Ukraine, while you were out

Ukraine, while you were out

By Luke Vargas   
Published

As reporters and the world lose interest, has Ukraine's revolutionary moment come and gone?

UNITED NATIONS (Talk Media News) – For 28 months, Ukraine has been locked in a military standoff with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. Recent reports from the front lines indicate a slight uptick in fighting is underway, but news consumers are tuned out and reporters are pulling out.

“The main reason for the drop in media attention is very simple, it’s media fatigue,” said John Jaworsky, Ukraine analyst and assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. “A number of reporters who had been stationed in Ukraine, or had visited regularly, are no longer going there.”

But while neither side is making much headway on the battlefield, Ukraine is in period of intense change as reform-minded leaders fight to define a new national identity and right an economy in tumult. 

Ukraine since ‘Euromaidan’

2014 was a busy and memorable year for Ukraine on the world stage. In the span of five months, the Euromaidan revolution dislodged President Viktor Yanukovych from office, Russian commandos invaded and helped annex the Crimean Peninsula and separatist rebellion broke out in the eastern Donbas region, engulfing the cities of Donestk and Lugansk in fighting.

Barricades protect anti-government protesters from the police during the 2014 Euromaidan protests in Kiev. Photo: Luke Vargas
Barricades protect anti-government protesters from the police during the 2014 Euromaidan protests in Kiev. Photo: Luke Vargas

Since then, the pace of new developments has slowed and fighting in the Donbas drags on even with several ceasefire agreements.

“The so-called ceasefire is a ceasefire only in the sense that a limited number of people are dying, and almost everyday,” Jaworsky said.

President Poroshenko poses with members of the Ukrainian armed forces during a military ceremony. August 2, 2016. Photo: Press Office of the President of Ukraine
President Poroshenko poses with members of the Ukrainian armed forces during a military ceremony. August 2, 2016. Photo: Press Office of the President of Ukraine

The Ukrainian government projects confidence that the Donbas campaign is winnable, but a growing sentiment remains that the country’s eastern territories may never be recaptured. 

“The investment that would go on to reconstruct these areas after this heavy bombardment, shelling and damage would be tremendous,” said Sergiy Kudelia, a Ukrainian-born professor of political science at Baylor University. “And given how difficult the economy is now and the deficit we run currently it’s obviously going to be a very heavy burden, so [the government] may view it as a blessing in disguise.”

Economists equate the Donbas with the American Rust Belt, and it’s a bomb-riddled Rust Belt at that. The area’s industrial infrastructure was damaged in fighting and its coal mines are no longer profitable. 

Rebuilding the Donbas would require a mammoth financial undertaking in prosperous economic times, but Ukrainian lawmakers in Kiev are feeling the financial pinch and have more pressing issues.

“The economy has been going down over the last two years,” Kudelia said. “Real incomes dropped by 30 to 50 percent because of the depreciation [of the Ukrainian Hryvnia] and about half of Ukrainians have a hard time affording food and clothes. That’s a major change since the pre-war situation.”

A new Ukrainian economy

With a population desperate for whatever financial support is available, the Ukrainian government has its hands tied, unable to enact fiscal reforms that would see state subsidies and price controls dialed back. Nevertheless, there’s a desire to dream big.

Credit: Ukrainian Ministry of Economic Development and Trade
Credit: Ukrainian Ministry of Economic Development and Trade

Ukraine’s ministries have embarked upon a national rebranding, pitching the country not as an industrial powerhouse, but as the home to a young, educated and tech-savvy population eager to work.

“There is a great deal of potential in the central and western regions, which typically received less attention in the past,” Jaworksy said, citing a booming IT sector that’s seen corporations like Canadian Tire concentrate their software operations in the country.

A 2015 business pitch prepared for American investors by the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food touted Ukraine’s “competitive advantages in agriculture” and promised a freer market and fewer necessary permits in the years to come.

Agricultural giants Monsanto, Cargill and John Deere already have signed on and beefed up their presences in Ukraine. As the world’s second-ranked grain producer, food form a reliable economic backbone for the country in the decades to come.

Credit: Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine
Credit: Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine

Ukraine’s post-revolution marketing pitch could pay dividends in the long-run, but the country needs immediate relief.

Against the tide of investment dollars flowing into Ukraine, educated and promising Ukrainians continue to leave for education and work opportunities in western Europe, part of a ‘brain drain’ that’s hampered the country for years.

“Given that a lot of experts predict that things will get worse this Fall, we’re likely to see another increase in the brain drain,” said Maria Snegovaya, a columnist at the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti. 

And it’s not just talented youth that are leaving.

The revolution moves on

“The early generation of the reformers of the Maidan who came into the government with a wave of hope in the Spring of 2014 – today they’re leaving the government,” Snegovaya said.

In the wake of the 2014 revolution, Ukraine remained alarmingly reliant on Russian energy imports to stay warm. Russian officials exploited that reliance and state-owned Gazprom drove a hard bargain in energy negotiations with the Ukrainian government.

Faced with the prospect of a gridlocked energy deal leaving Ukrainians to freeze, the Obama Administration – and Vice President Joe Biden, in particular – set to work to try and lessen Ukraine’s reliance on Russia. By early 2015 those efforts paid off and pipeline flows were reversed to allow Ukraine to import natural gas from Hungary and Slovakia.

“They’re no longer so totally reliant on energy supplies from Russia,” Jaworsky said, “and the decline in the economy, paradoxically, has also meant that they need less energy.”

Moscow’s economic leverage over Ukraine has also dropped, but Ukraine is hardly self-sufficient.

“The reliance now is on the West, rather than on Russia,” Kudelia said, “because a lot of what we’re consuming is being funded through loans from external donors like the International Monetary Fund or the European Union.”

Credit: NaftoGaz of Ukraine
Credit: NaftoGaz of Ukraine

“Of course we’re not getting any loans from Russia, and that may be a good thing, but if you’re judging whether the country is capable of standing on its own two feet, I think it’s too early to say now.”

The International Monetary Fund was eager to help Ukraine in 2015, but the pace of post-revolution economic reforms has since slowed, leading IMF officials to delay $17.5 billion in much needed financing.

When a wave of reform-minded politicians swept into power after the 2014 revolution, entrenched local power structures pushed back against attempts to root out corruption and change the nature of business. Far from Kiev, an old guard remains in control of Ukraine’s oblasts and is proving itself rebuking winds of change, blocking efforts to appoint new managers at inefficient state-run enterprises, among other acts of defiance.

Western think tanks have argued for increases in government salaries, particularly at the regional level, but little has come of that, and the expectation remains that many civil servants line their pockets on the side.

“Will the new, more reform-minded forces slowly gain power and be allowed to gain power,”Jaworsky asks, “to the extent that they switch a system in which corruption is the norm to a system where, like in many countries, you find it but it’s the exception to the rule?”

The answer may decide Ukraine’s future. Early results don’t look good. 

A poster of Yulia Tymoshenko adorns the barricades of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution. Photo: Luke Vargas
A poster of Yulia Tymoshenko adorns the barricades of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution. Photo: Luke Vargas

In the months after the 2014 revolution, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison and ran for president. She placed a distant second, receiving just 13 percent of the vote as Ukrainians overwhelming cast their lot with business tycoon Petro Poroshenko.

With reforms stalled and Poroshenko’s popularity in the gutter, there’s growing concern that populists offering sweeping, quick-fix promises to Ukraine’s problems will strike a nerve with a disillusioned population.

Tymoshenko’s stock is on the rise once again, a development Snegovaya sees as a return to the “vicious cycle” of Ukrainian politics.

“Ukraine has been there before,” she said, “a government attempts to reform, the poor population becomes resentful and votes in a populist.”

“So far, I don’t see a lot of promise for Ukraine’s current development.”

An image from Yulia Tymosheko's Twitter page shows the former prime minister posing with supporters.
An image from Yulia Tymosheko’s Twitter page shows the former prime minister posing with supporters.
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