Yanukovych’s Ukraine one year on


January 11, 2011

Yanukovych’s Ukraine one year on

While Ukraine still faces many challenges, 2010 was without doubt a year of progress with new President, Viktor Yanukovych, carrying out key reforms much to the surprise of his critics.  Stability has returned, the economy is on the up, and foreign policy is being carefully balanced. From being an unreliable, inconsistent, unstable country Ukraine has become dependable, consistent and progressive. 

On 17 January 2010 Ukraine entered a new chapter in its history when the Orange Revolution finally ran out of juice.  The first round of the presidential election reflected the deep disappointment of Ukrainian’s toward their one-time hero Viktor Yushchenko and on 25 February his rival, Viktor Yanukovych, took over Ukraine’s leadership.  Yanukovych inherited a country on its knees both economically and politically.  Not only did he find an overflowing in-tray and a to-do list as long as his arm, but he also found himself faced with the job of convincing the somewhat cynical West that he would be a credible leader, and not a tool of the Kremlin. 

The new President wasted no time in launching efforts to turn Ukraine’s fortunes around. Lip-service was replaced by actions, a long awaited reform package was launched, stability returned after years of political squabbling and following two years of economic decline the economy is slowly getting back on track with growth for the last quarter of 2010 at +4% of GDP. Relations with Russia, which under Yuschenko hit rock-bottoms, have been normalized and ties with the EU have intensified.  Ukraine finally received an Action Plan for visa liberalization and is entering the last stages of negotiations for an Association Agreement and Deep Free Trade Agreement.  

While foreign policy achievements are commendable, the most important changes have taken place internally with Kyiv undertaking long overdue systemic reforms.  State procurement reform, previously one of the most corrupt areas and a breeding ground for the misuse of administrative power and fraud, has been tackled and is now in total compliance with European norms and standards.  

Reform in the energy sector has also taken place.  A lack of transparency and rules allowed for large-scale corruption which significantly contributed to the 2008 gas crisis with Russia.   A new gas law introduced European standards in transparency and brought Ukraine into the EU Energy Community Treaty. These develops should mean gas wars are a thing of the past. 

Numerous laws were also adopted in order to open reforms in the area of justice and home affairs including protection of personal data, the creation of a state administration for migration, and the adoption of legal acts necessary for the fight against drug and human trafficking.  However, further reform is necessary in order to be fully in compliance with EU laws is this area, particularly regarding the rights and protection of asylum seekers.  Work in this direction has already begun and should be completed in the first part of 2011. President Yanukovych has also embarked on administrative reforms, introducing substantial changes to the structure of executive power.  The number of central executive authorities was reduced from 112 to 63 while the number of members of the government was cut from 36 to 18.  By the end of the process government staff numbers will be slashed by more than half.  Additionally, the new system for managing ministries has been streamlined, bringing it closer to EU models.  It introduces differentiation between political appointees and public administration posts as well as opening the way for a qualitative change in substance for public services, and the quality of services the state delivers to its citizens. 

Of course, not all reforms have been welcomed.  The new tax code was highly controversial and resulted in street protests.  Given this discontent, the President vetoed the code which was then further discussed and amended before finally being adopted.  The new code simplifies tax procedures, ensuring automatic reimbursement of VAT as well as widening the tax base to guarantee a more balanced state budget.  It should also result in some of the not insignificant loopholes in current tax legislation being closed. 

The President is also working to fully shake off stereotypes associated with him by the West which his opponents continue to manipulate to their advantage.  Recent allegations directed at him claiming restrictions on media freedoms, spying on NGO’s, and abusing of administrative power are taken extremely seriously and thoroughly investigated.  Ukraine has a tradition of being a leader of democracy in this region, with a vibrant and active civil society and this should be maintained and strengthened further in line with Ukraine’s EU ambitions.  Ukraine has nothing to gain by allowing democracy to be eroded away.  

After a year in office the President’s popularity remains stable at around 45% and comparable to when he was elected (almost 49%). This is in stark contrast to his predecessor. Yushchenko came to power with 52% of voter’s support which dropped to 14 – 19% after a year. Visible improvements in the country including more money in pockets, better public transport and increased political stability have contributed to this. 

However, while the Yanukovych team has made a good start it Ukraine’s transformation is going to succeed in the long term, increased western support is crucial.  If the government manages to consolidate democracy and produce good governance and economic growth, it will serve as a powerful example in a region that desperately needs positive examples. The West will find itself with a reliable partner in a strategically critical region.   However, Ukraine has a long way to go and this road is not an easy one with reforms becoming increasingly painful and expensive which could prove difficult to sell to the population.  Unfortunately, unlike the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans Ukraine’s leadership does not have at its disposal the strongest political weapon for beating back protests in order to overcome the difficulties of transition – namely an EU membership perspective. 

If the EU is serious about supporting Ukraine’s leadership in transforming the country, it needs to go beyond nice words.  Giving Ukraine a membership perspective would facilitate the reform process for the next 5 to seven years. However, given it is a rather divisive issue among EU member states, it far from clear whether the EU is ready to take this step.  if the answer is yes, then we can be certain that the efficiency of Yanukovych’s government, together with a European perspective, will make a significant difference both inside and outside Ukraine.  If the answer remains no this will again be evidence of the EU’s short-sighted approach, not only towards an increasingly important European partner but to the entire region. 

Alexander Feldman is a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament, & is Founder of the Institute of Human Rights, Prevention of Xenophobia and Extremism

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