22 November 2018

Five years of conflict and change in Ukraine


Five years ago yesterday, on 21 November 2013, mass protests broke out in Kiev — sparked by the Ukrainian government’s decision to withdraw from the Association Agreement with the European Union. Today, Ukraine is preparing for presidential elections in March and despite the reforms that have been carried out, many are disappointed with the direction the country is moving in.

As more and more crowds gathered across the country, the movement became known as the Euromaidan protests, or the “Revolution of Dignity”. Soon, the protesters numbered over 100,000 and they were met with brutal violence.

On the night of 30 November 2013 at 4am, armed with batons, stun grenades and tear gas, Berkut special police units attacked and dispersed all protesters from the square and many were injured. The next day more than 500,000 people gathered as the protesters slowly changed their focus from the association agreement to the corruption and repression of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime.

The protests continued throughout December and January, and so did Yanukovych’s brutal crackdown. This led to further collisions and, on the night between the 21 and 22 January, three protesters were killed. That was the first time the clashes had a deadly outcome, but it was only the beginning. The march to parliament on 18 February, ended with 23 dead. Two days later, on what became the revolution’s bloodiest day, snipers killed 54 people. Two days after that, on 22 February, Yanukovych fled to Russia. By that point, about 130 protesters had been killed and 18 police officers.

In many ways, the Euromaidan protests were an attempt to stay on the course that the Orange Revolution in 2004 had set out. One of the Orange Revolution’s greatest achievements was the start of EU negotiations in 2008 that led up to the Association Agreement which Yanukovych walked away from. Both in 2004 and 2013, people were calling for democracy, an opening up to Europe and transparency. Both movements also protested against Yanukovych: in 2004 because he had tried to become president through rigged elections and in 2013 for walking away from the agreement. They both took place during the winter months and showed impressive grassroots support.

But five years after the Euromaidan protests, how is Ukraine doing?

Immediately after Yanukovych had fled, the Berkut was disbanded. This was an important achievement in many ways – the force had carried out the brutal violence and repression of the Yanukovych regime. New presidential elections were scheduled to take place in May 2014, which Petro Poroshenko won. It was widely regarded as a free and fair election.

Civil society has been flourishing and grown stronger after the Euromaidan. Olena Prokopenko, the Head of International Relations at Reanimation Package of Reforms – Ukraine’s largest civil society coalition uniting 83 NGOs and over 300 experts, argues that the revolution “served as a catalyst for the consolidation of Ukrainian civil society.” She also states that “this ongoing phenomenon has seen non-government organisations gain in confidence and influence across the country while serving as key drivers of the reform agenda.”

The country has begun building an effective anti-corruption infrastructure, with the National Anti-Corruption Bureau leading the way. But so far there has been greater success in restricting the opportunities for corruption than in bringing corrupt officials to justice. Ukraine has also introduced one of the world’s most advanced e-declaration systems to monitor the assets of public officials. Healthcare reform has shaken up one of the country’s most notoriously corrupt sectors. Ukraine’s Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting estimates that the anti-corruption measures taken in the gas sector, procurement, banking and tax reforms together restored up to $6 billion in annual revenues formerly stolen from the state.

The biggest single change for ordinary Ukrainians has been the introduction of visa-free EU travel as part of the broader Association Agreement, which was finally signed after Yanukovych left. The free trade component of the agreement is also producing results, with Ukrainian exports to the EU finally climbing above pre-Maidan levels.

Yet corruption is still prevalent and the grip of billionaire oligarchs on politics remains to be broken. There is also a need for the privatisation of inefficient state-owned companies. In a recent poll, Ukrainians said they encounter bribery more often now than in 2015. However in June, Ukraine finally passed a law on the High Anti-Corruption Court providing for the decisive role of international experts, as demanded by the IMF and Ukraine’s civil society.

But since 2017, there has been a  gradual reform slowdown and this year has seen outright reform rollback. Key political forces have sought to push back against the reform progress made since 2014, while President Poroshenko continue the process of consolidating his influence and strengthening his power, leaving Ukrainian society faced with new levels of uncertainty and political populism. All across the country, billboards emphasise the thrust of his populist appeal: “Army. Language. Faith.” The momentous decision of Constantinople last month to grant autocephaly (independence) to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has become the centrepiece of Petro Poroshenko’s re-election campaign as Ukrainians head to the polls to elect a president in March 2019.

While the economy needs reforms, Ukrainians still understandably see the war in the east of the country as the most important issue – and one which is itself intimately connected with the country’s prosperity. In the aftermath of the Euromaidan protests, on 27 February, “little green men” in military fatigues appeared in Crimea. Nineteen days later, Vladimir Putin officially annexed Crimea and a few weeks later, a war that is still raging broke out in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

The conflict, which has killed more than 10,000 people and poisoned relations between Ukraine and Russia, is unlikely to end any time soon. Around 50 per cent of Donbas is occupied by pro-Russian separatist groups or their allies, with the major cities of Donetsk and Luhansk remaining outside Ukrainian government control.  The region is now one of the five most landmined regions in the world and experts say that “each year of conflict will require ten years of mine clearance.”

The longer the rupture remains, the harder reintegration will become. Even if the troops eventually retreat, the basic steps necessary for political reconciliation, such as drawing up voter lists for credible elections, will be difficult. Over 1.5 million people have been displaced. Crossing the contact line illustrates the estrangement: those leaving Ukrainian government-held territory have their passports stamped as if leaving the country; visitors to separatist-held territory are issued “migration cards”, copies of a document handed out in Russia.

But there is hope. Neil Buckley writes in the Financial Times that “the government in Kiev can justifiably claim to have made more progress with structural reform in just four years than any administration since the country gained its independence in 1991.” Growth is slowly picking up, too. The economy grew by 3.5 per cent in the first half of 2018, compared to 2.5 per cent in 2017.

Investment — though still below the level Ukraine needs — is just starting to flow. H&M opened the doors of its first store in Kiev in August and later this year, IKEA is due to follow suit. Ukraine has risen up the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking from 137th in 2013 to 76th in 2018. According to the World Bank, Ukraine also has tremendous potential to boost exports of higher-value added products, but this potential has not yet been realised. Ukraine’s exports remain concentrated in metals and cereals, while the share of exports integrated with Global Value Chains (GVC) remains low at 5.7 per cent, compared to 27 per cent for Poland and 38 per cent for Romania and Turkey.

Leading in the polls to be Ukraine’s next president in March is Yulia Tymoshenko, a controversial figure who was Prime Minister between 2007 and 2010 and convicted of embezzlement, although the prosecution was seen by many Western governments as politically motivated. Her support is nearly doubled that of her closest competitors yet she can hardly be described as popular. Some 74 per cent of poll respondents “don’t trust” her, only slightly better than Poroshenko’s nearly 80 per cent disapproval rating.

And despite the progress that has been made since Euromaidan, 78 per cent of Ukrainians believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. The war in Donbas is still ongoing, corruption remains endemic and many do not see a brighter future for themselves or their families. Ukrainians are growing increasingly disillusioned and whoever becomes the next president won’t have an easy task ahead.

Sofia Svensson is a CapX intern and a freelance writer.