How to help Ukraine help itself

February 26, 2014

According to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the front-runner to be Ukraine’s acting prime minister, there is a simple way for the country to avoid the fate of a failed revolution without a leader: “take responsibility.”

But, though Ukrainian leaders like talking about it, taking responsibility is not something they are fond of doing. In fact, they have built an entire political and foreign policy machine to avoid it.

The courage of Ukrainian citizens must be met with generosity from the West in the form of open markets, visa-free travel and help in reforming a broken system. But Westerners must do it in a way that empowers Ukrainian citizens. The key to a successful Ukraine government now is for responsibility to become a reality — particularly among the political and business elite.

After the adrenaline and sacrifice of a revolution, the business of reconstruction and administration can be prosaic. But in Kiev, the contrast between the bravery of the street protesters and the venality of Ukraine’s permanent political class is pronounced. Today the political class is seeking to absolve itself of responsibility for Ukraine’s problems by pinning as much blame as possible on Viktor Yanukovich, the run-away president who has been indicted with mass killings.

However, many of Ukraine’s opposition leaders, such as Yatseniuk, Petro Poroschenko and Yulia Tymoschenko, have been complicit in the creation of the current system. Even people newer to political life, such as Vitaliy Kitschko, have been trying to keep up with civic leaders like Volodymyr Parasiuk, the youthful leader, rather than setting the pace of events in Maidan Square.

As Andrew Wilson argues in a paper “Supporting Ukraine’s Revolution,” the European Union must offer all the help it can so that Ukraine can build a sound democratic system on a legal basis – one seen as legitimate by its citizens. The EU should also offer help in the investigation of crimes, collection of illegal weapons and conduct of elections.

Unless the leaders of Maidan are encouraged to form political parties and run for office, the response to the crisis will be politics as usual, along with a growing cultural chasm between civic and political leaders.

People in Kiev do not even need to look to the Middle East to see how the hope for a new beginning in the Arab Spring was gradually extinguished in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain or Syria. For this marks the 10th anniversary of Ukraine’s own failed uprising —  the Orange Revolution. Ukrainians saw their popular demonstrations betrayed by ineffective and corrupt leadership.

Ukraine’s political leaders have also sought to avoid responsibility by hiding behind the international organizations. As Ukraine teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, the EU has offered a combination of grants and loans. But it wants to link the majority of its aid to conditions set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The fund has three main concerns: to bring down Ukraine’s exchange rates; to get Kiev to embrace a flexible exchange rate regime; and to end the subsidies for gas prices.

These policies, however, will allow the ultra-rich to skim off profits while making exports uncompetitive and wasting billions — the energy subsidies allegedly redistribute an extraordinary 8 percent of Ukraine’s annual gross domestic product. Under these sorts of policies — combined with 57 varieties of corruption —  the Ukrainian economy has collapsed while its debt levels have sky-rocketed.

In 2008, Ukraine had a 12 percent public debt to GDP ratio. Today it is 60 percent. It is not hard to understand why the West does not want to throw good money after bad, but the IMF conditions will likely make life worse for many Ukrainians before it gets better; driving savings down, fuel prices up and eliminating thousands of jobs.

If the West wants to impose conditions that have popular resonance and make a difference in addressing the basic problem, it may explore a different tack. Robert Cooper, the scholar-diplomat who used to be a senior EU official, points to the corruption of the Ukraine’s Parliament as the root of many problems. “The technocratic conditions of the IMF will make no difference,” Cooper explained. “The only conditions that would change behavior would be a law forcing all parliamentarians to disclose all their assets and income and account for them.”

The biggest escape for Ukraine’s elite is geopolitics. Over the last few years, Kiev has sought to off-load responsibility for its country’s problems onto Moscow and Brussels — playing the two against each other and extracting rent from both sides. The one thing more awkward than losing Ukraine, the two sides discovered, is winning it and discovering one has to pay the bill for a corrupt elite.

Now the EU faces the risk of owning Ukraine’s problems. If Europeans press home their advantage, Moscow could make it even more expensive through a mix of trade sanctions, energy cut-offs and financial pressure.

Some western capitals view the Kiev revolution as an act of emancipation from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall 15 years ago allowed Germany to  escape the Soviet Union. But Ukraine’s history, its economic profile and its demography all make it unrealistic to expect a clean break between Kiev and Moscow.

Now that Yanukovich is gone, Europe should try to recruit Moscow as a stakeholder in an economic settlement for Ukraine. This will be difficult, but Europeans should remember that Ukraine has a genius for turning victories into defeat.

Just look at the fate of Yanukovich, who declared victory in the 2004 elections, only to be pushed out of office by the Orange Revolution, which was sparked by his vote-rigging. The Orange leaders suffered an equally hopeless fate in the 2010 elections when they were trounced by their old rival.

As Europeans contemplate their next move, they must recognize the fragility of their own fate. If history shows that Ukrainians revolt in poetry, they also govern in prose.

But Europeans must encourage them to take responsibility for both prose and passion. Rather than aiming to drag Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence and absolve its elites from national responsibility, the goal of the West should be to help Ukraine to help itself.

PHOTO: A boy poses for picture as he squats on an armoured vehicle at Independence Square in Kiev February 25, 2014. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili 


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

It makes a great quote: “Ukrainian leaders have built an entire political and foreign policy machine to avoid responsibility.”

Posted by yurakm | Report as abusive

Just help the Ukrainians get back the $37 billion stolen by Yanukovich (for starters), and no IMF will be needed…

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Russia will take over Crimea. US/West will do nothing. Ukraine will be encouraged to negotiate with Russia, maybe will be given some bank loans from US/IMF/UE to sweeten the deal. Crimea will stay as Ukraine territory occupied by Russia till referendum 30 March. Majority of voters will be for independence/federation with Russia. Ukraine and Tatar minorities will be given autonomy. Crimea will de facto merge with Russia till the end of 2014.
Pandora box in Europe was opened with partition of Serbia and Kosovo independence.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

I hate to say this but it may already be too late.
These soldiers were allowed to waltz right into
the Crimea. There were no reports of Ukrainian resistance.

Posted by p65494 | Report as abusive

Glory to the Heroes. Death to the Occupiers.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

The Crimean is not Ukrainian and never has been. It belongs to Mother Russia.

Posted by pubis | Report as abusive

What’s 50 + 67 equal? I believe it’s 117 Right? So then the year 1967 plus 50 years would equal the year 2017 right?

And the year is now 2014 so in 3 more years the American Freedom of Information Act allows the world to view the first Photographs that must be made public of the USS Liberty Massacre where Israel ordered its Army, Navy, and Air Force to destroy our American war vessel by bombs, Torpedoes, Strafing, and Shooting the American Officers and Enlisted Men in International Sea Waters that immediately killed 37, and wounded 170 that have died and been dying from their wounds in the 1967 Israeli 3 Day War.

No Enteral Flame has ever been erected in Arlington National Cemetery for these brave dead American Soldiers, no mention of their sacrifices in any American High School History Books, no President, Senator, or Representative has shown any public display of gratitude for their courage in this conflict, all those who were there and died have been all but forgotten but in 3 years the world will come to know the truth.

President Johnson was suspected of the JFK assasination by conspiracy theorists and the conspiracy to keep quite the USS Liberty Massacre for the last 50 years came on President Johnson’s shift so is there a link between the two conspiracies with the same man involved?

Posted by 1justmyopinion | Report as abusive