Ukraine is worse off than it was four years ago

19 February 2018

Ukraine is worse off than it was four years ago

Image credit: Аимаина Хикари (Wikimedia) – CC0 1.0

Public demonstrations are great, right? Marches, protests, rallies — the right to gather and give the government a good yelling at is the pulse of democracy. Of course, the quality of the democracy is determined by how well the government listens and responds. It all hinges on whether an outcome is achieved.

Unfortunately, Ukraine has a history of mass demonstrations that end with a promise of change, but stops short of any actual change. The last major uprising, dubbed the Euromaidan, is perhaps the most disappointing example as of yet. What was supposed to usher in a new era instead plunged Ukraine back into the darkness of the 1990s.

A brief re-cap

In late 2013 to early 2014, Ukraine saw mass demonstrations in the country’s capital, Kiev, or Kyiv as nationalists prefer. Tens of thousands of people gathered at the city’s most renowned attraction — Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

The demonstrations go by several names, though “Euromaidan Revolution” or “Euromaidan” are probably the most common. What started as a peaceful rally about gaining visa-free access to the Schengen Zone spiralled into a spate of violence and nation-wide civil unrest, resulting in the deaths of over 130 people at the Maidan, a civil war which has killed more than 10,000 and the ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovych.

Image credit: Sputnik International (Sputnik)

Much about the Euromaidan is unclear; and will likely remain that way, as facts have a tendency to blur and become irrelevant in information wars. But the initial demands of the protesters were clear — they wanted closer ties and access to Europe, and Yanukovych had just suspended the signing of an EU association agreement. Instead, the former President opted for closer ties to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union.

The protests broadened as political figures like Arseniy Yatsenyuk and current President Petro Poroshenko used the momentum to attack Yanukovych’s government. Very quickly, the protests became focused on Ukraine’s deep-set corruption, stunted quality of life and divided national identity. More and more protestors appeared, bringing with them extreme right nationalist groups like Pravy Sektor. While I was living in Ukraine, some people even told me stories of friends and relatives being being paid 200 hryvnias (approx. $10 AUD) a day in cash to participate in the protests.

Image credit: Cable News Network (CNN)

What happened from then on is where it becomes hazy. Some, including the current government, accuse Yanukovych of using snipers to shoot protesters. Others, including former Presidential security staff, deny any lethal action was taken against protesters, and blame members of the current government for the snipers. And some accuse foreign powers of intervening.

Regardless, Yanukovych was ousted and disappeared before turning up in Russia; the autonomous Crimea region held an unrecognised referendum to split from Ukraine because of the chaos and joined Russia; the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk declared independence which started the civil war; and confectionary billionaire Petro Poroshenko assumed the Presidency with Arseniy Yatsenyuk as Prime Minister.

Image credit: Sergei Chuzavkov (Associated Press)

So, what has happened since then?

Poroshenko promised a great deal in his brief election campaign. His five key promises were severing relations with Russia, bringing Ukraine into the Schengen Zone, unrooting corruption, driving the economy forward and bolstering Ukraine’s military.

He has, to a large extent, severed relations with Russia, although his own confectionary company, Roshen, continued to trade with Ukraine’s neighbour until it was banned for inadequate packaging labels and health concerns. Business between the two countries has reduced enormously, placing the economy in jeopardy and threatening the livelihoods of those who work or have family across the border.

Poroshenko has signed an EU association agreement and secured a travel scheme with the EU, but it is not quite what was originally wanted. Ukrainians may enter Europe for 90 days provided they have proof of sufficient funds and accomodation. Unfortunately, about 60% of Ukrainians live below the poverty line and the mostly-deteriorated middle class cannot afford the travel costs either. Which means on that front, Ukraine is in the same position as it was four years ago — only the rich can travel to EU countries.

In 2014, Transparency International rated Ukraine Europe’s most corrupt nation, and according to the global corruption watchdog, the country has not improved under Poroshenko. The lack of progress has raised concerns among Western leaders backing Kiev. Most notably, former US Vice President Joe Biden said in an address to the Rada (Parliament), “Corruption eats Ukraine like cancer” and told the country’s parliamentarians they risked losing international support unless there was a greater effort to reform. In addition, Ukraine’s Reporters Without Borders free press rating remains low, with an oligarch-controlled media industry and a lack of protection for journalists being key issues.

The economy has plummeted for a number of reasons. One of them is the overbearing taxation of small and medium size businesses, the result of tax reforms spearheaded by former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who resigned in 2016 and is rumoured to be living in Canada — it is believed he is a dual citizen with Canada which is illegal under Ukrainian law. The auctioning off of state assets in numbers not seen since the devastating privatisation in the 1990s is likely another key contributor. Currently, Ukraine’s national debt is tipped to be as high as 92.31% of its GDP. The World Bank’s latest update on Ukraine’s economy does not paint a promising future either.

One thing Poroshenko has kind of delivered on is his promise to bolster the military. The President reinstated conscription, which has increased Ukraine’s fighting force, and upgraded Soviet-era tanks; however, soldiers are ill-equipped, and due to poor welfare, do not return. One veteran said, as cited by Reuters:

“There’s no desire to return. There were many things we had to buy ourselves, or volunteers donated them. Officially they gave us two pairs of socks for the whole period, useless old boots, a uniform from flammable fabric, which is freezing in winter and sweaty in summer.”

This very much reflects what I saw in Ukraine and the military experiences shared with me. Aside from that, I met a conscript who was relieved from service after fellow soldiers beat him for losing a card game, resulting in several broken bones and minor brain damage. His attackers were not punished.

Where does that leave Ukraine now?

Under Poroshenko, Ukraine is worse than it was when Yanukovych was President. Inflation is rife, the rising cost of living is crippling the people, homelessness has soared, corruption has worsened according to many Ukrainians, strained relations with Russia place those with family across the border in a precarious position, extremism is rising, the civil war has shown no real signs of stopping and the country is becoming increasingly divided.

It is no surprise that Ukrainians recently took to the streets yet again, demanding a regime change in favour of former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, a former ally of Poroshenko — not that he is an ideal candidate, but that’s for another time.

When I visited the Maidan, it was bizarre. It was a surreal experience to stand in Kiev’s centrepiece, a place that had been the scene of such bloodshed and anger. Beneath the people in cartoon costumes asking for money, the recruitment officers and the thousands of flowers covering the concrete, is a place that symbolises struggle, pain, confusion, and frustration — but not success, or relief, or victory, as one might see at other attractions or monuments around the world.

Out of all the names used for the demonstrations in 2013-2014, “Revolution of Dignity” is the most striking. Make no mistake, similar sentiments were used in 2005 after the Orange Revolution and have been in all the protests since. The Orange Revolution was supposed to bring about change — it failed to do so. The Euromaidan Revolution was supposed to bring about change — it has failed to do so. And now history seems to be repeating itself as Saakashvili leads the crowds to the Maidan once again. The question has to be asked: how many revolutions of dignity can a country have?

As corrupt as Yanukovych was – and he was pretty corrupt – the country was functional. People had steady wages, the quality of life was okay and the economy was performing better. He was wrong not to sign the association agreement, but by the same token, now Ukraine has one and it has barely made an impact on the lives of Ukrainians.

It could be argued that the civil war between pro-Government forces and pro-Russia separatists is to blame for the country’s state; and that is true to a point. But, in all the assessments made by experts far more learned than I, a culture of corruption is Ukraine’s biggest problem. It is the cause of the country’s economic stagnation and political instability. After all, it was the instability that caused Donetsk and Lugansk to rise up.

Until an end is brought to Ukraine’s endemic corruption, it will never make any substantial progress, and for that to happen, mass reforms and cultural change needs to occur.