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What on Earth Just Happened in Ukraine?

Author:  Simon Hoellerbauer
February 19, 2016

What on Earth Just Happened in Ukraine?

The February 3 resignation of Ukraine’s Minister of Economic Development and Trade Aivaras Abromavicius sparked another political crisis in Kyiv, a crisis that deepened with a failed vote of no-confidence on February 16. The governing coalition in parliament is unraveling and early parliamentary elections look likely. Analysts fear that a populist or even radical government may come to power, undoing the progress that has been made.

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Abromavicius performed admirably, cutting the bloat in his ministry almost in half and driving the privatization of corrupt state enterprises. In his resignation speech, Abromavicius accused Ihor Kononenko, a key player in the Poroshenko Bloc, of attempting to place his own deputy minister in Abromavicius’ ministry to be responsible for state gas and oil company Naftogaz and other state enterprises. By specifically naming Kononenko in his resignation speech, Abromavicius wanted to pressure President Petro Poroshenko and the political establishment to put reforms into high gear and draw the international community’s attention to problems within the government. Abromavicius’ short tenure shows just how difficult attempts to reform are in a country where clientelism and cronyism run deep.

The West’s reaction to the crisis has been both outspoken and frustratingly vague. The West has been unwilling to target the real causes of the crisis. Backing pro-Europe politicians because they support US interests does not mean that one can turn a blind-eye to their failures and flaws. Politicians must be responsive to their own citizens and the needs of their country.

Although a group of 10 ambassadors to Ukraine released a statement expressing strong disappointment at Abromavicius’ resignation and the unwillingness of the Ukrainian parliament to focus on the necessary reforms almost immediately after the minister resigned, the statement referred only to “parochial differences” among Ukraine’s leaders that need to be “set aside” and to “vested interests that have hindered the country’s progress for decades” that must be put “in the past.” On February 10, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde referred to “vested interests” and warned that the IMF could halt its financial support of Ukraine if the government did not do a better job fighting corruption, though she failed to mention any names.

Abromavicius’ high-stakes gamble worked, to some extent: the IMF suspended the next tranche of Ukraine’s $17.5 billion IMF program, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) has already opened an investigation into Abromavicius’s claims, and Kononenko has suspended himself from serving as first deputy chairman of the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko.

The international community also took notice. But the imprecise nature of its initial response opened the door to the high political theater of February 16, the consequences of which threaten to undermine reform significantly. In the morning of February 16, Poroshenko sacrificed Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, seen by many as protecting the interests of the old guard, and called for Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to resign. But Poroshenko was double dealing: he called for Yatsenyuk’s resignation while hoping that he would remain in office, albeit in a weakened state. On the evening of February 16, the parliament deemed the government’s work “unsatisfactory,” but, paradoxically, failed to push Yatsenyuk out in a no-confidence vote by 32 votes. No issues have really been addressed: Kononenko remains in the party, the coalition is fracturing, and the lack of reform has not been addressed.

The West, and especially the United States, has been loath to criticize Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk directly, having supported them as they worked to stabilize the country after disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Moscow. The United States, like everyone else, craves stability and predictability. Ukraine’s government, however, is not stable; it is stagnant. Backing Poroshenko unequivocally is no longer the answer, as the greatest obstacle to reform may be that Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk never escaped from the old system that the Euromaidan hoped to dispel. They have not been able to defeat the oligarchic interests that far too often dictate policy in Ukraine, especially as their allies often represent those very interests. The West’s representatives in Ukraine must name names, including oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and attach concrete strings to the support they are giving Ukraine.

Poroshenko must do more if he wants Ukraine to become a normal European country. His government is extremely unpopular, as a November IRI poll shows: 70 percent of Ukrainians disapprove of the job he is doing, 82 percent disapprove of the job Yatsenyuk is doing, and 83 percent disapprove of the job parliament is doing. Ukrainians want to see visible progress on corruption and reform, and they want their bottom line to improve. The West must support them by publicly pressuring Poroshenko to purge the elements in his bloc and government who are dragging their feet on reform, leaving sentimentality and “vested interests” behind. Unfortunately, Poroshenko himself may be caught too deep in the mire for this to be possible.

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. He can be found on Twitter at @hoellerbauers

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