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Transforming Civil Resistance into Political Reform in Ukraine

It’s been a year since the Maidan protests that brought down the government and yet Ukraine’s biggest challenge still lies ahead.

The protests that broke out in 2013 are often oversimplified as a reaction to ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and his rapprochement with Russia. However, the protestors’ dissatisfaction goes much deeper than foreign policy. In reality, the demonstrators were tired of a political system that enables corruption, hampers economic development, and aggravates inequality. Whatever the party in power, Ukrainian crony capitalism saw its influence unchecked year after year. But through the Maidan, the streets have spoken – preventing another popular uprising in Ukraine can only be achieved by building transparent institutions and strengthening the democratic process.

Civil disobedience has been a very successful method employed by citizens who feel disfranchised by the political process. Throughout the past decade, demonstrators have retaken the public space to voice their opposition to the political and economic status quo. From Tahrir Square to the Occupy Movement, social dissatisfaction that had been bubbling beneath the surface exploded. Some of these movements resulted in overthrowing autocratic regimes but this is merely the first step towards real political change. Once a civil uprising has succeeded, the real challenge for the revolutionary leadership is translating the movement’s demands into policies. Redesigning political institutions and processes are essential in order to prevent the previous corrupt and repressive practices from happening again.

The main shortcomings of these democratic movements are instilled in the idea that democratic success is easily achieved once the old regime has been removed from office and new elections have taken place. Merely electing reformers does not guarantee reform.

As we have seen across the Middle East, the reality is not so clear-cut. Cleaning up politics through simple elections and chasing out incumbents oversimplifies the complexity of a democratic system. The problem is not simply preventing “old” politicians from returning to power but rather capacity building to disable and discourage the monopolisation of wealth and power.

Déjà Vu

Ukraine has seen this all before. Just a decade ago, Ukrainians took to the street after the ruling Party of Regions tried to rig the 2004 elections. The Orange Revolution put an end to President Leonid Kuchma’s reign but did not do so well in getting rid of the corruption and criminal legacy that has plagued Ukraine since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The newly elected “reformist” President Viktor Yushchenko focused on replacing officials loyal to Kuchma at all levels from high-ranking levels to local authorities.

But not everyone who was opposed to Kuchma or who supported the Orange Revolution had a clean past. In order to protect their business interests, many oligarchs, including current President Petro Poroshenko, simply jumped ship from the Party of Regions to Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine Party. For example, Poroshenko earned the nickname “Yushcenko’s wallet” in the mid-2000s because of his substantial financial contributions to his election.

It didn’t take too long for Yushchenko to give in to the oligarchs’ political power and dismiss the emblematic leaders of the Orange Revolution, along with their ideologies and any hopes of true structural changes. By failing to reform the political system, Yushchenko found himself in a country where power was still concentrated in a few hands, and not many of them were new. In this way, Yushchenko failed to address the ideological and economic divisions between east Ukraine and the western and central regions, a missed opportunity that is taking its toll today.

Superficial makeover

Ukrainians now have their second chance to make things right, a second chance that implies serious challenges, since Crimea is not the only crisis Ukraine is facing. The country ranks 142 in the Transparency International Index, the economy is crumbling and the question of energy supply has yet to be resolved. Even with the support of the IMF and the EU, Ukraine requires profound structural change. So far, ‘cleaning up’ after Viktor Yanukovych has consisted of targeting previous government officials, while allowing the oligarchs to carry on with business as usual. Once again, Ukraine is opting to simply sweep the dust under the rug.

As bad as Yanukovych might have been, removing everyone who was associated with his government will not fix the country’s problems overnight. If anything, this witch-hunt only replicates the previous political cycles of concentrating all power in the hands of one political faction. Yanukovych and his government have to be held accountable for their crimes, but the legal standard has to be higher than simply assuming guilt by association.

Some policies during the Yanukovych administration actually had a positive impact on the country. The tax reform carried on by Oleksandr Klymenko, the former Minister of Revenue and Duties, resulted in improving Ukraine’s attractiveness for doing business, with the country jumping some 50 places in the World Bank’s ranking for two years straight. The current prime minister is now pursuing Klymenko’s reforms to the tax regimes aiming to dismantle the country’s tax evasion and fraud mafias. Instead of focusing on political allegiances, the recently elected government needs to work on adopting reforms and policies that directly address the country’s problems.

The Maiden’s call for Yanukovych’s resignation represented more than anything a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That end should be a pluralist democracy where checks and balances impede the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few. To do so, it is necessary to bring people from all sides of the political spectrum into the fray, even those who once supported Yanukovych, as long as the rules and institutions are respected.

In the case of Tunisia, including politicians from the old regime alongside some of their long-standing opponents helped in building a democratic outcome. Democratization needs to include all the voices of the political spectrum, and marginalizing those from the old power elite would simply recreate the vicious political circle that has been responsible for Ukraine’s recent societal convulsions.