This past weekend marked the one-year anniversary of the bloodshed on Kyiv’s Maidan square and the subsequent flight of the man who ordered it all, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The euphoria of people power chasing out the corrupt tyrant, mingled with the grief of those who died during the street protests, was evident in the heady days following Yanukovych’s escape to Russia. With the hindsight of one year, it is perhaps time to take stock of where Ukraine has gone and what still needs to be done.
The most obvious letdown from the previous year is, of course, the continuing invasion in the east and the manner in which Russia swiftly moved to invade Crimea and the Donbas region after Yanukovych was ousted. While there is new evidence in Russia media that Putin planned the invasion even before the change of regime in Kyiv, the speed and brazenness of the attack caught Ukraine (and especially the West) by surprise. Continued aggression, coupled with the shooting down of a civilian airliner by Russian or Russian-backed insurgents, has drained the resources of Kyiv at a time when it should be intensely focused on ripping out the last vestiges of the Soviet-era plumbing.
Beyond the war, there have been great strides in political accountability in Ukraine, a reality that has been missing for far too long. The election of Petro Poroshenko, coupled with the election of a new Rada several months later, has helped to shake up the political landscape and bring some fresh faces to the government. With communists on the outs and Lenin statues falling all around Ukraine (23 years too late), the ability of the average Ukrainian to influence the political system has never been higher.
It is on the economic side that Ukraine faces its greatest challenges, and especially in the nexus of politics and economics. Corruption in the country remains a serious problem at all levels and is a serious deterrent to foreign aid and (more importantly) foreign investment. Government itself remains far too entrenched in the Ukrainian economy, with government spending estimated at approximately 52% of GDP, and promised cuts in the size of government do little to break the mentality that all will be well if just another law is passed. While much of the media attention has been paid to the sorry state of public finances in Ukraine and the need for an IMF program, the reality is that Ukraine continues to spend too much on bureaucracies that are strangling the economy while doing nothing of benefit to the nation. Redundant commissions, Ministries, and agencies provide nothing but steady work for some while draining the country of resources that could be better utilized elsewhere. A prime example of this is health sector, where corruption remains endemic at the cost of actual healthcare.
But perhaps the biggest indication of how far Ukraine has to go to actually accomplish a transition is seen in its continued refusal to honor the most fundamental of economic institutions, property rights. The moratorium on land sales, in place for a decade and a half and a way for politically-connected insiders to bilk small farmers, thus far has not been touched by the new Rada. During a trip to Kyiv last week, it was clear to all interested parties, from the government to business to everyone in-between, that the need for real property rights, including the ability to dispose of one’s land as one sees fit, is the fundamental blockage in the Ukrainian economy. Until this issue has been addressed, and indeed, it has even been deferred in the new government’s program, Ukraine’s economy will continue to falter.
In sum, the past year since Maidan has been one of great strides in Ukraine but also one of much disappointment and frustration. It is often said that Ukraine now faces its “Poland moment,” in that it can finally begin to undertake the reforms that Poland did 25 years ago. The continuing difficulties associated with the invasion in the east and the south, combined with highly entrenched interests, may make such a transition difficult. However, Ukraine will never improve unless such a bold and ambitious reform is attempted. The only way to truly break out of Russia’s orbit is to provide an alternative that works, and that is unfettered free-market capitalism. Without such a move, Ukraine will be reduced to a shell of a nation, poorer and adrift and likely continually dominated by its large eastern neighbor. For the people of Ukraine, this will mean that the bloodshed of Maidan and those who died there will have been lost in vain.