Challenges and Implications of Ukraine’s Current Transformation | VoxUkraine

Challenges and Implications of Ukraine’s Current Transformation

21 March 2016

The currently ongoing reforms in Ukraine are hindered by internal enemies and obstacles, as well as by Moscow’s “hybrid war” against Kyiv. Given the scale, complexity and challenges of the Ukrainian transformation project, its intermediate results are not unimpressive, yet still far from sustainable and successful. Ukraine’s slowly advancing Europeanisation is, sooner or later, going to affect the whole post-Soviet space via demonstration and diffusion effects. To support it further, Western states and organizations should cooperate more closely with Ukrainian politicians, bureaucrats, experts and activists who are backing the reforms.

The ongoing Ukrainian reforms in their social and international contexts*

Since the victory of the Revolution of Dignity at the beginning of 2014, Ukraine has been trying to radically restructure its economy, governance, judiciary, healthcare, education system, and cultural landscape. Kyiv’s implementation of reforms is actively supported by the Ukrainian civil society and diaspora in the West, as well as by such development institutions as the IMF, World Bank, EBRD, etc. In addition to numerous other European governmental and semi-governmental organizations, like the German GIZ and DAAD, the EU has been playing a key role in the process of transformation and Europeanisation of Ukraine, after the Association Agreement with Ukraine came into full force on January 1, 2016.

Indeed, a number of potentially important legal acts have been adopted after the publication of the ambitious “Strategy 2020” program of President Petro Poroshenko in July 2014. Among others, laws regarding lustration, fight against corruption, state procurement, financing of parties, reorganizing state governance, higher education reform, a new police force, public broadcasting etc. have come into force [1]Four new specialized agencies are being exclusively established to fight corruption in different spheres [2]. Eminent Kyiv political scientist Olexiy Haran thus argued in January 2016:

It is precisely now that the most important institutional changes are occurring, such as the establishment of new institutions and adoption of laws [3].

Despite such a remarkable beginning, Ukraine’s reformation has, however, not made much progress so far.

Causes of delays in the reform process

The main causes of the sluggish reform process are its large scale and complicated setting. The Warsaw Centre for Eastern Studies characterized the specific challenge of Ukraine’s current reformation in the following way:

The Ukrainian modernisation, given the size of the country and the scale of the existing problems, is unprecedented in the post-Soviet area. Ukraine has been facing the challenge of reforming almost all the key areas of the state’s operation. Furthermore, the background in which the reforms are taking place – the war with Russia determined to thwart Ukraine’s successful modernisation, and the deep economic crisis – is extremely unfavorable [4].

Western analytics often overlook those peculiarities.

This misjudgment can be explained by the fact that, until recently, Ukraine has been a blank spot on the mind map of many people in the world, a kind of terra incognita in Europe [5]. As the whole post-Soviet territory has been viewed as unstable during the last 25 years, many observes only partially recognize the specificity of Ukraine’s current post-revolutionary situation. Due to long-term lack of attention for and debate about this country, some Western commentators and consultants still do not notice the historical exceptionalism of the ongoing processes, namely:

  • the radical, if not the revolutionary, character of the social change,
  • the multifaceted and damaging “hybrid war” of Moscow against Kyiv,
  • the depth of the postrevolutionary socio-economic crisis in Ukraine.

Often, international observers do not see much difference between the relatively depressed state of affairs in Ukraine before the Euromaidan and her current enormous difficulties.

Without Russia’s continuous covert “hybrid war” against Ukraine and its numerous social and economic effects, Ukraine’s reforms would have been more successful or, perhaps, even much more advanced than it has been the case during the last two years [6]. The overall economic situation would have also been very different. The war has traumatized the country, consumes its resources and energy, wastes its already scarce finances, destabilizes the state, and diverts the government’s and civil society’s attention from implementation of reforms [7]. It diminishes or destructs – often, quite literally – the human and physical capital of the country.

While comments by foreign experts regarding Ukraine’s recent reform success are often critical, if not sarcastic, assessment of the current situation within its domestic and historic contexts is thus different. The aforementioned Kyiv political scientist Haran concluded at the end of 2015:

The main achievement of the last year is that Ukraine has survived. For two years already, we have been defending against ourselves Russian aggression and experiencing an unannounced war. Moreover, we have to carry out painful economic reforms. Thus, the most important thing is that we have not given up [8].

Obviously, such contextualization cannot excuse the various self-inflicted problems of Ukraine. The remaining skepticism of the Ukrainian civil society and international observers with regard to the Kyiv government has good reasons. The internal and external criticism of the slow pace of reforms in Ukraine and of the, so far, continuing corruption is mainly addressed to the economic and political elites of the country. Most of the criticism of Kyiv by pro-Western Ukrainian and Western experts on Ukraine is fully justified.

However, the often highly critical discussion of the Ukrainian government, within Ukraine, can sometimes also be unproductive, since effectual political processes require trust, especially in times of crisis. The exceptionally steep fall of support for Prime Minister Yatseniuk (as well as his political party) and the spreading opinion that President Poroshenko is becoming “another Yanukovych” are ambivalent in this light. Such an excessively sharp public reaction is a reflection both, the obvious failures of the reforms process and unrealistic expectations about the actual capacity of politicians and parties to effect deep change [9].

In Ukraine, some civil activists and engaged citizens have developed an anti-state, and sometimes even anarchic mentality, against the background of their experiences with irresponsible and corrupt political elites before, during and after the Soviet period. In some cases, this leads to pronounced distrust towards all and every government institutions and policies. The result is systematic refusal of parts of Ukraine’s citizenry to cooperate with political leaders in the implementation of reforms. For example, Mykhailo Radutskyj, founder of the Kyiv-based private clinic “Borys” and one of the deputies of the major of Kyiv Vitaly Klychko, complains that “society at large” is not ready for change. Radutskyj is trying to reform the healthcare sector of Kyiv, yet chief executives and staff of some hospitals hinder reforms by refusing to cooperate and blaming the government for all their problems [10].

In Ukraine, as in other countries, there is a link between the unhealthy participation of economic elites in politics and certain pathologies in the political culture of citizens. Underlying reasons for the lingering disbalance in the relations between state and society are not only to be found in the well-known problems of a corrupt bureaucracy, ethically imperfect politicians and excessive influence of industrial tycoons on government [11]. For many Ukrainians, the current pedigree and public imagery of a candidate or party are more decisive factors when making their choice in elections, than his or her political biography and ideology.

This partially explains the repeatedly remarkable successes of brand new political projects, which are financially backed by oligarchs, but lack a substantive profile and meaningful program. They are still able to win substantial electoral support simply by aggressively advertising in mass media. A recent example is the party “UKROP”, created by Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. It suddenly appeared in October 2015, shortly before the regional elections in Ukraine, and stormed into a number regional and local parliaments winning notable shares of votes.

Ukrainian and Western observers, including us, like to stress the importance of Ukrainian civil society for the success of reforms, referring to its role as a consultant, monitor, controller and critic of the government [12]. Despite the growing size and quality of Ukrainian civil society after the Euromaidan [13], it is still too early to speak about a fundamental change in the complicated relations between civil activists and political elites. To secure deeper connection between state and society, more is needed than the several hundred new initiatives that have emerged in the last two years and are aimed at helping refugees, the army and volunteer battalions, monitoring the reforms and solving other tasks where the government is failing.

It is also necessary for more activists to become ready and willing to enter themselves the political arena and governmental offices in order to directly promote their initiatives and effectively protect the interests of society against those of the notorious oligarchs. Many civil society activists in Ukraine seem not yet prepared for such a step, apparently because, among other reasons, they are afraid of discrediting themselves by being labeled as “politicians” or “party functionaries” in Ukraine’s anti-politically inclined society. Such hesitancy strips important demands of society to the elites of indispensable political support and leaves the field to the old political parties and networks with their well-known connections to industrial magnates.

The importance of the Ukrainian project of reforms for Europe

In late 2015, the Western policy-analyzing and -making communities changed their focus, away from Ukraine, to other new challenges facing the EU and US. This shift was also due to the lowering intensity of warfare in the Donets Basin. Apart from that, the international community of diplomats, politicians and experts is again losing its patience with Kyiv, because of the slow pace of reforms in Ukraine. The EU and the US representatives are continuously pushing the Kyiv elites to speed up reforms and the law-making process in such areas as fight against corruption and decentralization. They are worried about a possible collapse of the pro-reform coalition in parliament, and about new elections, which, in their view, could further slow down reforms. Between the lines, one can sense the reappearance of the older “Ukraine fatigue,” i.e. the disappointment of the West with the political inertia and internal conflicts, which formed the image of Ukraine in many European capitals after the Orange Revolution.

Even if skeptical assessments are justified, it is still necessary to evaluate Ukraine’s situation realistically. As indicated above, one should not judge events in Ukraine and its development only on the basis of quick snapshots and not discount them in view of other challenges facing the West. It is only possible to realize how large the challenges in Ukraine are and what importance the reforms in Ukraine have for the post-Soviet space, if one engages in historically sensitive interpretation of the current post-revolutionary period and considers the specific context of Ukraine’s development since 1991 as well as its post-imperial and post-colonial difficulties. After all, despite the constant, to a large degree externally triggered, instability, which characterizes Ukraine since 2014, the extent of democratization and modernization of the country have reached a relatively high level when compared to other countries in the region.

As in the case of the aforementioned negative aspects of the current situation, this relative success is also no accident, and not exclusively the result of cultural peculiarities of Ukraine [14]. In contrast to other post-Soviet countries, a traditionally weak and centralized Ukrainian state, its lack of substantial natural resources, and a need to balance competing internal Ukrainian regional interests have facilitated the development of various forms of political consensus in Ukraine. Therefore, the danger of returning to authoritarianism is significantly lower here than in other post-Soviet countries. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, during three “post-Soviet momentums” [15] (i. e. insurgencies of 1990-1991, 2004 and 2013-2014), a political learning process has occurred, which has lifted the modern political system of Ukraine to a new level (though not yet to the stage of consolidated liberal democracy). The aggressive response of Vladimir Putin to the events in Kyiv after February 2014 illustrates the threat, which the example of this new quality of political pluralism in Ukraine potentially poses to the other autocratic regimes in post-Soviet countries, and first of all, to the Russian one.

A main problem of the current Western vision of Ukraine, its revolution and contradictory reform process is a peculiar “stability paradigm.” This preference for regime stability and old actors has recently re-emerged on the basis of fears of globalization, transnational crises and rising international instability [16], and which has partially replaced the previous transformational enthusiasm of Western democracies’ engagement in Second and Third World countries [17]. When it comes to the post-Soviet are, this change of paradigms often leads to an uncritical acceptance of the incumbent autocrats as putative anchors of stability, even though these dictators are leading their countries into dead ends with their unsustainable economic models and harsh (though increasingly sophisticated) repression of political opposition and civil society. The inevitable collapse of the remaining post-Soviet autocracies may one day trigger violence and instability, the scale of which could far surpass those of the more gradual transition in Ukraine.

Against this background, the Western partners of Kyiv should recall their transformational euphoria of the 1990s. The myopic combination of yearning for stability with annoyance about the chaotic nature of political change in newly emerging “open access orders” [18], like Ukraine, shared nowadays by many Western politicians and diplomats, is thus not only ethically dubious, but also politically short-sighted. There are many signs indicating that Russians and Byelorussians are soon also going to embark on their own difficult transitional paths – whether with or without the help of Western democracy promotion.

In view of such prospects, current Western support of Kyiv is also necessary to keep Ukraine as a model for and anchor of democratization in the post-Soviet space, i.e. as a source of demonstration and diffusion effects on other former Soviet republics [19]. Today’s care for the success of reforms in Ukraine is thus not only a matter of the future moral authority of EU or of an idealistic plan to rescue the “European project” [20]. Security and stability, treasured by EU strategists within the European Neighborhood Policy, are only going to be sustainably achieved, if this policy rises above short-term considerations referring to the current status quo. Firm and lasting stability cannot be achieved by endlessly tolerating the post-Soviet autocracies which are going to fall, in any case. It can be guaranteed only by means of timely progress in the development of the political systems of the former Soviet republics.

Conclusions: What does Ukraine Need?

In the light of the above, the high international pressure on the Ukrainian government, loudly demanded by Ukrainian civil society activists, is justified and important. Foreign assistance to Kyiv is urgently needed as efficient reformers are still in a minority in the higher echelons of the Ukrainian government. Two influential groups are opposing them, exploiting the war in Donbass for their own benefit. Ukrainian reformers have to, first, fight the well-known surviving anti-reform forces of the ancien regime, i.e. oligarchs, corrupt politicians and many old bureaucrats who are traditional opponents of deep transformation.

Second, a new unofficial “party of power” has appeared the members of which, despite posing as reformers, have become used to the current post-revolutionary equilibrium. This group of politicians and bureaucrats initially supported reforms in 2014, but now lack motivation to carry out more radical change. By doing so, they would risk losing their recently acquired access to privileges, power and status, as well as, in some cases, to sources of enrichment.

Therefore, in the future, a closer cooperation of Ukrainian reformers and international friends of Ukraine is needed. This alliance, which de facto already exists, unites honest Ukrainian politicians and officials, civic activists, experts and media representatives, on the one hand, and international donors, pro-Ukrainian EU governments, transnational NGOs and specialized think tanks, on the other. Only if they act together and in a tightly coordinated manner, this coalition is going to be able to counterbalance the frequent delays, manipulations and falsifications, initiated by the various opponents of reforms, and to guarantee sustainable change.

As Ukraine is too weak militarily and economically, the West has to help Kyiv, moreover, to fully re-attain and sustainably secure the sovereignty and functionality of the Ukrainian state on its territory. This means that the conflict in the Donets Basin has to be either solved (e.g. the Minsk Agreement to be fully implemented) or to be frozen to such degree that it does not interfere any more with the development of rump Ukraine. Finally, the Kremlin has to be made to stop using the various military and non-military tools of its “hybrid warfare” against Ukraine (e. g. trade sanctions, cyber-attacks, clandestine special operations, propaganda campaigns etc.) and to recognize its neighbor as a separate and sovereign country.

As is well known, Russia is not interested in the Donbas itself. The so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk are merely two of the many tools that Moscow uses to destabilize the Ukrainian state. Halting Russia’s continuing subversive actions is thus not only important for the future of the Donets Basin, but for that of the whole of Ukraine. If the Kremlin by itself does not, or is not made from the outside to, stop its “hybrid war” against Ukraine, all the good reforms that are currently being undertaken or are in preparation may be for nothing, and the large-scale Western financial support for Kyiv, amounting already to billions of dollars, will be to no avail.

The German original of this article was earlier published on the websites of Focus Online, Huffington Post Deutschland and Ukraine-Nachrichten.


[1] First critical assessments in German include: Härtel A. Das postrevolutionäre Machtvakuum als Quelle der ukrainischen Reformträgheit, in: Ukraine-Analysen. 2015. № 156. Рp. 2-6; Stein А. Ernüchterung nach einem Jahr Lustrationsprozess, in: Ukraine-Analysen. 2015. № 160. Рp. 2-6. Informative regular evaluations of the reform progress in English language may be found in the useful Index for Monitoring Reforms, compiled by “VoxUkraine” and “Interfax Ukraine”.

[2] National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, Government Agency on Anti-Corruption Policy, Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office.

[3] Haran О. Wir haben überlebt: Über Erfolge und Niederlagen der Ukraine, in: Euromaidan Press. January 20, 2016.

[4] Konończuk W., Iwański T., Olszański T., Żochowski P. The Bumpy Road: Difficult Reform Process in Ukraine, in: OSW Commentary. 2015. № 192. Р. 9.

[5] Umland A. Weißer Fleck: Die Ukraine in der deutschen Öffentlichkeit, in: Osteuropa. 2012. № 9. Рp. 127-133; Finnin R. Ukrainian Studies in Europe: New Possibilities, in: Journal of Ukrainian Politics and Society. 2015. № 1. Рp. 18-23.

[6] This statement remains valid, even though the construction of a detailed counterfactual argument, as in any other similar attempts, would be difficult. On thinking in terms of alternative history, see: Bunzl M. Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide, in: The American Historical Review. 2004. № 3. Рp. 845-858.

[7] For more details, see: Umland A. Krieg, Krise, Korruption: Wieso die Ukraine mit ihren Reformen nicht voran kommt, in: Focus Online. January 29, 2016.

[8] Haran О. Wir haben überlebt.

[9] See, for instance, the survey of the International Republican Institute (November 19-30, 2015), according to which only 1% of Ukrainians view the Prime Minster as “very good” (11% as “relatively good”).

[10] Okonchatel’nyi diagnoz: intervyu s Mikhalom Radutskim, in: Novoe vremia. 4 September 2015. Pp. 44-46.

[11] Solonenko I. Interessengeflecht und Machtstrategien: Die Oligarchen und der Umbruch in der Ukraine, in: Osteuropa. 2014. №№ 5-6. Pp. 197-216.

[12] Härtel A. Aus dem Scheitern lernen – für eine neue Ukraine-Politik Europas, in: Ukraine-Analysen. 2014. № 127. Pp. 7-8.

[13] For example, see the report from the conference “Ukrainian Civil Society After the Maidan: Potential and Challenges on the Way to Sustainable Democratization and Europeanization” (December 12, 2014)

[14] Bredies I., Umland A. Democratic Ukraine, Autocratic Russia: Why?, in: History News Network. 23 August 2009.

[15] Härtel A. Der dritte post-sowjetische Moment der Ukraine, in: Berliner Republik. 2014. № 2.

[16] Härtel А. Germany and the Crisis in Ukraine: Divided over Moscow?, in: Analyses of the Elcano Royal Institute. 2014. № 24.

[17] Carothers T. The End of the Transition Paradigm, in: Journal of Democracy. 2002. № 1.

[18] North D.C., Wallis J.J., Weingast B. Violence and the Rise of Open-Access Orders, in: Journal of Democracy. 2009. № 1. Рp. 55-68.

[19] Umland А. Für eine neue Osteuropa-Politik: Europas Weg nach Moskau führt über Kiew, in: Internationale Politik. 2011. № 4. Рp. 86-92.

[20] Snyder Т. Edge of Europe, End of Europe, in: New York Review of Books. 21 July 2015.

  • Andreas Umland, Principal Researcher at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv
  • Andre Härtel, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy


The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations