Is Ukraine lost? Again? Is the social contract between state and citizens fundamentally flawed?
We are now well past the "honeymoon period" of the post-Maidan street protests that ultimately led to the rather fast departure of the then president Yanikovich, who fled to Russia in 2014. Has the halcyon beacon of the EU helped to reshape the rampant political and economic corruption?
A spate of ministerial resignations at the start of 2016, an economy in dire straits and with a huge external debt overhang, having lost up to a third of its economic base from the loss of territories and ongoing conflict with Russia and being supported by western-supported IFI packages including dollops of soft EU macro-financial assistance, having witnessed a false dawn with the so-called Orange revolution in 2004 and the Maidan of 2014, which way reform?
Before I answer these questions, I invite you to view this video of a recent Cabinet meeting - it is fairly X rated... and unlike anything many who have attended any Cabinet meeting anywhere will have experienced. And it gives a flavour of the difficulties of copy-pasting a reform agenda without genuine political will and huge conflicts of interest without a fundamental reform of the current political system.
Many will have recognised a certain Georgian, Mikheil Saakashvili,who was former president of Georgia and now part of an "A Team" of former Georgian bureaucrats, fluent in Russian, brought in to help support the reform effort and given Ukrainian citizenships jousting (with glasses of water) with the Minister of Interior responsible for the police and security services, himself an "oligarch". Oh yes, the Minister of Finance is originally American and the Minister of Economy - one of the key "reformers" Lithuanian-Ukrainian.
Now back to the questions.
My starting point is to look at the data. And the picture is mixed. The odd-but-thus-far working relationship between the Prime Minister and the president has led to macroeconomic stabilisation - supported by strong western support - and important steps to liberalise the economy and reduce red tape. Global Governance indicators (that basically hoover up all available country risk indicators published) do show that Government Effectiveness has risen as shown in the figure below.
But Rule of Law?
Not so good - in fact its even worse. And the picture is the same when looking at Regulatory quality or perceptions of corruption.
Ukraine’s minister for economic development and trade, Aivaras Abromavicius, announced his resignation in early February, citing corruption levels in the state.
“Neither me, nor my team have any desire to serve as a cover-up for the covert corruption, or become puppets for those who, very much like the ‘old’ government, are trying to exercise control over the flow of public funds,” effectively saying what many have been complaining about, that there are too many bent officials trying to continue their corrupt ways - and of more significance, that things aren't really getting any better.
There is now a real political risk that the government will fall, possibly through a vote of no confidence. Polls have given it approval ratings of less than 10%. And there is scant evidence, despite a flurry of ad-hoc measures, that there is a clear roadmap of reform - which is worryingly familiar territory given previous false dawns and stabilisation plans effectively written at the IMF.
Despite a huge groundswell of popular support in what remains of Ukraine for a pro-EU direction of travel, it is not an EU candidate country forced to go through hoops and checklists to comply with the EU body of law, the acquis.
And the EU's efforts beyond financial help has led to little material effect thus far. The European Commission is great if there is a natural disaster that requires fast response or when there are longer-term structural adjustments through sector plans and the like as witnessed in the enlargements of 2004 onward for the former central and eastern European economies. Less so in dealing a country that is in need of a mix of quick-win reforms and deep reform, often painful for vested interests.
It is perhaps too early to assess if the social contract is broken. But walk past the parliament in Kiev, the Rada, and the side street and its car park are full of Bentleys, Rolls Royces and Porsches when the average salary is a few hundred dollars.
The disconnect between the elite and the rest is the effect, but the fusion of political and economic control in the hands of this narrow elite that is an unfortunate legacy in most of the ex-Soviet space is THE core root cause.
What then are the choices for the West? One for another day, but ultimately, the sad truth is that ultimately, political ownership for reform cannot be imposed. On the other hand, if there is a serious set of governance concerns and dysfunctional system that effectively limits democratic voice and accountability then a further Maidan cannot be ruled out. For the West, the EU and the US, we have to be more sanguine and realistic of expectations, but to have more targeted conditionality - political and economic.