How to help Ukraine help itself

Europe should try to recruit Moscow as a stakeholder in an economic settlement for Ukraine, and encourage Ukranians to take responsibility.

According to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the front-runner to be Ukraine’s acting prime minister, there is a simple way for the country to avoid the fate of a failed revolution without a leader: “take responsibility.”

But, though Ukrainian leaders like talking about it, taking responsibility is not something they are fond of doing. In fact, they have built an entire political and foreign policy machine to avoid it.

The courage of Ukrainian citizens must be met with generosity from the West in the form of open markets, visa-free travel and help in reforming a broken system. But Westerners must do it in a way that empowers Ukrainian citizens. The key to a successful Ukraine government now is for responsibility to become a reality — particularly among the political and business elite.

After the adrenaline and sacrifice of a revolution, the business of reconstruction and administration can be prosaic. But in Kiev, the contrast between the bravery of the street protesters and the venality of Ukraine’s permanent political class is pronounced. Today the political class is seeking to absolve itself of responsibility for Ukraine’s problems by pinning as much blame as possible on Viktor Yanukovich, the run-away president who has been indicted with mass killings.

However, many of Ukraine’s opposition leaders, such as Yatseniuk, Petro Poroschenko and Yulia Tymoschenko, have been complicit in the creation of the current system. Even people newer to political life, such as Vitaliy Kitschko, have been trying to keep up with civic leaders like Volodymyr Parasiuk, the youthful leader, rather than setting the pace of events in Maidan Square.

As Andrew Wilson argues in a paper “Supporting Ukraine’s Revolution,” the European Union must offer all the help it can so that Ukraine can build a sound democratic system on a legal basis – one seen as legitimate by its citizens. The EU should also offer help in the investigation of crimes, collection of illegal weapons and conduct of elections.

Unless the leaders of Maidan are encouraged to form political parties and run for office, the response to the crisis will be politics as usual, along with a growing cultural chasm between civic and political leaders.

People in Kiev do not even need to look to the Middle East to see how the hope for a new beginning in the Arab Spring was gradually extinguished in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain or Syria. For this marks the 10th anniversary of Ukraine’s own failed uprising —  the Orange Revolution. Ukrai

Ukraine’s political leaders have also sought to avoid responsibility by hiding behind the international organizations. As Ukraine teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, the EU has offered a combination of grants and loans. But it wants to link the majority of its aid to conditions set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The fund has three main concerns: to bring down Ukraine’s exchange rates; to get Kiev to embrace a flexible exchange rate regime; and to end the subsidies for gas prices.

These policies, however, will allow the ultra-rich to skim off profits while making exports uncompetitive and wasting billions — the energy subsidies allegedly redistribute an extraordinary 8 percent of Ukraine’s annual gross domestic product. Under these sorts of policies — combined with 57 varieties of corruption —  the Ukrainian economy has collapsed while its debt levels have sky-rocketed.

In 2008, Ukraine had a 12 percent public debt to GDP ratio. Today it is 60 percent. It is not hard to understand why the West does not want to throw good money after bad, but the IMF conditions will likely make life worse for many Ukrainians before it gets better; driving savings down, fuel prices up and eliminating thousands of jobs.

If the West wants to impose conditions that have popular resonance and make a difference in addressing the basic problem, it may explore a different tack. Robert Cooper, the scholar-diplomat who used to be a senior EU official, points to the corruption of the Ukraine’s Parliament as the root of many problems. “The technocratic conditions of the IMF will make no difference,” Cooper explained. “The only conditions that would change behavior would be a law forcing all parliamentarians to disclose all their assets and income and account for them.”

The biggest escape for Ukraine’s elite is geopolitics. Over the last few years, Kiev has sought to off-load responsibility for its country’s problems onto Moscow and Brussels — playing the two against each other and extracting rent from both sides. The one thing more awkward than losing Ukraine, the two sides discovered, is winning it and discovering one has to pay the bill for a corrupt elite.

Now the EU faces the risk of owning Ukraine’s problems. If Europeans press home their advantage, Moscow could make it even more expensive through a mix of trade sanctions, energy cut-offs and financial pressure.

Some western capitals view the Kiev revolution as an act of emancipation from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall 15 years ago allowed Germany to  escape the Soviet Union. But Ukraine’s history, its economic profile and its demography all make it unrealistic to expect a clean break between Kiev and Moscow.

Now that Yanukovich is gone, Europe should try to recruit Moscow as a stakeholder in an economic settlement for Ukraine. This will be difficult, but Europeans should remember that Ukraine has a genius for turning victories into defeat.

Just look at the fate of Yanukovich, who declared victory in the 2004 elections, only to be pushed out of office by the Orange Revolution, which was sparked by his vote-rigging. The Orange leaders suffered an equally hopeless fate in the 2010 elections when they were trounced by their old rival.

As Europeans contemplate their next move, they must recognize the fragility of their own fate. If history shows that Ukrainians revolt in poetry, they also govern in prose.

But Europeans must encourage them to take responsibility for both prose and passion. Rather than aiming to drag Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence and absolve its elites from national responsibility, the goal of the West should be to help Ukraine to help itself.

This article has been published at

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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