28.04.2017 | Fathoming Ukraine’s faltering transition

I have been back to Kyiv on several occasions since my first trip in 2009 towards the end of the Presidency of Viktor Yushchenko. It is an attractive place but beyond that it is difficult to think of anywhere I have visited in the former Soviet Union that has changed as much in the last eight years.

On a superficial level, a decommunisation policy has seen streets, cities and monuments renamed in recent years, reducing taxi drivers to levels of frustration previously reserved for the local football team, Dynamo Kyiv, which went from 2009 to 2015 without winning a title.

More substantively, the conflict in the Donbass has plunged the country into a financial crisis, evident on arrival in the city.  While the airport, newly renovated for the Euro 2012 football tournament held in the country, gives the impression of economic development, the impact of war and recession hits you as soon as you notice the Hryvnia-Dollar rate at currency exchanges.

In the space of eight years, Ukraine has gone from being a reasonably-priced destination to what must be the cheapest country in Europe. The devaluation of the national currency is a boon for tourists, but one can only imagine the effect it has had on large swathes of public workers who have seen their spending power fall considerably.

Other changes are apparent elsewhere in the capital.  The Ukrainian yellow and light blue flag has become ubiquitous in the centre, adorning buildings and benches.   Waiters, shop assistants and barmen are increasingly likely to greet you in Ukrainian rather than Russian. Symbols of the protests that led to the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 are still very visible on Kyiv’s Independence Square, with candles and flowers clustered together as well as photographs and small plaques in memory of the departed.  A restaurant named the Last Barricade displays other memorabilia, including charred helmets, makeshift shields used in the fighting and debris from the paving slabs used as missiles.

Considering the momentousness of Euromaidan, the emergence of a more overt sense of national identity is understandable.  Of course, for some, the new assertion of a specifically Ukrainian identity is worrying.  Public opinion is clearly polarised over the events of the last few years and Ukraine’s current prospects.  All anyone seemed to agree on during my brief stay was the ineffectiveness of the present authorities, whose track record leaves a lot to be desired.

Much publicised purges have led to the removal of thousands of Yanukovych-era officials and a flurry of appointments of international superstar reformers.  But save for certain high profile successes, change, as experienced by the majority of the population, has been for the worse.   

Given that President Poroshenko, who has featured in all Ukrainian governments since the Orange Revolution, was a minister in the disgraced Yanukovych regime, it is not surprising that his commitment to genuine change has been questioned. And since many current ministers have also served in unsuccessful post-revolution administrations, it is difficult to imagine how serious reform can be achieved. All the more so because Yanukovych cronies – widely recognised to have been at least complicit in the wholesale looting of the country under Yanukovych – continue to sit in parliament, as well as enjoying immunity from prosecution. Ukrainians are highly sceptical that things will get better, after a decade of largely unfulfilled promises.

In many ways the country appears caught in a catch-22 situation.  The bureaucracy needs new personnel to ensure the reform process succeeds, but there is concern that old civil servants are being replaced by incompetent and inexperienced staff while those holding back Ukraine remain in place.  According to some analysts, the consequences of the desire for a new broom has paralysed certain public bodies which now lack the expertise to carry out their functions properly.

The government is under pressure to demonstrate progress particularly since living standards in the country have fallen dramatically in recent years. But apart from an impressive array of e-government programmes, it does not have much to show for its efforts.  In early April Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, a year into his premiership, sought to reassure Ukrainians and foreign investors, saying the positive effects of his liberalising measures would begin to be felt this year, and he promised to increase the state pension. 

And yet for all the difficulties facing Ukraine, it is impossible to come away feeling anything other than optimistic about its future.  Signs of a nascent spirit of enterprise amongst the young are very noticeable with a host of new cafes and restaurants opening up, many extolling the virtues of domestic produce.  The emphasis on locally-grown goods was almost entirely absent 10 years ago. 

While I politely declined the offer of craft Ukrainian whiskey, I was struck nonetheless by the liveliness of Kyiv’s restaurant scene.  Talking to a group of customers, a common theme was their engagement with the reform process and a desire to see real economic progress. Over the last few years, Ukrainian entrepreneurs have begun to change the face of their capital. The government must now follow suit.

(This article first appeared on bne INTELLINEWS)