WORLD AFFAIRS.  Ukrainians are angry. The standard refrains are that there are no reforms and that Ukraine is worse off than it used to be.

Such deep-seated anger was at the root of the violent demonstration at the Parliament a few weeks ago. Most commentators focused on the violence and its implications for Ukraine’s democracy. In fact, despite the Western media’s bizarre infatuation with Ukraine’s radical right, it is tiny and poses no threat to the system.

Far more worrisome is the widespread popular anger and growing popular radicalism.

Angry people who make radical demands—of the we-want-everything-immediately variety—and mistrust their leaders make for illegitimate and unstable rule. At some point, illegitimate and unstable rule can crumble. If Ukraine ever comes unglued, it’ll be because popular anger produced a third Maidan that destroyed Ukraine’s fledgling institutions and either created chaos or brought radicals to power. All Ukrainians would lose. Vladimir Putin would win.

Radicalism is appropriate in revolutionary situations such as the second Maidan in early 2014. Radical talk can also remind established elites of what they need to do. Consider Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington, DC: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism…. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment…. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

Radicalism makes for awful politics in normal or semi-normal conditions. People who want it all right away are making demands that no system, no matter how effective or legitimate, can meet. Normal politics is about compromise, about second or third best, about good enough. If everyone insists on everything right away, violence or dictatorship is often the result.

A just-released public opinion survey by the respected Democratic Initiatives organization suggests what ails Ukrainians. Thus, 48.4 percent believe there have been no reforms; 24.6 percent that only a tenth of possible reforms have taken place.

When asked to identify who was responsible for the absence of reform, Ukrainians targeted the oligarchs (51.5 percent), the government (51.5 percent), the majority coalition in Parliament (44.5 percent), the bureaucrats (44 percent), and the president (39.1 percent).

When asked who drives reform, 36.8 percent said it’s the president, 32 percent the government, 22.1 percent the coalition majority, 6.9 percent the oligarchs, and 5.5 percent the bureaucrats.

Subtract the latter percentage from the former and you get each actor’s reform-mindedness: –44.6 for the oligarchs, –38.5 for the bureaucrats, –22.5 for the coalition, –19.5 for the government, and –2.3 for the president.  

The distribution of responsibility is about right. Ukraine’s main political problem is the symbiosis between a bloated and corrupt state bureaucracy and the oligarchic class. Even if the president, Rada, and government did everything according to some reformist blueprint, weakening that monstrous apparatus would be difficult and take time.

But consider this: despite the fact that the state apparatus remains unreformed, comprehensive reform has taken place. Take a look at the assessments by VoxUkraine and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. There may be too little reform, and it may be too slow, but it is not unimpressive—especially compared to where Ukraine was a year ago. Dare I suggest that reform is possible even in a corrupt state? Look at Italy, a very nice country that is probably marginally less corrupt than Ukraine.

The survey also shows which reform areas Ukrainians consider most and least important. The former include corruption (65.2 percent), law and order (58 percent), pensions (39.9 percent), and health (35.9 percent). The latter include taxes (21.5 percent), decentralization (17.8 percent), deregulation and investments (14 percent), and land reform (8.1 percent).

In a word, Ukrainians want change in the areas that affect their lives immediately and closely. They regard as unimportant the very things experts consider most important—the components of a healthy economy.

The reasons for popular anger now become clearer.

First, Kyiv has focused on the macro-economy, while people want change where they can feel it.

Second, Kyiv has poorly communicated its successes, failures, and intentions to the people.

Third, the oligarchic state apparatus and its leading representatives are not just a brake on reform. They remain unpunished for their malfeasance, corruption, and past crimes—something people who lived through the Revolution of Dignity, have experienced steep drops in living standards, and are sacrificing their lives to defend Ukraine from Putin’s aggression find intolerable, and rightly so.

The good news is that the macro-economy has been stabilized and some economic growth looks likely. The semi-good news is that communicating with folks isn’t rocket science: all the more reason to wonder why the president and prime minister don’t have an occasional borscht with the regular folk.

Fixing the state apparatus will be hardest. I know from my experience with university administrations that they are corrupt, nepotistic, bloated, and resistant to change. If changing them is hard, imagine how much harder changing the apparatus of a large country must be.

That said, sentencing a few high-level corruptioneers and criminals is no rocket science either. President Poroshenko would be well advised to consider this option in addition to slurping down some beet soup.


Alexander J. Motyl's blog

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