WORLD AFFAIRSFor those who are puzzled by current goings-on in Ukraine’s government, here are a few tips.

First, let’s not confuse “crisis of government” with “crisis of Ukraine.” True, Prime Minister Arsenii Yatseniuk is unpopular and should probably resign. Also true, his cabinet needs reshuffling. But it’s illogical to jump from the claim that the government is dysfunctional to the claim that Ukraine is experiencing a “grim slide.” Governments are not countries, even when they’re absolutist, as in Louis XIV’s France, or fascist, as in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Ukraine is a poorly functioning democracy—which means that its poorly functioning democratic institutions do not determine the fate of the country as a whole.

Second, let’s not assume that resignations by reformist ministers mean that “there have been no reforms” or that “reforms have stalled.” When Minister of Economy and Trade Aivaras Abromavicius resigned a few weeks ago, most commentators bemoaned his leaving because he was a “reformer” while simultaneously claiming “nothing had changed.” These declarations are incompatible. If he was a reformer, then something must have changed under his tutelage. If nothing had changed, then good riddance to him. In fact, as virtually all objective analysts in Ukraine and in the West say, Ukraine has changed much in the last two years. It needs to change much more—especially in rule of law, where reforms have been hesitant. But the country has indeed changed.

Third, let’s not assume that Ukraine’s current governmental crisis cannot be managed. Ministers resign all the time; prime ministers are detested all the time; cabinets are reshuffled all the time. The current Ukrainian crisis is no different from scores of similar crises in other countries. Sometimes they end well; sometimes they end badly. One big difference about Ukraine’s crisis is that Western institutions and leaders hold significant leverage now, and they are applying pressure and insisting that Kyiv find a solution. The jury is still out with respect to Kyiv’s ability to manage the crisis.

Fourth, let’s not assume that the language of gloom, doom, despair, and betrayal that Ukrainians so relish offers a way out of the crisis. If everything is hopeless, then why bother crafting effective policy? If they’re all crooks and traitors, then why not just bring back Viktor Yanukovych and his thugs? This is not to suggest that we don rose-tinted glasses. However, it is to suggest that the manner in which Ukrainians “frame” the challenges ahead directly affect how, or whether, they address them.

Finally, one example of how not to think about Ukraine and one of how to think about it.

The first is a piece in Time magazine by Serhiy Lyovochkin, identified as “a member of the Ukrainian parliament and one of the leaders of the Opposition Bloc political party.” Time shamelessly omits to mention that Lyovochkin—Ukrainians usually append the modifier “odious” to his name—was also Yanukovych’s right-hand man. For Lyovochkin to talk about “fixing my country’s broken system” is, thus, the height of gall. He helped break the system that is now so difficult to repair. Lyovochkin had no qualms as the Yanukovych gang ravaged the place he now calls “my country.” Truly fixing Ukraine means instituting rule of law, which in turn means making Lyovochkin’s return to Ukrainian politics as unthinkable as Joseph Goebbels’s to Germany’s.

The second piece is a smart and balanced analysis of the ongoing crisis in the indispensable VoxUkraine. The authors judiciously analyze its causes, isolate several cons and pros of the crisis, and suggest a variety of possible outcomes. Their conclusion is worth quoting at length:

The failed No Confidence Motion is neither a unique occurrence for Ukraine nor a catastrophe. Such a scenario has been played out in many other countries. In Ukraine, we observe not only the political struggle and negotiations between major political parties, but also an attempt of a minority coalition parties to strengthen their voice and increase the share and loyalty of electorate by speaking openly against the governing parties.

Despite the bitter scent of renewed political bickering, the failed NCM has helped to avoid an even greater disaster (early elections would not only take a lot of precious time, but could give rise to populist politics and endanger the success of reforms). Still, the coalition parties have to avoid the political stalemate by quickly reaching agreement over changes in the government and accelerating the reforms. Hopefully, this will be done, given the pressure of domestic audience and international partners. The memories about the 2005 post-Maidan political fiasco and the second anniversary of Euromaidan sacrifices should also help.

Such conflicts are likely to happen again if the underlying reasons for political instability are not addressed. The constitutional conflict between the PM and the President, low quality of “old” elites, absence of ideology based parties and imperfect election laws threaten the long-term success of reforms in Ukraine. One of the possible solutions could be constitutional changes developed by an impartial Constitutional Assembly with wide participation of experts and civil activists that would finally answer the question – is Ukraine a parliamentary or a presidential republic, i.e. who is the head of the executive branch – the president or the prime-minister? This would decrease the potential for political infighting and make politicians more accountable to the people by drawing clear responsibility lines within the government.


So drop your unwarranted assumptions, dump Lyovochkin on the ash heap of history, and listen to the vox of reason.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

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