing red tape, creating a climate where businesses can thrive, and curtailing the influence of oligarchs. We, the European Union, must do all we can to help these efforts. This requires practical support.

The UK’s new Good Governance Fund, and the EU’s Support Group for Ukraine are examples of this. Poland has also assisted Ukraine in its transformation efforts since 2005, spending close to €90 million of its Official Development Assistance between 2005 and 2014. Since 2014, it has intensified support to Ukraine focusing on decentralisation and good governance, as key drivers of change in a transformation period.

Furthermore, it has dispatched a team of Poland’s most prominent experts to help draft and implement legislation and train personnel. And this year Poland has again boosted its support to help introduce anti-corruption measures and to reform Ukraine’s public finances.

However, Ukraine’s democratic transformation will take time. We all know from our own experience, the road to reform is a long one. It will require patience and determination on the part of the Ukrainian people and their elected officials.

Equally importantly, it will require patience and determination from the European Union. The rights we enjoy, protected by the institutions and laws we often take for granted, were not secured overnight – they took time to develop and embed within our own societies.

So we urge our partners in Europe to reaffirm their commitment to support the efforts being made in Ukraine to carry through both economic and political reforms. Despite the challenge of the conflict in the east, the last year has seen welcome progress. We should support the government and people of Ukraine as they commit themselves to a programme of reform for the months and years ahead. 

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