How to react to Kyiv’s political crisis

At a certain point, Europe will have to decide wether it wants implementation of Minsk or reforms in Ukraine – it can't put its own weight behind both.

When Ukraine’s Minister of Economy resigned on 3 February, citing corruption and nepotism among the inner circle of the current president and prime minister, the revelations caused a major political crisis. Ukrainian civil society, reform-oriented politicians, and international observers, had long suspected that key leaders of the “kamikaze government” were less serious about the reform effort (and much more tied to vested interests) than had been publicly acknowledged. The announcement of this corruption led Julia Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna party and Andriy Sadovyi's Self Reliance party to leave the government, and triggered a subsequent vote of no confidence against Yatseniuk's government that failed by just a narrow margin. The way in which this vote failed is more telling than anything else: Yatseniuk was saved because the Opposition Bloc – the successor party of the Party of Regions, led by Viktor Yanukovych the corrupt pro-Russian president ousted by the Maidan-revolution – left the Rada before taking a vote, thereby implicitly backing the government. This alone was a kick in the teeth for the reform movement.

Can we say, at this stage, that the reform-movement failed? The answer is no. Not quite yet. Over the course of the last year, reformist ministers have successfully made it into government and pushed for reforms. Some former Maidan activists, experts, and western-educated reformers also secured posts as deputy-ministers, heads of departments and in other administrative posts, enabling them to push for reforms from within. The main problem has been that the “old guard” in parts of the government and the bureaucracy tried to fence off any meaningful reform of the judiciary and the secret-services, and to draw out the fight against corruption for as long as possible in order to delay having to give up their personal financial interests. Even after the resignation of Aivaras Abromavičius, the fight for or against reforms has pitched one faction against the other within the government. Ukrainian politics is no longer dominated by just the traditional government versus opposition battle, but also a cross-cutting battle between those who are pro-reform and those against them. Now that the vote of no confidence has failed, the constitution prevents any renewed attempt to stage another for the next six months. However, if a government cannot be formed before 16 March, the president will have to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections. New elections would likely deal a significant blow to the parties of the president and prime minister, making both, in effect, more willing to make concessions to reformers and the current government than to seek further confrontation. If, in doing so, they are able to form a new government, they could gain at least another six months in power.

For Europe, and particularly for Germany, salvaging the reformist camp within the Ukrainian government is a key priority. Visiting Kyiv a week after the vote of no confidence, the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French colleague Jean-Marc Ayrault, urged the government in Kyiv to stick to the reform agenda. In unusually clear terms the two foreign ministers warned Kyiv that macro-financial assistance would be withdrawn if the government veers from the path of reforms. The IMF also stated that it will stop its payments to Ukraine unless a government is formed and progress is made in the fight against corruption. Ukraine is dependent on international financial assistance to stabilise its budget and the currency, so withholding this assistance gives the West significant leverage with which to demand structural reforms. Civil society organisations are also pushing for reforms, leaving the EU in a strong position to strengthen modernising forces in parliament and civil society within Ukraine.

However, as important and necessary as Steinmeier's and Ayrault's words were on Ukraine's domestic agenda, they both acted clumsily on the subsequent meeting as part of the Normandy format. Elections in the Donbas became the top priority once more in the negotiations and a clear solution is needed for this issue. The problem in the negotiation process on this item is that Russia has not lived up to any of the agreed preconditions for the elections as outlined in points one to three of the Minsk agreement. To start with, there has been no ceasefire, no free access to East Ukraine for OSCE observers, and no prisoner-exchanges. Holding elections in June would require Ukrainian politicians to start campaigning now if they are to stand a chance of winning any political offices in the Donbas. But they are currently banned from even visiting the region – let alone campaigning. In a region that is under foreign military control and where a war is still continuing, the prospect of holding any elections is unrealistic. Elections under Russian guns would only legitimise Moscow's proxies – and delegitimise the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which would have to monitor the election.

To Ukrainians, the Western push for elections in the region and Steinmeier's “balanced” critique of both Ukraine and Moscow for failing to implement Minsk items – despite the fact that Moscow is accountable for 85 percent of all non-implementation issues – is a sign that the West wants to write off the war in the Donbas as fast as possible, create some “fake progress” and continue business as usual with Russia. This raises the question of how serious the West really is on Ukraine's reform course, or whether it would settle for a little fake-progress in that area too?

European politicians generally underestimate how intertwined their actions on reforms are with the Minsk agreement. While French and German diplomats form a front against a non-cooperative Russia behind closed doors, their reluctance to communicate their frustration publicly and instead pick on Kyiv creates bad feeling in Ukraine. More than this it puts Ukrainian politicians who try to push for the constitutional amendment and the special status law (the only issue Ukraine is behind with in its implementation of the Minsk agreement) under suspicion of being “national traitors”. Usually this accusation impacts mainly reformers and progressive forces and provides the “old guard” and populists with plenty of reasons to portray all other pressures on Kyiv (reforms, anti-corruption efforts, etc.) as an indicator that Kyiv is being mistreated. In addition, it reinforces resentment and raises more suspicion about the EU's overall goals in Kyiv. At a certain point, Europe will have to decide wether it wants implementation of Minsk or reforms in Ukraine. It can't put its own weight behind both, and putting all of its efforts behind an agreement that has reached a stalemate, will be the wrong choice in the long run.

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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